Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Evenepoel Makes Bold Statement in Season Debut in Portugal

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The only rider bold enough to try to give him a race, the talented 20-year-old Mexican Isaac del Toro (UAE Team Emirates), came as close as 43 seconds to Evenepoel before deciding that on this day, against that rider, discretion would be the better part of valour and drifted back to the peloton. The only battle was for second place and was won in a bunch sprint by Intermarché-Wanty’s Vito Braet, who finished 1:48 behind his Belgian compatriot. He outsprinted Simone Velasco (Astana Qazaqstan) to the line.

Evenepoel’s statement was certainly heard loud and clear by the riders for whom it was no doubt intended, Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), Jonas Vingegaard (Visma–Lease a Bike) and Primož Roglič (Alpecin-Deceuninck), his main rivals in this year’s Tour de France. Both Pogačar and Vingegaard kicked off their 2023 seasons in grand style winning almost every race they started last spring (until the Slovenian crashed in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège), and Evenepoel will want to show that he is their equal.

Nobody doubts that he is one of the best – if not the best – one-day and stage riders in the world. The problems for him in the Tour are called Isola 2000 and the Col de la Couillole. These are the names of the mountains that must be climbed at the end of stages 19 and 20, and they are long and steep. Evenepoel has not yet proven that he can compete with Pogačar and the others on such demanding climbs. The Figueira had five categorized climbs in the final 80 km but the longest was only 2.3 km. Only the Belgian knows how easy they were for him and how tired he was after climbing them. Next week’s Volta ao Algarve could tell us more, though his toughest rival in that five-stage race looks to be fellow Belgian Wout van Aert (Visma–Lease a Bike) who is more interested in the Classics and stage wins this year.

And speaking of van Aert, he made his road race debut one day after Evenepoel, at the Clasica de Ameria. His mission in that 192 km race, which is tailor-made for sprinters, was to be a leadout for the team’s 22-year-old sprinter Olaf Kooij. Van Aert played his part to perfection, weaving through a chaotic peloton with 500 m to go to link up with the young Dutch rider and then leaving Kooij’s rivals in the dust with a prodigious burst of speed. The win seemed like a foregone conclusion but Kooij, showing his inexperience, celebrated a bit too early and was nearly caught by Matteo Moschetti (Q36.5 Pro Cycling). Tudor Pro Cycling’s Matteo Trentin finished third.

Finally, Ricardo Contreras of the Nu Colombia team was a popular winner in the six-stage Tour of Colombia, which finished on Sunday. EF Education–Easy Post’s Richard Carapaz finished second, 6 seconds behind the winner, while another Ecuadorian, Jonathan Caicedo (Petrolike) finished third, at 26 seconds. Though he finished fifth, at 1:01, INEOS Grenadiers’ Egan Bernal (who raced in the colours of his home country) played a big role in the final stage win by compatriot Jhonatan Restrepo, by leading him out in the final sprint and denying the frustrated Carapaz the stage victory.

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