It doesn’t matter to Remco Evenepoel that he ended up alone in the last kilometers.
To the benefit of the stage 4 victor, Ag2r Citroën’s Aurélien Paret-Peintre, and the new race leader of the Giro d’Italia, DSM’s Andreas Leknessund, Remco Evenepoel elected to cede his pink jersey, as he looks to save all the energy he can for the GC battle to come over the next three weeks.
The self-alleviation of a leader’s jersey is a common tactic, and along with a strategy of switching tyres depending on weather type during a day spent on changeable roads between Venosa and Lago Laceno, speaks to how Evenepoel’s hopes of a possible second Grand Tour overall victory prior to his thumping stage 1 time trial performance have immediately turned to preserving all available energy in order to nurture the gap he’s already started building over his rivals.
With the Norwegian Leknessund also being 23, Evenepoel won’t even have to clamber onto the podium each day for the white jersey, and can likely have similar workloads and schedules as his GC rivals until at least Friday’s stage 7 (Leknessund’s climbing abilities could see him maintain the 28 second advantage he currently holds) but definitely Sunday’s stage 9 time trial.
An easier few days could prove pivotal. Up the final Colle Molella climb before the finish, Evenepoel found himself alone with no teammates to call on as Ineos Grenadiers took things up. Maybe the order came through from the team car for the Soudal-QuickStep lieutenants to already knock things off and save their legs for the harder GC days to come, but to leave their leader alone, and even a rainbow and pink-clad rider still as susceptible to punctures as anyone else, this can’t have been a strategy. After the stage, Evenepoel responded to how events transpired on the road.
“As long as I’m there, it’s fine,” the Belgian told HLN of his isolation on the final climb. “It was a super difficult opening phase, we had underestimated that.”
Louis Vervaeke was the second Soudal Quick-Step rider across the line, almost two minutes behind Evenepoel’s group, while the rest of the squad were further back following a day of keeping the breakaway within a respectable distance to not allow Leknessund a lead that began to cause anxiety.
Instead, the Ineos Grenadiers finished with five riders in the GC group. Their entire climbing core, consisting of Tao Geoghegan Hart, Geraint Thomas, Pavel Sivakov, Thymen Arensman, and Laurens De Plus. Could or should they have worked harder to keep Evenepoel in pink? Would that have been worth the energy spent?
“The feeling was very good. It was a super tough stage,” Evenepoel explained. “But it didn’t feel difficult when Ineos started to lead. I am very pleased with the feeling, happy that we managed to get through this day in hectic conditions.
“I follow at about twenty seconds and am second in the standings. That’s still a good place,” he concluded. “The intention was to give away the jersey, especially with an eye on tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.”
Either way, the early signs point towards an Evenepoel vs. Ineos Grenadiers stand-off. Thomas and Geoghegan Hart are within touching distance of the Belgian, and could find an ally in Primož Roglič and his Jumbo-Visma squad should Evenepoel extend his lead further in the next time trial stage this weekend.
One thing’s for sure. Evenepoel’s pink with rainbow-striped trainers will go back in the box for a few days, much to the relief of the peloton’s foremost authority on sneaker fashion, Arkéa-Samsic’s David Dekker. Maybe the Belgian world champion will also be spared having eggs snuck into his pockets by Astana-Qazaqstan.