In a world championship road race where he was at least one outside contender for victory, Remco Evenepoel put his own ambitions aside on Sunday in Flanders. The Belgian star was already in the lead with over 180km to go in the 268.3km race, and he was a constant presence continuing the moves or pushing the pace into the lead for the next few hours, relieving the pressure of teammates like Wout van Aert and Jasper Stuyven, pre-race favorites.
With around 40km to go and having already done a massive day’s work, Evenepoel took the lead one last time to set the pace as a solid lead group made their way through one climb after another. He spent around 20 minutes in the driver’s seat, until, with 26 km remaining, it was finally the job done for the awesome youngster. He was done.
Ten minutes later, Julian Alaphilippe took off from the front and stayed on the sidelines to secure his second consecutive world title. It was a masterstroke from Alaphilippe and France, an attack that everyone knew could happen and still won. It was also a colossal disappointment for the home team.
With so much excitement surrounding the Belgian team on Belgian roads, it is only fair to wonder where it all went wrong.
All in all, Belgium’s failure to deliver at home seemed to be a confluence of Van Aert’s less than ideal form, questionable tactics and perhaps a lack of communication at a crucial time.
The plan for the Belgians ahead of the race was clear: it was the carpet for Van Aert, who was the bookmakers favorite on the bumpy Belgian pitch. Subsequently, however, Van Aert said he didn’t quite have the legs he hoped for, noting that he wasn’t able to immediately keep up when Alaphilippe launched his numerous attacks before the final.
“I already felt on the climb up the Smeysberg that I didn’t have the legs I hoped for,” he said. “After that the course was a little easier so I was hoping I could get back on track. We were also in a good situation at the time, but on the Leuven course my legs were completely empty.
When the reigning world champion exploded with what would turn out to be the winning move with around 20km to go, Van Aert wasn’t behind the wheel as the pre-race favorite might have been expected. Van Aert said after the race he told Stuyven to ride on his own, but the 29-year-old couldn’t keep up or hesitated for too long when Alaphilippe started. Stuyven then jumped into a group of chasers who never managed to close the gap, and that was it. Alaphilippe was gone.
“I feel sick. It’s so disappointing,” said Stuyven. “We all have a great race. Wout told me when Alaphilippe attacked that he didn’t have the best of days. We ran for him and maybe that’s what I missed in the end, but we all crawled to the finish line.
In the end, Belgium will not even leave with a podium.
“Of course the disappointment is great, especially with Van Aert and Stuyven,” said Belgian national coach Sven Vanthourenhout. “The first because he didn’t have the best legs, the second because he narrowly missed the medal here in Leuven. We had come to win and at one point we were in control and everything was going pretty much the way we wanted. But the conclusion of the day is that our leader just wasn’t good enough.
If Van Aert was not at his best it would still be a challenge for Belgium to live up to expectations. Having said that, it is fair to wonder if things could have been different, even if Van Aert was not at his best, if the tactics and communication had been better.
Evenepoel’s efforts to catch moves and even pick up the pace in the middle of the race made perfect sense as they gave Belgium a card to play if any of those moves worked and, more importantly, relieved the rest of the squad to hunt. His hard work all afternoon was a sign that he was happy to stick to the plan and put everything on the line for a rider who, for the vast majority of the season, rides for a different team. It was a commendable effort from a youngster with enormous talent.
In the last hour of the race, the leading group had considerably reduced and Belgium still had three riders in the peloton at Evenepoel, Van Aert and Stuyven.
It was here, however, that the Belgian squad’s tactics became questionable, with Evenepoel seemingly tasked with burying himself at the front of the peloton in an effort that won him praise for both his power and his ability. altruism – but it won for Belgium… well… it’s not entirely clear what he won for Belgium.
Apparently Evenepoel’s 20 minutes of hard work was a way to widen the gap with a big second group on the road, while discouraging rivals from the Belgians from launching attacks on the Flandrien circuit. And who can say that a solo movement wouldn’t have been clear without Evenepoel doing this work? Likewise, there were several teams with several riders in this leading group as the kilometers went by, and by setting the tempo, Evenepoel was not just relieving his teammates, he was relieving everyone. . Could he have taken his foot off the throttle and focused more on the chase moves if they actually came?
When Evenepoel withdrew for good, the rest of the peloton almost immediately began to attack. At one point, Van Aert himself pursued a move from Alaphilippus, which was not a good sign. Then, about 20 km from the finish, Alaphilippe set off fully with Stuyven barely behind. Apparently in a good position to close the movement or join it, Stuyven did not. Maybe he didn’t have the legs, but a few moments later he jumped into a group that was trying to bridge, and there were several points where the runners in that group looked at each other and walked over. allowed the French to widen his gap. .
In other words, it’s at least fair to wonder if Stuyven could have gone with Alaphilippe had he reacted more quickly. Maybe he wasn’t entirely clear on the plan, which may have changed right now with Van Art not feeling his best.
Anyway, what if Evenepoel hadn’t been buried for 15 minutes shortly before Alaphilippe took action? Would other teams have taken over as Alaphilippe’s attack approached, leaving Evenepoel with enough rest in the tank to continue the downward movement? What if a combination of Stuyven and Evenepoel had kept things under control, would Van Aert or the super fast Stuyven have at least had enough in the tank to win a reduced sprint? After all, Van Aert was visibly up front at one point, trying to keep the attacks going, so he seemed to have at least something to give.
And perhaps more importantly, there is the question that Evenepoel can ponder for a while even if he’s smart enough not to think about it out loud: what if the Belgians just got into the race with Evenepoel? as an alternative option for victory instead of having it on domestic duty all day?
We will never know how things might have turned out if Belgium had taken a different approach or if Van Aert had communicated their situation earlier. What we do know is that the home team, headlining the pre-race favorite and with three riders in a selected leading group 30km from the finish, failed to put a runner on the podium – and that a young rising star put in a huge effort that day that did not translate into a Belgian victory.
“I emptied myself completely until Leuven and then I took off, I couldn’t push anymore,” Evenepoel said after the race. “It was up to me to do it. Wout and Jasper were there as leaders. I was there and did as I was asked. I couldn’t do anything more.