There are plenty who will tell you that, to Belgian cycling fans, only the Classics matter. Theirs is not a nation of indefatigably disciplined deliverers such as Chris Froome and Miguel Indurain, but powerful, gutsy risk-takers like Roger de Vlaeminck, Tom Boonen and Thomas De Gendt.
De Gendt is, as it happens, the last Belgian to podium in a Grand Tour, at the Giro d’Italia in 2012. He would, however, be the first to admit that it was pure happenstance, a secondary consequence of a bold breakaway victory on the Stelvio that also gained him several places in the general classifications.
It is true enough that Belgian riders tend to be masters of the one-day ride - whether within stage races or without - but, in case anyone could ever forget, Belgium is also the nation of Eddy Merckx.
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The enthusiasm with which Flandrians and Wallonians will embrace the Tommekes of this world, and always be on the lookout for the next, doesn’t mean they won’t bite your hand off at the first sign of “the new Eddy”.
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Too often in the past, however, that dream has been dashed. It is more of a running joke than a sincerely held belief in whomever's direction the tag is tossed.
Belgians now accept that there can never be another Eddy Merckx, a rider who can win all year round, on all terrains, all disciplines and lengths of races, 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 lifts his arms aloft, it’s really not that hard a call.
Well, yes, cycling is different now, but what if they don’t have to choose?
What if, in Remco Evenepoel and Wout van Aert, Sunday's silver and bronze medalists, Belgium have not just one but two riders who are the real deal?
Remco has obviously been labouring under that label since he was a teenager. He destroyed all comers at the junior World Championships in Innsbruck in 2018, before securing a WorldTour spot with Deceuninck Quick-Step and wasting no time in the top tier of the sport. Supposed to take it steady, he became 2019 European TT champion, took second at the corresponding senior Worlds race, and claimed the San Sebastian classic to boot. Last year’s horrifying crash at Il Lombardia - not to mention the pandemic - seemed to set him back somewhat, but 13 months later he seems to be on track once more. This season he will finish with a fistful of lesser stage race wins and the same number of one-day victories. His Grand Tour debut at the Giro d’Italia - also his first ever race of that distance and duration - didn’t go quite according to plan, but it was surely only too much, too soon. There is no evidence that his trajectory and ultimate destination are any different than it was before. He is still only 21.
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As a rider, Evenepoel is something of an enigma. There are lots of riders who look like time trialists but can’t produce the power over the necessary period to compete in such races. Evenepoel, most notably limited in leg length, doesn’t look like one but can. The only weakness he seems to have is his sprint. The races he wins predominantly are done by pulling away from the bunch or the small group, not by out-punching them. There’s no reason to think he can’t develop that particular kind of twitch or, if he can’t, win just as many races without it.
Wout van Aert was lucky enough to not land the Merckx label in the first few years of his pro road career, and it seems a little unfair to burden him with it now, but the results he’s taken this year mean it is now surely inescapable.
Some will challenge this on the grounds of his overall credentials in stage races, acknowledging the dazzling variety of his wins at Le Tour while dismissing the title he took at the recent Tour of Britain. Fair enough, perhaps, but you’ve probably forgotten that this same rider also came second at Tirreno-Adriatico - behind only Tadej Pogacar. Van Aert is more than capable of staying the course should he decide to steer his career in that direction. He can climb mountains with the best and, as he showed today, beat everyone in the world except Filippo Ganna on the most textbook of time trial courses. There is no reason to believe he cannot sustain a general classification challenge at the Giro d’Italia, Vuelta or even the Tour de France.
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In the modern era, to be the kind of rider we are talking about, who wins across the week but also within it and at weekends, requires an uncommon capacity for calmness under pressure, the highest level of tactical nous, and a great ability - not to mention a willingness - to seize the race-winning opportunity once seen. Those are so rare that we no longer imagine all three can exist in the same person. Wout Van Aert has all of these traits in abundance, So, too, does Remco Evenepoel.
Their records, and ages, are of riders just getting started in their careers, a long, long way from the peak of their trajectories. Between them both will go on to win huge numbers of races in their careers. Whether any of them will be Grand Tours is less of a certainty but there can be no doubt, at this point, that they can.
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F. Ganna47 mins 48 secs