I would like to update the old saying that the only things guaranteed in life are death and taxes. As sure as the sun rises in the east, the constant of the last 12 months of men’s road racing has been rumblings of Remco Evenepoel somehow opting out of his contract with Soudal Quick-Step and moving to Ineos Grenadiers. Or Israel-Premier Tech, in a bid to also return that team to the WorldTour.
As it is now mid-August, it’s worth remembering that we have been riding this rumor-mill train for almost a full year. The first reports of Evenepoel-to-Ineos emerged late last September, immediately after his Vuelta a España win. For anyone who follows cycling, it’s not hard to understand why Evenepoel – a hot commodity even as a U23 racer – was positively glowing as a transfer market option.
In winning the Vuelta, Evenepoel established himself as one of the vanishingly few true Grand Tours threats to Jonas Vingegaard, Primož Roglič, and Tadej Pogačar, and the only one less than 25 years old. (Save the talk, for now, of Carlos Rodriguez, Juan Ayuso, and other intriguing but still-developing talents.)
Problem: that Soudal contract, which in April of 2021 was extended through the 2026 season. Soudal boss Patrick Lefevere insists the deal is ironclad, with no exit clauses. But of course, sports are replete with examples of similarly locked-in athletes who managed to wrest themselves free via massive transfer payments, waiver of no-trade clauses, and other One Weird Tricks. If the money is big enough, anything’s possible.
So, for the past year, we’ve been treated to repeated rounds of transfer rumors. This has, of course, been a full-employment act for commentators such as yours truly, but it’s also apparently been a source of annoyance for Evenepoel. For a long time, I had sympathy for Evenepoel’s position, but as the saga drags on, I suspect perhaps something else is at work. Maybe I’m in the wrong and there’s no stopping the steady churn of headlines, but it seems like there’s one person who could, if he wanted, definitively put an end to it all: Remco Evenepoel. That he hasn’t is the clearest sign I can see that he really may be trying to leave Soudal.
How we got here
The first rumble of Remco-to-Ineos came on September 22. In October, Evenepoel said he was “surprised” at the links, but revealed there was actually interest from more than one team (enter, presumably, Sylvan Adams, furious at IPT’s WorldTour relegation). November through April were quiet months on the Evenepoel transfer news front and the major headlines were, refreshingly, race-related, like Evenepoel’s November announcement that he would target the 2023 Giro d’Italia and of course his second Liege-Bastogne-Liege win.
But in May, after Remco’s Giro campaign started perfectly and then ended with a shock, COVID 19-forced withdrawal while in the pink jersey, transfer talk flared again, with more word of interest from Ineos owner Jim Ratcliffe and Lefevere responding tartly that Ineos should “stop flirting” with his star rider.
The rumor mill really cranked up during and after the Tour de France, with word that Evenepoel was looking for a move. His response was a defiant but curious non-denial, telling Dutch media outlet In de Leiderstrui, “You know more than I do, my family doesn’t even know about it. It’s a bit of bullshit.” That’s saying something, since his father Patrick is also his agent.
Evenepoel has treated the persistent rumors mostly with exasperation, and not only toward the media. He’s said that both his dad and Lefevere should basically shut up and that the constant talk is a distraction from his racing. But I mention the history of rumors and Evenepoel’s responses to note a curious fact: they will. not. go. away.
Billionaires like Ratcliffe and IPT’s Adams are used to getting what they want; a rejection, to them, is usually perceived as just part of a negotiation. Still, it’s easy to imagine that a more united front from Evenepoel and Lefevere – not just a photo of them forced-smiling at dinner together – would go a long way to decisively ending the speculation and cooling (for now) Ratcliffe’s ardor. That this hasn’t happened is what makes me think that Evenepoel, for all his eye-rolls and protestations, isn’t actually all that committed to Soudal.
The case for Remco’s departure
The evidence is circumstantial, but growing. For one thing, he’s rarely said something clear to the effect of, “I’m 100 percent happy at and committed to Soudal, and I look forward to working to build a team that can support all of our objectives in the Grand Tours.”
For another, Soudal is absolutely in a bind for finding top climbing support to back Evenepoel’s Grand Tour ambitions. Signing Mikel Landa is a solid mid-tier move, but soon-to-be 34 years old Landa is not the first-class lieutenant/sleeper GC threat that he was even a few years ago. Outside of Landa, Soudal’s signees so far are all U23 riders who are not ready to go toe-to-toe with the deep rosters of Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates.
Relatedly, there’s a definitive exodus of sorts underway at Ineos, particularly among GC riders: Tao Geoghegan Hart is off to Lidl-Trek and Dani Martinez to Bora-Hansgrohe. Pavel Sivakov is joining UAE’s increasingly formidable lineup. And most interesting, young – and British! – GC aspirant Ben Tulett is headed to Jumbo-Visma. There are also rumors tying Carlos Rodriguez to a move to Movistar. Just as curious: a full two weeks into the open transfer season, not a single rider has announced he is headed to Ineos. That’s right: zero confirmed new signees.
That’s a lot of talent out the door with nothing to replace it. Even with just the four riders mentioned above leaving, that drops Ineos one below the 27-rider minimum roster for a WorldTeam under UCI rules. The only reason I can think of for all that is that Ratcliffe and Dave Brailsford have a big, prospective bet that hasn’t come in yet. A rider like Evenepoel doesn’t move alone; he’ll likely bring some staff with him, and more than likely a few riders as well.
That’s why Alberto Contador said the other day that Evenepoel-to-Ineos is an open secret that just hasn’t been announced. That’s why, when Lanterne Rouge tweeted a teaser about a big podcast interview with the guest’s face blurred out, speculation immediately landed on a LeBron James-style “I’m taking my talents to Ineos” announcement from Evenepoel. (I’ve never taken the Israel-Premier Tech links that seriously; the main suitor here has always seemed to be Ineos.)
So what now?
My best guess? There’s too much smoke here to be nothing. The rumors are too persistent, and as Contador claims, a deal may even be done in principle. It could still fall apart, of course. But I’d guess that we’ll know something before the end of the Vuelta.
The reason for that is simple: that’s what’s best for Evenepoel and, ultimately, Evenepoel himself is what’s keeping all this talk alive. He has fantastic race results, to be sure. But to this point, he has never faced Vingegaard or Pogačar in a race of more than a week and in fact, rarely faced them at all. And in his two Grand Tour head-to-heads with Roglič, we’ve been denied a final resolution both times by DNFs.
In short: Evenepoel’s market value right now is based on potential as much as palmares, and in a deep Vuelta field that features both Jumbo leaders, plus a stacked UAE roster and a number of second-tier GC threats like Enric Mas, Richard Carapaz, and Geraint Thomas, there’s likely more downside in those three weeks than an opportunity to increase his asking price.
Sometime before the start or, failing that, just after the first rest day and the Stage 10 individual time trial, we’ll likely know Evenepoel’s future. There’s only one person who can end the speculation, and it’s time for him to do it.
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