With every promising pedal stroke, pressure grows on reigning World Champion Remco Evenepoel to race the Tour de France.
Little changed after his fourth-place finish on the first mountain stage of the Tour de Suisse, despite an uncharacteristically – for Evenepoel – failed attack, which highlights the difficult position he’s in: his form is just strong enough to raise expectations, and not quite strong enough yet to meet them.
Evenepoel explained to Het Laatste Nieuws that he wanted to get Stefan Küng out of the leader’s jersey at his home tour, but a depleted Soudal Quick-Step team exhausted by a cold, wet day forced him to attack prematurely. “That may have been a little early,” he said of his acceleration with around 6 km to go on the climb to Villars-sur-Ollon. “I took a little too much work on my shoulders and paid cash on the hardest part of the climb.”
Evenepoel didn’t crack; not hardly, shipping only 21 seconds to stage winner and new race leader Mattias Skjelmose (Trek-Segafredo). And the pressure to race the Tour de France – a regular topic of conversation since his shock DNF at the Giro d’Italia – doesn’t seem to have lessened.
So far, Evenepoel has strongly resisted that talk, or even allowed that it was ever a real possibility. “We did talk about it, but it was soon a no,” he told Sporza just before the Swiss stage race. The Tour is certainly in his future plans, he added, but pointed out that “I prepared for the Giro for six months. I went to the Giro in peak form. But when I got sick, I sat for 10 days afterward.”
His form’s still not back, he said. After his attack fizzled on stage 3 of the Tour de Suisse, he noted that, normally, he’d have the energy to make two or three accelerations, but didn’t. “It may be some after-effects of my corona infection,” he said. While there was a lot of discussion about whether Evenepoel could have continued in the Giro even with his positive, photos of him after the stage 9 time trial showed a clearly different Evenepoel to stage 1, and he told Sporza that he “got sicker every day” for the week after he left the race; his was not an asymptomatic case.
In the interview, he also alluded to the pressure and the risks of going to the Tour, where being even slightly off form against the likes of Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar would pan out poorly. “If I come loose on the first mountain stage, a bomb will explode in Belgium,” he said. “It’s impossible for me to go there without expectations.”
After winning the 2022 Vuelta España and the World Road Championship, Evenepoel experienced an offseason full of the engagements and expectations of a cycling star in Belgium, always eager to anoint (and then sometimes tear down) any potential successor to the sainted Eddy Merckx. That only increased when he parachuted into Liège-Bastogne-Liège to singlehandedly save his Soudal Quick-Step team from another disastrous Classics season.
It’s clear he’s wary of that pressure, and his Giro DNF was, in that light, a nightmare scenario: robbed of his main goal for the season, but left without enough time to truly reset on the only other objective that would satisfy fans’ expectations.
All of which makes the Tour de Suisse an impossible situation: fail to win and face second guessing and criticism. Or win and face pressure to make this summer’s Tour a memorable showdown against Vingegaard and Pogačar. Such is life as a Belgian cycling icon.
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