2021 World Road Championships – Belgian fans can dream again – thanks to Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel
Many will tell you that, for Belgian cycling fans, only the Classics count. It is not a nation of tirelessly disciplined liberators like Chris Froome and Miguel Indurain, but of powerful and courageous risk-takers like Roger de Vlaeminck, Tom Boonen and Thomas De Gendt.
De Gendt is moreover the last Belgian to stand on the podium of a Grand Tour, at the Giro d’Italia in 2012. He would however be the first to admit that it was a matter of pure chance, a secondary consequence of ‘a daring escape. victory over the Stelvio which also earned him several places in the general classification.
It is true that Belgian runners tend to be the masters of the one-day race – whether in stage races or without – but, in case anyone could forget, Belgium is also the nation of the world. ‘Eddy Merckx.
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The enthusiasm with which Flandrians and Walloons will embrace the Tommekes of this world, and will always be on the lookout for the next one, does not mean that they will not bite your hand at the first sign of the “new Eddy”.
Too often in the past, however, this dream has been dashed. It’s more of a running joke than a sincere belief in the direction the label is going.
The Belgians now accept that there can never be another Eddy Merckx, a runner who can win all year round, on all terrains, all disciplines and all race lengths, competing over a week, or three , as well as on a single day. Cycling is different now, and that’s okay. If they have to choose between celebrating the guy who crosses the line first and the one who is on the podium after three weeks but never raises his arms, it’s really not that hard.
Well, yes, cycling is different now, but what if they don’t have to choose?
What if, with Remco Evenepoel and Wout van Aert, silver and bronze medalists on Sunday, Belgium did not have one but two riders who are the real deal?
Remco has obviously been working under this label since he was a teenager. He destroyed all the finishers at the World Junior Championships in Innsbruck in 2018, before securing a place in the WorldTour with Deceuninck Quick-Step and not wasting time in the sport’s highest level. Expected to remain stable, he became the 2019 TT European Champion, finished second in the corresponding senior world race and won the San Sebastian Classic to start. Last year’s horrific crash in Il Lombardia – not to mention the pandemic – seemed to slow it down somewhat, but 13 months later it seems to be back on track again. This season he will end with a handful of smaller stage wins and the same number of wins in one day. His Grand Tour debut at the Giro d’Italia – also his very first race of this distance and duration – did not go as planned, but it was surely too much, too soon. There is no evidence that its trajectory and final destination is any different from what it was before. He is still only 21 years old.
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As a rider, Evenepoel is an enigma. There are a lot of runners who look like time trials but cannot produce the necessary power over the time needed to participate in such races. Evenepoel, whose leg length is notably limited, does not look like it but can. The only weakness he seems to have is his sprint. The races he wins mainly are done by moving away from the peloton or small group, not by beating them. There’s no reason to think he can’t develop this particular type of contraction or, if he can’t, win so many races without it.
Wout van Aert was fortunate enough not to land the Merckx label during the first few years of his professional road career, and it seems a bit unfair to charge him now, but the results he has achieved this year mean that it is now certainly essential.
Some will dispute this due to his overall credentials in stage races, acknowledging the dazzling variety of his Tour victories while rejecting the title he won in the recent Tour of Britain. Fair enough, maybe, but you probably forgot that this same rider also finished second in Tirreno-Adriatico – behind only Tadej Pogacar. Van Aert is more than capable of staying the course if he decides to steer his career in that direction. He can climb mountains with the best and, as he showed today, beat everyone except Filippo Ganna on the most classic of time trial courses. There is no reason to believe that he cannot withstand an overall classification challenge at the Giro d’Italia, the Vuelta or even the Tour de France.
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In the modern age, to be the kind of runner we’re talking about, who wins throughout the week but also within it and on the weekends, you need a rare ability to calm under pressure, the highest level of we tactics and a great ability – not to mention a will – to seize the opportunity to win the race once seen. These are so rare that we no longer imagine that all three can exist in the same person. Wout Van Aert has all of these traits in abundance, as does Remco Evenepoel.
Their records and their ages are those of runners who are just starting their careers, very far from the top of their trajectory. Between them, they will win a great number of races during their careers. Whether any of them are Grand Tours is less certain, but there is no doubt, at this point, that they can.
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