Back-to-back as Evenepoel salvages Soudal’s spring

Highly anticipated LBL duel with Tadej Pogačar fizzles early with Slovenian's crash.

It was almost a certainty that Remco Evenepoel would attack on the Côte de la Redoute again. The question was whether anyone could go with him. (Photo © Cor Vos)

You can’t say you weren’t warned.

Reigning World Champion Remco Evenepoel served notice Saturday of his form and intent to defend his Liège-Bastogne-Liège win when he posted a Strava file from recon with a new KoM on the Côte de la Redoute, considered the crux of the course.

Evenepoel, of course, stopped posting Strava files earlier this year so as not to give away too much info about his upcoming Giro d’Italia campaign. So, was the post a bit of motorpaced trolling? A called shot? A warning to rival Tadej Pogačar of UAE Team Emirates? In the end, that last possibility was rendered moot, as the Slovenian wunderkind crashed out in the early going with broken bones in his left wrist.

“Horrible,” said Evenepoel at the finish of the crash. “It does a bad service to the race.”

Unfortunately, Tadej Pogačar wouldn’t get a shot at raising his arms in salute after crashing out early with a suspected broken wrist. (Photo © Cor Vos)

That cleared the field for Evenepoel, whose Soudal Quick-Step team controlled the racing much of the day. Louis Vervaeke did much of the grunt work, pulling a slowly dwindling pack over Ardennes hill and dale as an also-dwindling early breakaway tried gamely to hold off the chase in steadily worsening rain.

Jumbo-Visma’s Jan Tractor, er, Tratnik, got the festivities started by going clear on the Côte de Wanne with Ineos Grenadiers’ Magnus Sheffield in tow. While Tratnik eventually caught the leaders alone, the move ended up something of a puzzler as team leader Tiesj Benoot, spotted frequently at the back of the peloton, ended up being mostly a non-factor until very late in the race.

What are you doing? No, what are YOU doing? Jan Tratnik and Magnus Sheffield work it out. (Photo © Cor Vos)

With Pogačar out of the mix, all eyes were on Evenepoel, and he didn’t disappoint. With Ilan van Wilder setting pace into the Redoute, Evenepoel accelerated near the top of the climb and quickly got a gap on the chase. Ineos’s Tom Pidcock closed it down on the descent, but refused to pull through with a shake of the head, and we quickly learned why as Evenepoel simply rode him off the wheel a few kilometers later. So, the Strava post was a called shot then (actually, motorpaced, and flagged, but his KoM from two days ago stands).

“I knew I could close the gap on the descent” off the Redoute, “but the next climb I was on the limit,” said Pidcock of his tactics. “I could either commit full gas and end up with nothing, or wait and try to go for second.”

The “chase” behind coalesced to a group of 20, but with Evenepoel steadily widening his advantage up front, thoughts quickly turned to the lower steps on the podium rather than any chance of making the catch.

EF Education First-EasyPost’s Ben Healy pushed a three-rider chase clear on the Côte de la Roche-aux-Fauçons with Pavel Sivakov (Ineos Grenadiers) and Santiago Buitrago (Bahrain Victorious), but even swapping Sivakov for Pidcock, the trio could never make much headway on Evenepoel’s lead, and the Belgian rider began waving his hands to fire up the crowd with more than 500 meters to go. Pidcock took the three-rider sprint behind with Buitrago in third.

Evenepoel was effusive of his team support in what he called a “long and brutal” race. “My team did an incredible amount of work,” he said. “They pulled off a great show from the start. I wanted to attack on the Redoute like last year,” and when he got the gap, he decided “to press on in front of the whole world.”

For the first time this spring Classics season, Soudal Quick-Step looked like their old selves. (Photo © Cor Vos)

Evenepoel’s win salvages what has been a very quiet spring Classics campaign for Soudal Quick-Step, which missed a cobble WorldTour victory for the second season in a row. But on Sunday, the team was back to its race-dictating ways. As Soudal reforms around Evenepoel’s talent and ambitions, we’ll likely see more blue-and-white jerseys at the front in the coming weeks. “I have a lot of momentum from this win so I’m hoping in the Giro it’s the same,” he said of his next major objective.

Looking for a little elbow room in the early going. (Photo © Cor Vos)

(G)race notes

Evenepoel also recorded the biggest winning margin at Liège since 2009, when Andy Schleck won by 1:17; had he not eased up it might have been the biggest since Evgeni Berzin beat Lance Armstrong by 1:37 in 1994.

Evenepoel is also the first back-to-back Liège winner since Michele Bartoli in 1997-98, and joins a select group of repeat winners that includes Moreno Argentin, Ferdi Kubler, and of course Belgian icon Eddy Merckx.

The revelation of the Ardennes season has no doubt been Healy, a rookie WorldTour pro. The 22-year-old Irishman podiumed at Amstel Gold Race, and while he was outsprinted by Pidcock and Buitrago for a Monument podium, it was his aggression that drove the selection.

Last year’s revelation, Quinten Hermans, was well-placed in the main peloton when he suffered a drivetrain problem just before the Redoute, ending his shot on the day for repeating his podium finish from 2022.

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