Perhaps Remco Evenepoel is the new Merckx after all, Annemiek Van Vleuten’s greatest year – Blazin’ Saddles
Victories for Remco Evenepoel and Annemiek van Vleuten were the pick of the bunch from a World Championships in Australia that had its fair share of drama, controversy and surprises. From the big favourites delivering the goods in the two main elite events to Mathieu van der Poel’s strange night in a police cell, Felix Lowe unpicks the main talking points from Wollongong.
Highlights: All the action from a dramatic men's road race as Evenepoel takes title
A week that started with Remco Evenepoel worrying about magpies and progressed with Bauke Mollema being attacked by a seagull in the mixed relay ended with the recently crowned Vuelta champion swooping like a bird of prey to secure a maiden World crown at the age of just 22.
It certainly didn’t harm Evenepoel’s chances that one of his main rivals was kept up by two teenagers knocking on his door – resulting in Mathieu van der Poel spending some hours in police custody after an alleged assault in the corridor of his hotel. But such was Evenepoel’s form coming into the race, there was probably only ever going to be one winner.
Preamble over, let’s now take a closer look at those six talking points – but only after we relish Mollema’s avian mishap one more time…
One of his predecessors to this particular Grand Slam was, of course, Eddy Merckx. But while Merckx was five and a half months younger than Evenepoel when he took the rainbow jersey in Heerlen in 1967 (for what was, incidentally, his 29th pro win), the Cannibal did not become a Grand Tour winner for the first time until the following May, when he was 117 days older than Evenepoel would be.
As such, is there not a case to argue that, despite all the hype and hyperbole – not to forget the false dawn that was his underwhelming Giro debut last year – Evenepoel is very much on course to emulate, perhaps even better, the palmares of his illustrious compatriot, a man considered hands-down to be the best the sport has ever seen?
After all, at the age of 22 and eight months – the same as Evenepoel was on Sunday when he soloed to glory in Wollongong – Merckx had 32 wins to his name, albeit two victories in Milan-Samremo compared to Evenepoel’s single Monument triumph at Liege-Bastogne-Liege earlier this season.
There is also a case to be made regarding the calibre of Merckx’s opponents. That the Cannibal was a superstar talent is not up for debate. But he was operating at a time when the sport was far away from the levels of professionalism seen today, when his main opponents were the likes of Raymond Poulidor, Felice Gimondi, Jan Janssen, Freddy Maertens, Luis Ocana and Bernard Thevenet – his eventual Tour nemesis.
Evenepoel, by contrast, has risen through the ranks despite the surrounding achievements of Tadej Pogacar, Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Jonas Vingegaard, Primoz Roglic and Egan Bernal – and who’s to know who may come along in the years to come.
One thing that is certain is that Evenepoel’s Worlds win, although emphatic and a tactical tour de force, was far from spectacular from a fan’s perspective – his aura of indomitability taking the sheen off the finale and giving it a sense of inevitability with an hour still left to ride. That doesn’t take anything away from his achievement – it arguably renders it all the more staggering – but it was hardly edge-of-the-seat stuff.
Periods of domination rarely are exciting – as we have seen with the eras of Indurain, Armstrong, even Merckx. So it’s just as well that Pogacar, Van Aert, Vingegaard, Van der Poel et al should keep Evenepoel in check. He may well be on course to match Merckx at this early point in his career, but it would be a surprise if Evenepoel comes close to the 275 wins – including multiple Grand Tours and Monuments – amassed by his compatriot during his heyday.
'Lived the emotions!' - Gilbert on watching Evenepoel win world title
A final year in the rainbow stripes a fitting farewell for peerless Van Vleuten
Van Vleuten fractured her elbow in the heavy fall, forcing her into riding the women’s road race just days later in considerable pain and unable to tackle any of the climbs out of the saddle.
After spending much of the race in a domestique role for Dutch team-mate Marianne Vos, Van Vleuten surprised the favourites with a last-gasp attack in the final kilometres – just when everyone expected to see Belgium’s Lotte Kopecky sprint to the win.
'What an absolute ride!' - Van Vleuten produces stunning win in World Championships
The move was a tactical masterclass from the 37-year-old and immensely brave considering her condition. But it is what had made her stand out above her competitors in the women’s peloton in a season where she has won the women’s editions of the Tour, Giro and Vuelta, as well as Liege-Bastogne-Liege and now, a second World title.
Unable to show off the rainbow stripes for much of the 2020 season owing to the pandemic, Van Vleuten – in her last year before retirement – will now get to defend her victories in all these major races while sporting the famous world champion’s jersey. A fitting swansong for someone just two wins away from a century of appearances on the top step of the podium.
There’s only one rider in professional cycling who has had a better season than Remco Evenepoel – and that’s Annemiek van Vleuten.
'Her best win!' - Breakaway crew hail Van Vleuten after road race triumph
Considered as one of the favourites for the gold medal in Wollongong, Van der Poel’s preparations for the race were far from ideal – the 27-year-old only returning to his room at 4am after spending much of the evening in police custody after he allegedly accosted two girls who had been knocking on his door late at night.
Van der Poel is scheduled to race the Italian autumn classics this October – including Il Lombardia – but there’s no denying that his season couldn’t end sooner. Three wins in Belgium this past month, including the Grand Prix de Wallonie, papered over the cracks of a troubled second half to the campaign for the 27-year-old, who has struggled for form since his swashbuckling Giro debut in May.
Entering the Tour de France severely overcooked, Van de Poel couldn’t match the lofty heights of his debut the previous July and withdrew on Stage 11 after failing to finish in the top 10 in any road stage.
'What a strange and unfortunate 24 hours!' - Moment Van der Poel leaves road race
Already struggling on the bike in 2022, Van der Poel’s latest setback stands out in being entirely unrelated to cycling and is a stark reminder of the stresses and strains facing a rider from whom so much is expected. Not that any of this mitigates the severity of lashing out at two 14- and 15-year-old girls. Some time off the bike and a period of reflection may be the best option for MVDP right now.
Foss the boss, against all odds
Remco Evenepoel’s expression said it all. Having completed the men’s time trial in provisional third place, the Belgian looked up at the scoreboard to see who was in gold medal position and saw the name of… Tobias Foss.
Whether it was the shocked eyes and raising of the eyebrows, the “Who?” – or was it a “Foss?” – or the subsequent snarl of entitled incomprehension, it was clear to all that the Belgian tyro had not expected to be beaten by the 25-year-old Norwegian.
It’s not that Foss is an unheralded talent against the clock – the Jumbo-Visma rider is a two-time national champion – but he was hardly considered among the favourites. After all, Foss came 23rd in the Olympics ITT last year, and could only finish eighth in the Giro’s final time trial in Verona this May. He also, notably, finished well over a minute down on Evenepoel in the Volta a Algarve ITT back in February.
Second that day in Portugal was Stefan Kung, who added a silver medal in Wollongong to the bronze medal he picked up in the sodden men’s road race in Yorkshire back in 2019. You have to feel for the Swiss: he set the fastest time at both intermediate check points and did enough to beat the likes of Evenepoel, Remi Cavagna, Tadej Pogacar, Ethan Hayter and even Filippo Ganna – only to be bettered by a Norwegian outsider no one considered to be in the frame for gold.
But Foss rode a monster final leg Down Under to turn a 12-second deficit into a three-second win over Kung, all while keeping the incredulous Evenepoel down in third nine seconds adrift. Defending champion Ganna was still to come home but the Italian could only take seventh.
‘Take a look at this!’ – Foss stuns field to claim shock men's time trial title
Evenepoel, for all his brilliance later on in the week, will certainly not be showing as much disrespect and disdain towards the new time trial world champion in the years to come.
Backstedt’s double a sign of greater things to come
Britain’s Zoe Backstedt retained her junior world road race title with a sensational solo ride to celebrate her 18th birthday in style – with another gold medal around her neck.
Backstedt clearly had good legs for she only spent 15 minutes alongside her rivals in the junior peloton before breaking clear on a descent 58km from the finish and then powering to a winning margin of over two minutes.
With her latest display of domination – which came four days after she won the junior time trial title and four months after she won the junior Tour of Flanders – the Welsh rider confirmed her status as one of the sport’s most promising young talents.
WATCH - Zoe Backstedt comes home for second World Champs win on birthday
In her first year as a pro in 2023 at EF Education-TIBCO-SVB Backstedt will not be able to don the rainbow bands. But it will be fascinating to see how the 18-year-old fares against the superstar who will be sporting that famous jersey, Annemiek van Vleuten, in her final season as a pro.
Over in the men’s peloton, Backstedt’s fellow 18-year-old and Welsh colleague Joshua Tarling will begin his pro career at Ineos Grenadiers after winning the junior ITT title in Wollongong.
Time for a shake-up with the U23 rules
Such is the strength of the young generation in cycling today that it’s often riders in their early twenties who are not so much making ripples as creating the waves of an entire sea change in the peloton. The results of the likes of Bernal, Pogacar and now Evenepoel – and the promise being shown by Spaniards Juan Ayuso and Carlos Rodriguez – have called into question the need for a white jersey in Grand Tours going forward.
With this in mind, perhaps it’s time for a change in the regulations in the U23 category in World Championships. This year’s U23 champion, Kazakhstan’s Yevgeniy Fedorov, is a 22-year-old professional rider at Astana-Qazaqstan who already has four pro wins to his name and who completed his maiden Vuelta earlier this month.
While Fedorov is not a patch on his fellow 22-year-old Evenepoel, the new men’s elite champion, it seems unfair that he is allowed to race against riders who don’t have the same experience as he does – a bit like throwing established football stars like Buyako Saka or Phil Foden back into the England U23 team.
After all, Fedorov rode the men’s elite ITT just days earlier, finishing 28th place. Perhaps some regulations should be brought in – at the very least forcing riders to pick between riding U23 or elite, not both. Further than that, should there not be a regulation that prevents, say, riders who have ridden a Grand Tour or a certain amount of WorldTour races for their trade teams from racing U23 events?
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