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Boy Wonder: 18-year-old Remco Evenepoel sets sights on Grand Tour glory

Joe Robinson
10 Jan 2019

Evenepoel is the first WorldTour rider to be born in this millennium and also the most hotly anticipated in decades

For most 18-year-old kids, the pressure being placed on the shoulders of Deceuninck-Quick Step's newest signing would be enough to break them. However, Remco Evenepoel is not your regular 18-year-old.

At a recent Deceuninck-Quick Step press day, the wave of press that had travelled across Europe to question the team seemed disinterested in what former World Champion and multiple Monument winner Phillipe Gilbert had to say.

They listened to Julian Alaphilippe explain how he would improve on his 13 victories in 2018 but not with their full attention, keeping one eye across the room.

They all wanted to hear from Remco Evenepoel. And as most of the world’s cycling press poked dictaphones under his nose, he proved that he wasn’t in the slightest bit phased by it all.

Shot to success

There’s a reason the weight of Belgian cycling expectation is bearing down on the shoulders of Evenepoel and that's in part due to this young man becoming a dominant force within the sport’s junior ranks in just 18 months.

Having only obtained a race license midway through 2017, Evenepoel embarked on a Merckxian streak of success in 2018 taking 32 victories including the road and time trial titles of Belgium, Europe and the World, almost all in dominant fashion.

This was enough to pique the interest of development team Hagens Berman Axeon, of which he part agreed to ride for in 2019, before then attracting the attention of WorldTour teams, including Team Sky.

Eventually, he signed with home team Deceuninck-Quick Step to become the first rider born this side of the turn of the century to join the WorldTour, setting the Belgian press alight with immediate comparisons to Tom Boonen and Eddy Merckx quickly following.

This kind of comparison has been enough to crumble talented riders in the past but with Evenepoel you get the feeling he is taking all in his stride.

‘After winning the Worlds things got a little crazy with people even wanting to film my girlfriend in class at school but that’s just Belgium,' he said.

'I don’t care about the pressure being placed on me by the media. I'm just having fun riding my bike and that’s now my job. I don’t think about the press because I’m too busy and plus, the team help protect me and keep me stable.'

Evenepoel after winning the junior men's road race at 2018 World Championships

The attention and pressure on Evenepoel is akin to the kind of spotlight put on young footballers like Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho by the media and it’s not there where the similarities end.

Up until the age of 17, Evenepoel was actually a footballer, a double-footed defensive midfielder playing in the academies of Anderlecht and PSV Eindhoven and even the Belgian Under 16 team, before switching over to cycling.

An Arsenal fan, life could have been very different with his father Patrick, a former cycling pro with the Collstrop team, reluctant to let his son follow his footsteps because he feared the bike ‘could affect the development' of his son.

Thankfully his father eventually conceded which allowed Evenenpoel to switch to the sport he grew up watching.

‘I only played soccer because my parents didn’t want me to cycle at a young age. I never watched soccer growing up, it was always cycling. Every Sunday, races like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders,’ said Evenepoel.

'The guy I was looking up to was Tom Boonen. He was really on his top level – I saw him win his fourth Paris-Roubaix. Also Alberto Contador, in 2009, 2010, when he was winning like almost all the Grand Tours.’

Evenepoel is now riding with some of these heroes he once watched on television, most notably Philippe Gilbert, and is quickly learning to appreciate each of his teammates' rise to the top, even if it was not as sudden as his own.

‘I’m just a kid. I learn a lot and it's important for me to know how everyone got to the top because it was not as easy for some as it was for me. I have more talent, maybe, so I’ve got here quicker but I need to prove this,’ admitted Evenepoel.

‘I’ve already learned this team go really hard and that they are all so focused. Even though it’s January and some of the guys are like 35 they are looking forward to the season and not complaining.’

Baby steps

For your usual neo-pro, the first season is about survival, adapting to the pace of a WorldTour peloton and proving you have the engine to make it to the finish.

But not in Deceuninck-Quick Step. A neo-pro here goes beyond surviving races and the odd pull on the front of a peloton. A neo-pro here wins races, just like sprinters Fabio Jakobsen and Alvaro Hodeg who both took big victories in their first year in cycling’s biggest league and Evenepoel is expecting the same.

‘I’m not scared. I’m looking forward to knowing what it is like in the best peloton in the world. The guys are experienced and have told me that I am good enough so I’m curious to see how I do.

‘I’m looking forward to starting at the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina and then my first WorldTour race at the UAE Tour. There is a mountain-top finish there which I think may suit me.’

Evenepoel, front and centre, between Julian Alaphilippe and Fabio Jakobsen

Following this start will be one-day classics Nokere Koerse and Handzame Classic before arguably his first big test, Volta a Catalunya. After that, the team will assess the first phase of his season before deciding on the remainder of his calendar.

While this is all short term, Evenepoel is not shying away from dreaming big in the long term. He admits being just 61kg and 1.71m, the major one-day Cobbled Classics like Roubaix and Flanders could be out of his grasp - quashing the Merckxian comparisons surrounding his name - but not the Grand Tours, of which there has not been a Belgian winner since Johan De Muynck at the Giro d’Italia in 1978.

'I have a good time trial, but I’m also a lightweight, so I don’t think I will do well on the cobbles. I hope to be a GC rider for sure. I think that’s also the focus for the team – we really want to work forward for the GC, and for sure the Grand Tours, in the long view.

‘My biggest dream is to win a Grand Tour but just give me a few years yet.’