A little less than a year ago, in the QuickStep team bus at a Vuelta a España start, the usual techno music that been blasting out every morning for Remco Evenepoel and his teammates for three weeks was suddenly turned down.
“It was the day of the final mountain stage, and we did that because we were feeling so tense,” Louis Vervaeke says now. “We really realized how much we didn’t want to lose the leader’s jersey at the last moment.
“Up to then, we had been focusing on the day to day. But that morning, we got really worried we’d lose everything, just when the win was so close.”
If the momentousness of the occasion all but got to Evenepoel, Vervaeke and the rest of the QuickStep squad on the morning of stage 20 of the 2022 Vuelta, it was only logical. Evenepoel was not just on the point of taking his biggest race to date, he was also within touching distance of ending a four-decades-and-counting drought for Belgium in the Grand Tours. In a country as obsessed with the sport, the sense of anticipation was massive.
But while the techno music stopped, the Remco beat went right on that day on the Vuelta, and all the way through to Madrid 24 hours later, and his landmark triumph.
Eleven months on, both Evenepoel and Vervaeke, one of his main support climbers at the 2022 Vuelta and the Giro in May, will be present again at the Vuelta start on Saturday in Barcelona. But as Vervaeke tells Cyclingnews, even if Remco´s place in history as the rider who ended Belgium’s agonisingly long wait between Grand Tour wins is now set in stone, the pressure on the country’s star rider to win in Spain again could be even higher than last September.
“On the one hand yes, it’s less stress, but on the other hand some of the Belgian media say we cannot lose,” Vervaeke points out.
“So it’s always a two-edged question. The pressure’s less, but if Remco maybe finishes behind [Jonas] Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma), or if he does a good Vuelta but doesn’t win, then for some media, it will have been a bad race.
“The Tour de France [next year] will be very different, even with Vingegaard. But I think people have to realise that if you can finish on the podium or take a top five in a Grand Tour, it’s also not a bad race, especially if you win some stages.”
Warming to his argument, Vervaeke points out that the original 2023 Remco masterplan was to do the Giro d’Italia and then the World Championships then pull down the curtain on the high-profile goals. “The Vuelta…