As the peloton approached La Redoute, Soudal Quick-Step outnumbered by rival teams, and rain beginning to dampen the roads, a quote popped into my head.
“The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstacles – preferably of his own making – in order to triumph.” — Garth Stein
That it comes from the novel ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ is happenstance explained only by the fact I endured the soppy film adaptation earlier this week, but the meaning within it certainly seems apt for what I was watching – at least it would be if Evenepoel did what was inevitable in a matter of moments.
Let me explain.
Soudal Quick-Step takes pole position
The day began whirring with hope for the Evenepoel vs Pogačar showdown we’ve as yet been denied, at least while both are at full fitness, but that idea was quashed in the first 100km of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. With the Slovenian crashing out, ruling out a historic Ardennes Triple (a double triple), Soudal Quick-Step took over from UAE Team Emirates as the team to watch, the way cleared for Evenepoel to defend his title in the rainbow bands.
Among the hardy souls called up to support the world champion was Julian Alaphilippe whose memories of this race are mixed, ranging from bittersweet to catastrophic (via a humiliating early celebration). After a horrific crash at last year’s edition dismantled the Frenchman’s big goals for the whole season, it was great to see him back in the Ardennes and playing a vital role in the race.
Alaphilippe did one last dig on the Côte du Rosier, even after he had seemed to pop following an earlier effort. But much like Louis Vervaeke would do a little later in the race, Alaphilippe had spent several kilometres recovering on the very back of the group before returning his shoulder to the grindstone.
Bike riders and their teams are almost unmatched when it comes to tuning in to their physical abilities, so this mid-race recovery is not unique, you see it all the time in Grand Tour mountain stages, but still it requires a solid amount of confidence and belief – something that Soudal Quick-Step has been accused of lacking in recent months.
Outnumbered but still ominous
In all the live coverage, there was rarely a shot of the front of the peloton without a Soudal Quick-Step jersey filling the screen. However, despite the dogged determination of the whole team, it seemed like matches were being burned through, if not worryingly fast, then enough to raise questions, from the outside anyway.
The team was put to the test on the next climb when Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) accelerated away from the Vervaeke-led pack, the Belgian one of two remaining teammates for the reigning champ.
This move quickly dispatched Vervaeke (he’d be back) and briefly exposed Evenepoel, who had to put Ilan van Wilder to work a little earlier than he might have hoped, but the threat was neutralised and Soudal Quick-Step was back in control.
La Redoute was next, springboard of many a victory, including Evenepoel’s in 2022.
Evenepoel still had his right-hand-man by his side and Vervaeke had rejoined them on the descent, but the peloton was still large with many teams very well represented.
The charge into the foot of the punishing climb was furious as hopeful usurpers dared to dream, but Evenepoel was always there, shining bright in his white onepiece.
The first finish line
A major advantage for Soudal Quick-Step was that the team’s finish line came 34 kilometres before anyone else’s, and though the whole field knew it was coming, the knowledge ultimately helped no one.
Bora-Hansgrohe, Israel-Premier Tech and Ineos Grenadiers had tried to dominate on the run-in to the 1.6km climb, but Van Wilder brought Evenepoel into position on the lower slopes and immediately lifted the pace. Knowing he had just one more kilometre to endure, the younger Belgian (by four months) dug in, gobbling up the last two attackers and waiting, waiting, waiting for his leader to land the inevitable blow.
The attack itself had a bit of a false start as Evenepoel’s bike fishtailed a little when his rear wheel met a rain-covered paint splodge, so the actual move was ever so slightly delayed, but when he punched, he punched hard.
Redoubtable Remco (sorry)
Perhaps as a result of the later-than-expected launch, Evenepoel soon had company in the form of Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) who caught up to him on the descent. The Trek-Segafredo pairing of Guilio Ciccone and Mattias Skjelmose was also briefly in the picture a handful of seconds behind, but their chase came to nothing and the leaders’ gap quickly bounced out over 20 seconds.
The bunch was all over the road, heads dangling between shoulders as riders wrestled their bars. The only rider who looked remotely composed was the man in white.
Some may have hoped that Evenepoel might suffer from having not raced in a while, that his freshness and relative lack of competition might quickly give way to fatigue. Alas, no. The time he’s spent at altitude preparing for the Giro d’Italia has done only good.
So much good, in fact, that when he found himself alone, that’s exactly what happened – he was so strong that a glance over the shoulder revealed that Pidcock was in trouble, so he just kept going. It wasn’t deliberate, he simply discovered that he was solo.
Evenepoel was solo and increasing his advantage.
A textbook race, thank goodness
Much has been made of Soudal Quick-Step’s Spring Classics and their alarming lack of success. For the second year running, the Belgian squad came away with not one WorldTour victory over the cobbles, a terrain on which the team has always specialised. Also for the second year running, Evenepoel has ‘saved’ the team’s spring.
With the medal around his neck, the team’s perfectly executed plan looks textbook, their confidence impressive and even inspiring. But for a few minutes there, when the chasers were within 40 seconds of a lonely Evenepoel with 30km to go, it looked like there might be the slightest risk that someone else might benefit from the team’s self-sacrifice. In which case ‘confident’ might be replaced by ‘over-enthusiastic’ at best and ‘arrogant’ at worst.
But that’s just speculation. It all worked out, Soudal Quick-Step’s confidence was built on firm foundations and the team finally – finally – got to celebrate a 2023 Monument victory.
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