How Remco Evenepoel learned to master the art of leading and suffering

The chance is increasing for Remco Evenepoel to win the Vuelta. If he succeeds, he owes it not only to his extraordinary physical abilities, but also to the way in which, as a leader/sufferer, he drives himself and his teammates to (literally and figuratively) greater heights.

When Remco Evenepoel lost 42 seconds to Primoz Roglic over a distance of just 1.1km on Saturday at the Sierra de la Pandera, after the attack of Primoz Roglic, the Vuelta seemed to turn completely for a while. Two days after his fall, the Quick-Step rider, with kinesio taping on his hamstring and a thick bandage on his thigh, did not have the strength he had displayed the two weeks before – although he had wisely hidden this in his comments beforehand.

It was a moment when a rider still only 22 years old could have collapsed. As much because of the physical suffering as the psychological pressure, on his ninth day as leader of the classification.

The opposite turned out to be true: in the remaining three kilometers Evenepoel did not panic and gave only six seconds to Primoz Roglic. Damage limited to 48 points (plus four bonus seconds). Red jersey saved, even by a wide margin.

Afterwards, Schepdaalnaar remained remarkably zen in his interviews, realizing that his bad/bad day was largely the result of his fall and its aftermath.

‘Nothing can break me’ look

Although in the knowledge that the toughest test was yet to come, the next day, against a height of 2512 meters, on the Sierra Nevada. With the realization that Primoz Roglic and his Jumbo-Vismate team with renewed courage would put even more pressure on him on the final climb, already in the first four or five steep kilometers.

Whatever happened. Although very clumsy, because Sam Oomen accelerated far too quickly, so that he cut off the breath of his teammate Rohan Dennis and Roglic did not benefit from the ‘drafting’ either.

When Oomen in turn dropped out, Chris Harper took over and then the Slovenian himself, Evenepoel remained glued to Roglic’s wheel. After which he himself took the lead, 17.5 km from the summit. And then back for a moment, with a steely ‘nothing can break me’ look. Just as he had done before, on Pico de Jano, on Colláu Fancuaya, on Les Praeres de Nava.

This time enough to kill Roglic’s appetite for attack. Also by imposing a constant pace afterwards. A little later helped by teammate Louis Vervaeke, who was able to make a decisive head turn on the less steep parts of today’s flight.

The vulnerable Evenepoel from the Sierra de la Pandera was no more. Certainly not the dominant Remco of a week before, as it turned out when Enric Mas later drove away, leaving the Schepdaal man behind. Partly because of the realization that he had a bigger margin in the standings on the Spaniard than on Roglic. That he stayed in Evenepoel’s group was also a sign that the Slovenian didn’t have the legs from the day before, as he clung to the Belgian’s wheel for miles.

In the final kilometer the Jumbo-Visma rider accelerated, resulting in him making up fifteen seconds on Evenepoel. Again, and even more than at Sierra de la Pandera, he had limited the damage, like an experienced GC rider.

Which, especially in his head, never broke. The art of suffering on Saturday and the art of leading on Sunday had been executed almost perfectly. Whereas previously, Evenepoel himself admitted, on such days he would have been blocked by a mental short circuit. After Sierra Nevada, however, he was proud: ‘I won the mental game.’

Crucial learning process

That learning process will determine the rest of his career and his future on grand tours. Knowledge that he can keep calm. After two teammates (Pieter Serry and Julian Alaphilippe) gave up. After a fall. After a minor moment on a final climb. Under the permanent threat of a corona infection. Under the pressure of his own dream and of a cycling nation longing for a Belgian victory in a Grand Tour.

Not to forget: how Evenepoel communicates almost perfectly, that everything in this Vuelta, and all year round, to the outside world. It was sometimes different in the past. But he has also mastered that art perfectly.

Like the one who leads The Wolfpack. There is not a single interview where he explicitly and sincerely thanked his teammates. Evenepoel even apologized to teammates for his fall through the ear on Thursday.

Positive leadership that he also shows internally, making his wolf packs walk through fire for him. For example, the reaction of Ilan Van Wilder was significant on Saturday, to Evenepoel’s Instagram post about his ‘hard day at the office’ in the Sierra de la Pandera.

‘Let’s go boy. We’re all here for you,’ Van Wilder replied. Nota bene also a rider of only 22 years who has stood in the shadow of his compatriot since the juniors despite his own unmistakable great talent.

He now puts that at the service of his captain. Like Louis Vervaeke, also once heralded as the new Belgian round hope, finds himself fully back in the work he can do for Evenepoel. His reaction after Sunday’s ride was also very telling: ‘It was nice to see Remco going with his killer look in his eyes with Mas and Roglic at the wheel. Goosebumps when Remco sat in my wheel at Sierra Nevada. Then you have so much energy to drive up the last climb in front of the leader.’

Master of his destiny

The surrender of his teammates, his own mental peace, is the result of a process that Evenepoel started in the winter after his fall in Lombardy, he read books on psychology, on the advice of team psychologist Michaël Verschaeve. Including ‘Master your Mindset’ by the Dutch Pole Michael Pilarczyk.

About the power of right or wrong thoughts and how you can break these thought patterns by reprogramming your thinking. So you remain the captain of your soul even in minor moments, even in chaos. And then also master of your destiny, as William Ernest Henley wrote in 1875 in his famous poem ‘Invictus’ – Latin for invincible.

Whether Evenepoel remains like that for the next six days, until Madrid, remains to be seen. But he has already achieved a victory: on his thinking. And to all the skeptics who thought he would never learn.

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