At the Vuelta a España stage 13 summit of the Col du Tourmalet on Friday evening, the protocol ceremonies were all but winding down and the crowds were beginning to move away when a knot of nine riders passed behind the line of photographers and the winners’ podium.
Evenepoel and his team did not need the booming commentaries of the Vuelta podium speakers congratulating the winners and jersey holders to tell them what they already knew.
More than 27 minutes down – and within 10 minutes of the time cut for the stage – the day started to unravel badly for Remco Evenepoel on the first major climb of the day, the Col d’Aubisque, where he was dropped alongside fellow GC hopeful João Almeida (UAE Emirates).
Over the 90km slog left to the finish, Almeida fared better, managing to limit his losses to just under seven minutes. But for Evenepoel, the situation was impossible to save. After his bitter exit from the Giro d’Italia after catching COVID-19 while leading the race, his attempted fightback and defence of his 2022 Vuelta title had proved to be impossible
In the mish-mash of team cars some 300 metres on from the summit, Soudal-QuickStep did their best to give their defeated leader and his teammates some kind of protection from the dozen or so reporters who waited for Evenepoel to arrive.
Barriers were placed between two team cars to create a camera and microphone-free zone, opening only for the riders to wheel their bikes inside, receive some warm clothing and a first recovery drink, before heading down the mountain road to the team buses, waiting some 4km below.
His face, like his teammates, drawn and tired from the effort of more than 4,000 metres of climbing in just 134 kilometres, Evenepoel quickly spoke to team staff, one of whom helped him don a Belgian national champion’s rain jacket, and after just a couple of minutes inside the Soudal-QuickStep compound, he was ready to go.
One shouted comment or question from a journalist in Flemish was resolutely ignored, but then the makeshift barrier opened and the Belgian champion rode through the double line of journalists and away from the race, his descent initially traceable thanks to a smattering of applause from fans further down the mountainside as they saw him pedal past, but after that – silence.
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