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In hindsight, the signs were there. Remco Evenepoel all but said as much in his press conference on Sunday afternoon, when he revealed he had been suffering from a blocked nose ahead of the Giro d’Italia’s stage 9 time trial. “Let’s touch wood that it’s not a virus,” he said. “I don’t want to say the [name of the] virus, that would not be good luck. We will see.”
Although Evenepoel regained the maglia rosa by winning in Cesena, both the margin and manner of his victory were altogether less convincing than anybody had expected. It was a victory that felt curiously like a defeat, and the bags under Evenepoel’s eyes at the finish showed just how much it had taken out of him.
That bittersweet victory came just 24 hours after a subdued display on the road to Fossombrone, where Evenepoel was surprisingly distanced on the climb of I Cappuccini, losing 14 seconds to Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), Geraint Thomas and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers). The Belgian was so perplexed by the setback that he reached for a most improbable explanation, namely that he had been weighed down by the white paint job on his bike.
Remco Evenepoel out of Giro d’Italia following COVID-19 positive
Giro d’Italia: GC standings after stage 9 – Maglia rosa battle tightens with Evenepoel out
Evenepoel rues pacing error despite victory in Giro d’Italia time trial
The truth was more prosaic. Late on Sunday evening, Soudal-QuickStep issued a short statement to announce that Evenepoel had tested positive for COVID-19 after the stage and would abandon the Giro with immediate effect. Suddenly, his (relative) travails over the previous 48 hours made perfect sense. Not bad for a guy with COVID, to coin a phrase from this Giro.
COVID-19 testing is no longer mandatory at Grand Tours, and Evenepoel would have been within his rights to remain in the Giro even after his positive test. In that context, it was notable that Soudal-QuickStep chose to announce his abandon publicly and immediately on Sunday night rather than waiting to see if he showed any signs of recovery during Monday’s rest day. Then again, perhaps the perceptible downturn in Evenepoel’s performances this weekend had already told them the direction of travel.
Tour de France
When Evenepoel lined up for this Giro d’Italia, the expectation was that he might echo Eddy Merckx’s 1968 victory by claiming the maglia rosa on the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. Instead, he emulates Merckx’s doomed 1969 Giro by leaving the race while wearing the pink jersey. It must be stressed, however, that Merckx was expelled from that Giro because he tested positive for a doping substance, which is very different to Evenepoel’s voluntary withdrawal after testing positive for a virus.
It’s too soon to say what Evenepoel will do next, and everything depends on the severity of his infection and the speed of his recovery, but his early departure from the Giro suddenly raises the prospect of a Tour de France debut in July.
The route doesn’t suit his qualities and Evenepoel’s preparation would hardly be ideal, but that might even be part of the appeal. The Belgian could start the race ostensibly with an eye to preparing for the World Championships and enjoy something of a ‘free shot’ against Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) before returning for keeps in 2024.
Then again, QuickStep tried this tack before when they sent Evenepoel to the 2021 Giro for his first race back after breaking his pelvis the previous year, and the outcome was a chastening one. A gradual build-up to the Glasgow Worlds followed by a return to defend his Vuelta a España crown seems a more logical way for Evenepoel to see out his 2023 season.
Ineos versus Roglič
The only certainty at this early juncture, of course, is that Evenepoel’s abandon utterly changes the complexion of the Giro. The race was long billed as a duel between the Belgian and Roglič, though the strength of the Ineos Grenadiers leaders, Geraint Thomas and Tao Geoghegan Hart, this weekend suggested that the fight for pink was more open than originally anticipated.
Now the nature of the contest has been dramatically altered. With Evenepoel removed from the picture, just five seconds separate the top three riders on GC. Thomas inherits the maglia rosa – even if he will be reticent to wear it on Tuesday – while Roglič now lies second at two seconds with Geoghegan Hart a further three seconds back.
João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates), meanwhile, is now within 22 seconds of the pink jersey, while men like Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe), Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious) and Jay Vine (UAE Team Emirates) have all suddenly drawn 45 seconds closer to the lead too. All will believe a little more when the race resumes on Tuesday.
Evenepoel’s victory in the opening time trial in Ortona suggested that he was in a different league to everybody else in the Giro, but his difficulties over the weekend gave his rivals ample reason to hope. His abandon now blows the race wide open.
Roglič’s individual gifts make him a logical favourite to carry pink to Rome, but Ineos’ collective strength is imposing. Thomas, with his experience and cussedness, and Geoghegan Hart, with his form and growing assurance, both have the ability to win this race. Even without Evenepoel, a gripping contest is in prospect.
Anything can happen at the Giro, in other words, and it usually does. On this Giro, it already has.
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