In nonchalant fashion, Belgian supertalent Remco Evenepoel started a new racing season with a comfortable win on Stage 1 of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana. After some curious pacing by Bahrain-Victorious and Movistar, he skipped away from the peloton (featuring strong climbers such as Valverde and Mas) on Torralba del Pinar climb – possibly achieving his best climbing performance to date.
It was clear that the first stage of this five day stage race would be a day for the climbing specialists. Quite close to the finish was Torralba Del Pinar, a 4.6 kilometer long 6.9% gradient climb. This climb is neither particularly steep nor long (a sub 12 minute effort), but is difficult enough for a top climber to create a gap if the pace was high.
However, the 3km rolling ridge line from the crest of the climb meant that creating separation on the climb would not be enough and presumably the home team Movistar would want to keep things together for a reduced bunch sprint for Alejandro Valverde.
Little action of note before the major climbs of the day, except for a crash involving ex-Movistar rider Hector Carretero, Tour de France stage winner Nans Peters and new UAE Emirates recruit Marc Soler with around 17 km remaining.
The race started to heat up when Quick-step Alphy Vinyl Team began to set a pace with 15 kilometers to go for their leader, Remco Evenepoel, on the penultimate climb of the day, the 4km, 5.4% Collada de Ayodar. Yves Lampaert did a fantastic job on this climb and ensured that Evenepoel would be safe at the front of the race for the short descent before the final climb.
Later, Bahrain-Victorious surprised on the major climb of the day pacing very hard with Pello Bilbao, a man one would think would be riding for his own general classification ambitions in a race such as this without a very deep GC field.
Bahrain did not bring their strongest climbers like Mikel Landa, Jack Haig, Gino Mäder or Damiano Caruso to Valenciana and yet Bilbao appeared to be initating the pace for their new transfer, the veteran Luis Leon Sanchez. After Bilbao pulled off, Dylan Teuns paced so hard that he dropped his teammate Matej Mohorič, despite Mohorič being a contender to win a small group sprint in the flat finish if the race was kept together. Knowing that on the start list there were better climbers than Luis Leon Sanchez benefitting from the heavy pace, such as Mas, Valverde and Evenepoel, and Bahrain used two of their best climbers to pace as domestiques, Teuns and Bilbao, we cannot think of a reason for them pacing from the base of the climb.
Movistar also have one of the strongest overall teams and they took over from Bahrain once they ran out of domestiques. Austrian Gregor Muhlberger increased the tempo for teammates Enric Mas and Alejandro Valverde. However Muhlberger pulled to exhaustion rather than to keep the group together, despite Evenepoel and others having few domestiques to pull themselves, with Mas softly attacking straight afterwards. Valverde could not follow his teammate, who then stopped his action shortly afterwards and with just over a kilometre left in the climb, there was no one left to control the pace after what had been a hard climb up to that point.
Tolhoek, now on Trek-Segafredo, took the brief pause in action to attack, followed shortly after by Jakub Fuglsang. Enric Mas, rather than pulling across the gap with Valverde in his wheel, surged across with Evenepoel sitting in his draft, similar to Mas’ attacking across to Yates and Haig in the Vuelta a Espana Stage 20, leaving Lopez behind.
Perhaps the trio in front of him were not even aware he was there, but with Fuglsang hesitating, Evenepoel used the opportunity to attack through the middle of an idling group. No one could (or wanted to) follow and the young Belgian gained a large gap within the space of 30 seconds.
The entire climb was set up perfectly for Evenepoel, who, once he crested it with 3km to go, was able to solo to the finish without looking like he had broken a sweat.
Russian Aleksandr Vlasov performed at a good level, attacking from the group behind Mas and Fuglsang, finishing 2nd, but the fastest Spaniard was 21 year-old Carlos Rodriguez. On his 21st birthday he showed a lot of potential beating his more experienced compatriots Enric Mas, Luis Leon Sanchez and Alejandro Valverde.
According to calculations by @naichacacycling, Evenepoel did 6,97 w/kg for 10:33 on the final climb, however with the average speed being over 25km/h in parts, it is difficult to estimate this with much certainty. Regardless, this is a very impressive level from Evenepoel, which is close to Pogačar and Roglič-esque levels for the time duration. As you can see in the graph below, Evenepoel performed better over this duration than Pogačar did on Ermualde in the 2021 Basque Country (although the difficulty of the stages prior to the climbs are not equivalent).
Even downwards adjusting Evenepoel’s power to account for error in the estimation, Torralba del Pinar is the best climbing performance of Evenpoel’s career so far, superior to his performance on Picon Blanco.
This gives a lot of hope for the future for Evenepoel, who struggled on climbs in the back end of 2021 despite strong performances in Belgian flatter races. Perhaps Patrick Lefevere will rethink Evenepoel’s publicised 2022 schedule and send Evenepoel to the Tour de France this year instead of the Vuelta a Espana, as both parcours suits strong time-trial riders. If he did so, we would fully endorse the decision, as Remco Mania lifts off for 2022. LR and Benji discuss whether Lefevere should change Evenepoel’s schedule in the full stage recap of Valenciana below.