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Remco Evenepoel had only just set out on his long, doleful journey home from the Giro d’Italia when the conversation already began to turn towards the prospects of his participation at the Tour de France. At least one Belgian site was already running a reader poll on the topic.
The world champion opted to target the Giro over the Tour last winter expressly because of the heftier amount of time trialling in the corsa rosa. His Tour debut, Evenepoel’s Soudal-QuickStep team insisted back then, would wait until 2024.
It remains to be seen if that stance will change after Evenepoel was forced to abandon his main objective of 2023 following his positive test for COVID-19 on Sunday evening. Despite that coronavirus infection, after all, Evenepoel had regained the maglia rosa in the stage 9 time trial to Cesena, and he will have left Italy with a profound sense of unfinished business.
It seems likely – though it’s far from certain at this point – that Evenepoel will now turn his attention to one of the remaining Grand Tours on the calendar, but Soudal-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere was understandably reluctant to engage with the idea until his rider recovers from his illness.
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“I’m not going to talk to you now about the Tour or the Vuelta,” Lefevere said, according to La Dernière Heure. “Once he has recovered and once he has digested his disappointment, we’ll sit down around a table and draw up a programme.”
Evenepoel’s initial post-Giro plans were focused around preparing for the defence of his world road title in Glasgow in August, and Belgian national coach Sven Vanthourenhout confirmed last week that he would also line up in the individual time trial.
The Glasgow Worlds would still fit relatively neatly with either a return to the Vuelta or an earlier than expected Tour debut. Those close to the 23-year-old, however, have noted his firm preference for meticulously planned, long-term projects – like his gradual approach to last year’s Vuelta a España – and so he may not be enamoured at the idea of going to the Tour at such short notice. A year ago, for instance, Evenepoel never seriously entertained the idea of being parachuted into the Tour team to replace the injured Julian Alaphilippe.
On the other hand, riding his maiden Tour in these circumstances and on a seemingly ill-suited route might give Evenepoel something of a free shot at testing himself against Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vinegaard ahead of a more targeted build-up in 2024. For now, however, that’s all newspaper talk, as Lefevere told Het Nieuwsblad on Monday.
“I understand that you have to fill daily newspapers, but I don’t wish to comment on that,” Lefevere said. “The Tour team has not been decided yet, except for a few names. The whole team around Remco is currently still at the Giro. He’ll recover first and then we’ll sit down together quietly, with Remco’s father too. If Remco calls and says, ‘I absolutely want to go to the Tour,’ then it’s something else. But he’s not going to do that.”
Evenepoel has become the third rider to leave the Giro while wearing the maglia rosa after Eddy Merckx in 1969 and Marco Pantani in 1999, though there is a very obvious and important distinction to be made between his case and the two historical precedents. While Merckx and Pantani were both expelled from the Giro, Evenepoel has withdrawn of his own volition for health reasons.
No matter, many in Belgium will undoubtedly point to how Merckx’s tearful departure from the 1969 Giro in Savona was followed weeks later by a most dominant victory on his Tour de France debut. The eventual decision of Evenepoel and his team, however, will be informed by the speed of his recovery rather than inspired by any parallels with history.
“Apparently, he had trouble sleeping last night because, at 1.35 am, we were sending text messages,” Lefevere said. “The tenor of them was: take a breath and look forward again. That’s what we’re going to do now: recover from the virus, take a few days’ rest and then sit quietly together and see what we’re going to do.”