One of the worst kept secrets of the off-season, the Grand Tour plans of World Champion Remco Evenepoel, was finally brought to light with the Belgian superstar announcing his participation in the Giro d’Italia 2023.
After winning the Vuelta a España comfortably and featuring heavily in our best climbing performances ranking, Evenepoel conceivably could have skipped the Giro and jumped straight to the biggest race in the world, the Tour de France in 2023. Below we will assess what factors were likely in play in Quickstep’s scheduling decision as well as some potential drawbacks for him lining up in Italy.
Why Did Remco Choose the Giro?
The absence of Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar is one of the most obvious reasons that Evenepoel is attending the Giro d’Italia, with its lower relative level of competition. Many other top GC riders who would ordinarily favour the Giro such as Richard Carapaz, will also surely attend the Tour de France with its fewer time-trial kilometres. As has been the case for a number of years, the current rumoured Giro d’Italia start-list is looking rather weak, with Geraint Thomas, Joao Almeida and Aleksandr Vlasov the only big challengers announced so far. Given Evenepoel’s dominance in the Vuelta and assuming a normal preparation before the race, he may start the Giro with a 50% chance or more to add another Grand Tour to his palmarès. In contrast, if Evenepoel were to go to the Tour, he would likely be perceived as the third favourite (at best) behind Vingegaard and Pogačar, with his chance to win at 20% or worse.
Despite being the first Grand Tour of the year, the Giro has had problems attracting the biggest stars as almost every year the very top GC contenders, classics riders and sprinters choose the Tour de France. This is unsurprising, as the Giro sells almost all of its international race rights to paywalled broadcasters as opposed to free-to-air broadcasters like SBS, ITV, France TV or Teledeporte – i.e. less eyeballs on team’s sponsors. Such was Arkéa’s lack of value placed on potential sponsor exposure at the Giro, that they declined their Wildcard invitation this year.
There were reports that Team Sky were paid an appearance fee of around 1.4 million euros for Chris Froome’s attendance in 2018. It was only after the cancellation of the Tour of California that Peter Sagan attended the Giro for the first time, when he skipped all of the classics post Tour de France 2020. Last year, race director Mauro Vegni’s attempts to convince Pogačar to attend the 2022 edition were more desperate than convincing.
There is, of course, no information as to whether the Giro d’Italia is paying Quickstep and / or Evenepoel to attend their race. Patrick Lefevere is never one to shy away from complaints about budget and even boasted recently about how underpaid Remco Evenepoel currently is. It would not be surprising if there was some financial incentive for Quick-Step to send their superstar to Italy thereby sacrificing the chance to win the biggest race in the world in the rainbow bands. Even with the new sponsor of Soudal on-board, the team are clearly not averse to appearance fees in 2023. Evenepoel will commence his season in Vuelta a San Juan in late January, traveling to another continent for a week long preparation race instead of attending the perfectly adequate Volta a Valenciana, his new local race after he bought a house in the region.
World Championships Preparation
Unlike in recent years, the World Championships 2023 in Glasgow will be held in August rather than September. That is not the only difference, with the men’s elite road race happening on the 6th of August and the time-trial on the 11th of August, flipped from the normal order. The men’s Tour de France ends on the 23rd of July, so perhaps Quickstep have determined that the two week gap will make it difficult for Evenepoel to arrive to Worlds in top shape. In contrast, with a 10 week build up after the Giro, Evenepoel should be in perfect form to try to defend the road race title on the hilly course in Glasgow and also win the time-trial.
Plentiful Time-trial Kilometres
There will be three time-trials in the Giro d’Italia, as follows:
- Stage 1 – 20 kilometre of flat, ending with a hilly finish that suits Evenepoel over Ganna
- Stage 9 – 33.8 kilometre pancake flat time trial that features an extended technical bike path section
- Stage 20 – 11km of flat or false flat before the horrific Monte Lussari, including 4.7km at 15%, on the Austrian and Slovenian border.
Despite Geraint Thomas being an elite time trial rider, Evenepoel should take significant time against all other GC contenders, theoretically allowing him to just defend in the mountains.
Meanwhile, in the Tour de France there is a paucity of kilometres against the clock, with a sole 22 kilometre time trial featuring a whopping 650 metres elevation gain. Pogačar, Vingegaard and Roglič are all great ITT specialists for GC riders and Evenepoel might not even take time against them on such a uniquely hard parcours. He likely has a bigger advantage against elite GC time-trial riders on completely flat courses such as the Vuelta 2022 time trial.
Why Choose the Tour de France?
The Tour de France is by far the biggest cycling race in the world. The pressure that would come with Evenepoel attending would of course be huge, but Evenepoel has already been dealing with huge pressure from the Belgian media since 2019. In 2022 he proved his critics wrong and won La Vuelta despite problems in the early season in stage races. There might even been more pressure at the Giro d’Italia where anything less than a victory will be deemed as a failure. For maximising sponsor exposure, the Tour de France is the clear winner.
Improving his chances to be the GOAT
The phrase GOAT or ‘greatest of all time’ has in recent years been used amongst sports pundits or on social media when discussing who is the best in different sports, e.g. the non-stop debates on Ronaldo vs Messi or LeBron vs Jordan. If Evenepoel wants to be considered the GOAT cyclist then winning the Tour de France even twice will not be enough. Six wins would practically guarantee GOAT status in the modern era (since 1991) however there are not many opportunities to win the Tour and all cyclists have only so many years at peak level. In 2024 Evenepoel will already be 24 years old when he finally debuts in the Tour, around three years older than both Bernal and Pogacar when they debuted. Should UAE Emirates have used the Giro d’Italia as a stepping stone for Pogacar in 2020?
In the modern era 24 is not that young anymore. There might be another talent who beats everyone and is superior like Ayuso or Uijtdebroeks who are still developing. Pogačar seemed invincible but lost to Vingegaard whilst it seems unlikely that Bernal will never win the Tour de France again despite winning in 2019 at 22 years old. Perhaps in 2026 riders like Jorgen Nordhagen or Michael Leonard will be on an even higher level than the current superstars.
Why Remco Might Lose the Giro
The most obvious downside of Evenepoel’s announced calendar is the lack of preparation time before the Giro. In an eight week period before the Vuelta, Evenepoel raced only in San Sebastian, where he won, whilst preparing at two separate altitude camps. In contrast, Remco is planning to race in the Ardennes classics, which finish less than two weeks before he will need to leave for the Giro. Evenepoel already won Liege-Bastogne-Liege and winning La Fleche Wallone or De Brabantse Pijl would barely improve his palmarès whilst jeopardising his main goal for the season. The Ardennes classics are dangerous races with narrow roads and many technical descents/corners. Julian Alaphilippe’s horrific crash in Liege-Bastogne-Liege practically destroyed his plans for the rest of the 2022 season.
In the perfect scenario, Evenepoel would spend the last three weeks before the race in an altitude camp. The Criterium du Dauphine usually ends around 19-20 days before the Tour and in this time span it is possible to include an additional altitude camp. A race like Basque Country would be better than the Ardennes as there would be enough time before Giro to do another training camp.
Anything Can Happen
The beauty of the Giro is that, especially in the 3rd week, anything can happen and the race can be turned on its head. One mistake can cost the title as Steven Kruijswijk learned the hard way in 2016. Evenepoel’s Vuelta seemed to be perfect until he crashed in a random corner on Stage 12.
That day the stage finished up Peñas Blancas climb, where Evenepoel performed at a high level and did not lose time, but in the coming days he suffered on high mountain stages, losing time on Sierra de La Pandera and Sierra Nevada due to some pain in his hip. In the Giro there will be many more tricky descents and corners, with so many high mountain stages. Evenepoel is not a bad descender but he is not an elite one on technical descents. He already did a stage 1, 6, 7, 8 and 9 recon a week ago.
The parcours of the Giro d’Italia 2023 is brutal, with Stages 16 and 19 looking particularly nasty. It is unclear whether Evenepoel has been able to recon those high mountain passes prior to the arrival of winter this year. La Vuelta did not offer anything close to stages hard, which is the main reason why riders usually push better w/kg on final climbs in Vuelta than in the attritional Giro. If Evenepoel is at his top form he will probably still be the strongest rider on a final climb but if something goes wrong, like a lack of feeding, there is the potential to lose a lot of time. Evenepoel still has not proved that he can perform on every given day like Tadej Pogačar has shown but even the best can crack badly sometimes (Col du Granon 2022, Ventoux 2021).
The Giro d’Italia is known for its wet, cold and extremely hard mountain stages compared to the summer Grand Tours, and it is possible that one of the three brutal mountain stages will have bad weather. Evenepoel should not have problems with wet and cold conditions but it will definitely make technical descents harder and fuelling more important.
Quick-Step is not a GC focussed team but team climbing strength in Grand Tours might not be as important as we think. In terms of controlling who will get into breakaways and managing gaps, Quickstep are very strong thanks to the powerhouse Remi Cavagna. The mountain support as proven in the Vuelta was up to scratch with Ilan van Wilder, Julian Alaphilippe, Louis Verveake, Fausto Masnada and Dries Devenyns. Jan Hirt will also join the team in 2023 and he finished 6th in the most recent Giro. Hirt is not the most consistent climber but when he is on form he might stay with the last five GC riders, especially considering how weak the GC field might be.
Evenepoel’s Giro team might present more of an issue if things do not go all to plan. If he takes time in the time-trials as expected and has no major wobbles in the mountains, then defending with that team should not be a problem. However if on a certain day he needs them to blow apart the race so he can take time against Thomas, they may not be strong or reliable enough to put other top GC contenders under pressure to set up an Evenepoel attack.
For us as fans, perhaps we should be grateful that Evenepoel is attending the Giro d’Italia, thereby spreading out the star-power across more races in the calendar. Whether that ends up being the best decision for Evenepoel remains to be seen, with nothing guaranteed in Italy no matter how soft the start-list appears.