‘The ideal situation’ – Remco Evenepoel loses Giro d’Italia lead but remains focal point

 Remco Evenepoel on stage 4 at the Giro d'Italia

Remco Evenepoel on stage 4 at the Giro d’Italia

Two minutes had already ticked by on the clock when Remco Evenepoel crossed the line at Lago Laceno on stage 4 of the Giro d’Italia. As planned, he had rid himself of both the maglia rosa and its associated post-stage duties, but even without those burdens, the world champion was never going to be able to drift anonymously back into civilian life.

It probably didn’t help that the only camouflage on hand was the long-sleeve rainbow jersey handed to him by a soigneur. Evenepoel was still in the process of covering his maglia rosa with it when a string of television cameras knotted tightly around him. “No, I’ve been giving interviews to you every day,” he said, shaking his head.

After finding a clearing, Evenepoel rode towards his Soudal-QuickStep team bus a kilometre or so away, leaving the constituent parts of the Remco-Media Complex little option but to jog after him and strike up camp outside. Aurélien Paret-Peintre won the stage, and Andreas Leknessund now leads the race, but Evenepoel remains the biggest show in town.

Ahead of the stage, Evenepoel had made it clear that he would welcome the chance to loan out his maglia rosa, but the tendering process here was surely more demanding than he and his team would have liked.

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On a dank, chilly day in the southern Apennines, it took more than two hours of fierce attacking for an acceptable break to forge clear. On the final haul up the Colle Molella, meanwhile, Evenepoel’s teammates were distanced one by one, leaving the Belgian surprisingly isolated in the closing kilometres.

Still, Evenepoel finished safely in the same time as all of his key rivals, and he managed to pass off the lead to Leknessund while doing enough to finish the day in second place overall, just 28 seconds down on the DSM rider. The desired outcome, even if the process hadn’t been entirely smooth.

“It’s not us who decide, it’s the peloton that decides,” directeur sportif Klaas Lodewyck told the reporters assembled outside the bus. “Leknessund is a rider who can keep the jersey, and his team can control the jersey on the coming days. He’s the right rider for us.”

When it comes to Evenepoel coverage, no detail is too minor to overlook, and Lodewyck found himself fielding an earnest question about his rider’s decision to wear legwarmers for much of the stage. “There was rain today,” he said. “He chose to stay warm.”

Later, Lodewyck opted for a very generous interpretation of Evenepoel’s isolation on the upper reaches of the Colle Molella. “We spent a lot of energy in the first part of the race,” he said. “In the end, we saw that Remco was good, so we told the other riders to take it easy on the climb.”

No pressure

Louis Vervaeke had a slightly less varnished version of events when he emerged from the bus and sat into the team car waiting to drive him ahead to the evening’s hotel, forty minutes down the road in Serino.

“I think some of our climbers didn’t have their best day, and I think that complicated things a little bit,” Vervaeke said. “I think I would have had the legs to be with the bunch if I hadn’t had to ride on the flat before the climb. It wasn’t the ideal scenario, but it wasn’t a cause for panic either.”

Outside the bus, meanwhile, directeur sportif Davide Bramati was darting here and there, talking animatedly on his telephone one minute and arranging cars to ferry his riders off the mountain the next.

With Evenepoel’s emergence seemingly imminent, the reporters returned to their previous vigil at the steps of the team bus. The world champion arrived wrapped in a hoodie and clutching a recovery meal, pausing to speak in French and Dutch before climbing into a car.

“There’s nothing to complain about, losing the jersey isn’t serious,” Evenepoel said. “The situation is ideal, because it’s only 20-odd seconds, and we’re still second on GC, so the team car still has its place near the back of the peloton. It’s perfect.”

Like Lodewyck, Evenepoel downplayed his isolation on the final climb, where he was severely outnumbered by his rivals. “It’s not serious, eh. That happens,” he said. “It was a very hard stage. There was a 44.5kph average across the first two hours over an undulating course, so it wasn’t easy at all. But my legs were good, and my sensations were too, so I’m happy.

“The team really suffered in the first two hours. We knew it was a stage where there would be a lot of early attacking to get in the break, so it was very hard from the start. Personally, I was trying to economise my efforts in the finale.”

Ineos forced the pace in the closing kilometres, though Geraint Thomas explained their intention was to control the race rather than blow it open. As Domenico Pozzovivo had predicted, the GC men kept their swords in their scabbards on the first mountains of the Giro.

“When Ineos started riding, it didn’t even feel very difficult,” said Evenepoel, who smiled when asked if losing the pink jersey had lifted some pressure: “I never feel the pressure.”

It had, however, freed Evenepoel from the podium protocol and the extended media duties of the race leader, at least until Friday’s stage to Campo Imperatore.

“That’s very welcome, although I’m still wasting time with you now,” he grinned before making his way towards the waiting car. “No, I’m going to the hotel quickly to find my bed.”