Remco Evenepoel’s stage 7 victory at the Volta a Catalunya was a consolation on one hand and a culmination on the other – a reward for countless days on the attack, and many many miles leading overall winner Primož Roglič towards the finish line of each stage.
Meeting for the first time since the Vuelta a España, the end-of-week tally stands at two stage wins and two classification jerseys each for the world champion and the man he’ll be following around – or vice versa – in the coming months. With overall and points wrapped up by the Slovenian, Evenepoel topped Roglič in the mountains classification by default on the multiple ascents of the finishing circuit’s iconic Montjuic climb. Well, the older man conceded that particular jersey by sitting on the best young rider’s wheel for much of the last 25 km of the stage.
It’s been a race of familiar themes and repeated moments as the two riders who are expected to re-ignite their rivalry at this year’s Giro d’Italia wrestled over stage and overall honours.
Day one saw Roglič making a statement with an uphill surge to the line, taking the leader’s jersey by a slender margin over second-place Evenepoel. The pair were just as magnetically attracted on stage 2, but they perhaps didn’t account for Giulio Ciccone, who was able to best the both of them for a defiant win at Vallter after a disastrous 48 hours for Trek-Segafredo.
With third place the best he could manage, the 23-year-old Belgian found himself on the receiving end of some raised eyebrows for his tactics during the stage to Vallter; Evenepoel attacked just inside the last 5km, and spent much of the run-in doing all the work. Sure, he might have been protecting himself from other GC rivals besides Roglič, but if he was hoping to punch back with a stage win, it was surely never going to work.
Then came stage 3 to La Molina, and what might have appeared a harbinger of things to come. With an HC climb to 1902 metres before the Cat.1 finale, this was expected to be the greatest test for the young Vuelta a España champion whose altitude performances have been hit and miss, but after the pair powered away a few kilometres from the finish, it was Roglič’s lights that went out in the final kilometre.
The two-second deficit over the line added to Evenepoel’s bonus, which put the rivals on the same time and as close to equal pegging as they’d been all week. It was the Belgian, though, who had the psychological advantage having beaten back both Roglič and his critics on the most challenging stage of the Volta a Catalunya. His team also seemed to have the upper hand over Roglič’s Jumbo-Visma.
The rivalry resumed 48 hours later, and despite the question marks of two days earlier, the pendulum swung back in favour of Roglič on the steep ramps to Lo Port. It was a breathless finale, and once again, Evenepoel had been active in the pace-setting, looking as sprightly as ever, but he almost came to a standstill in the last few-hundred metres.
Going into the final weekend, Roglič enjoyed his widest lead of the week at 10 seconds, and he was entering terrain that might be considered Evenepoel’s playground. And sure enough, Evenepoel was not taking anything lying down. A devil-may-care flier late in stage 6 drew out Roglič and the young Belgian entered time trial mode, hoping the lumps and bumps in the run-in would work in his favour and if he couldn’t gain a margin over his rival, maybe he could find a stage victory.
But the race leader was having none of it. He’d done what he needed to by marking the Belgian’s move, and with the final, more tricky Barcelona stage still to come, he and his team were unwilling to take the risk. So Evenepoel set about towing the Slovenian for about 15 gloomy kilometres.
Evenepoel looked angry. But he understood his “idol” was under team orders, and orders that made sense.
“In the end, I had the wrong guy with me,” Evenepoel said after stage 6. “I mean he’s the strongest of the race so probably if he works with me, we go to the finish line together because we had 30 seconds arriving in the valley. But I think his team decided to not ride and save the jersey, which I completely understand.
“But it’s just a pity because it would’ve been nice to try and go for the stage win. I even told him that I just wanted to try and go for the stage, even if would be second I’d be happy. But of course, if you get team orders you have to follow them. It’s not that I’m angry or something; that’s just bike racing.”
There was one last chance for Evenepoel on Sunday and there was a case of déjà vu in the finishing circuits as the Belgian initiated the attacks on Montjuic, Roglič glued to his wheel. Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates) even joined them briefly – he’d also been fastest to react on stage 5 to Lo Port before being called back to help team leader João Almeida.
With about 25km left to race, Evenepoel’s elbow flicks went unanswered at first, but eventually Roglič and Jumbo-Visma decided it was in all their interests to ride with the young Belgian.
And ride they did.
The Montjuic was not hard enough to punish either rider so the pair rode together to the finish and Roglič led into the finishing straight, where Evenepoel leapt off the wheel, leaving nothing to chance as he surged forward for a well-earned stage victory as Roglič cruised across the line in his wake.
“It was a tough one,” Evenepoel said after the stage. “As I mentioned this morning, it was going to be really hard to drop Primož on a course like this. I think we proved that we were the strongest again. My team took a lot of responsibility since the start and also on the laps, so I think we deserved this one. It was a nice battle with Primož and I’m happy I could beat him in the sprint.”
Roglič meanwhile was able to seal overall victory after being pushed to the limit all week by his new young rival.
“I knew if there was one guy who would follow me it was him,” Evenepoel said of Roglič. “Like I said already it’s easier to defend a jersey than attack for a jersey, so big grade to him. A big week from him here, and for myself, I’m super happy to take this beautiful stage here in Barcelona.
“I knew I was good so I was hoping to come here for the podium and to win some stages. In the end, to come second in the GC with only six seconds is like the same time, no? It’s almost the same. If you see how strong we were compared to all the others behind us, I think one of us was meant to be the winner of this beautiful race. I’m happy that my team was on point and I think that we showed that we were maybe overall the strongest team during this week.”
So, what have we learned from this pair at their first match of the season?
Not an awful lot. Just as one looked like coming out on top, the other bounced back a day later to wipe the slate clean.
Work rate is in question, and with different rivals, it would have worked out just fine for Evenepoel. But Roglič is a more formidable rival and over more challenging terrain than Evenepoel has become familiar with. One thing’s for sure, he would not be advised to lead too many two-up attacks at the Giro d’Italia.
Ultimately, Roglič won the race by taking advantage of Evenepoel’s repeated attempts to ride away, the Slovenian only really attacking twice all week: inside the last kilometre of both the stages he won.
And there’s another question: endurance. The Volta a Catalunya is a fantastic race, one that favours the climbers – just look at this week’s startlist – but which also offers Classic-style racing, as we’ve seen repeatedly this week. But a Grand Tour it is not.
If you ask me, this week’s racing leads me to two conclusions: Evenepoel is on track to perform as hoped at the Giro but needs to refine his decision-making; Roglič is on great form but has a little work to do, as does his team. Mind you, if they were on Giro form already, now that would be something to worry about.
The signs are good for the first Grand Tour of the season; long may this rivalry continue.