Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by Zac Williams/SWpix.com
One of the narratives of the Classics season has been the failure of the Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl to compete for the titles that have long been their hallmark as a team. Since Fabio Jakobsen’s victory at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on 27 February, they’d gone the thick end of two months without a Classics success, and their chances of reversing that trend at Liège-Bastogne-Liège was much diminished when world champion Julian Alaphilippe crashed heavily with 58km remaining of La Doyenne, sustaining injuries that led to him being taken to Liège in an ambulance.
Yet, just as Liège appeared to be settling into its well-established format, with the main contenders eyeing each other until the final climb of La Roche-aux-Faucons, Remco Evenepoel served up something quite different and totally thrilling with a performance that breathed new life into the old race.
Sitting in behind teammate Mauri Vansevenant as the lead group – much reduced in size by that Alaphilippe crash in which 25 riders went down – passed the memorial to the Franco-Austrian war of 1792, towards the top of the penultimate climb of La Redoute, Evenepoel suddenly darted to the left. Accelerating already, he stood on the pedals – the only moment he did so during the entirety of his 29-kilometre attack – and shot by Vansevenant, his burst of power so strong that his rear wheel struggled for traction and briefly left him weaving. Then he was off.
For 20 seconds or so, EF Education-Easy Post’s Neilson Powless just about clung to his wheel, the remains of the group of favourites lined out behind him. That was until the American either decided that Evenepoel’s attack was too premature to be worth following or, more likely, simply didn’t have horse power to stay with it and fell back.
As the young Belgian’s lead over his rivals began to open, he picked off rider after rider who’d been in the breakaway, never pausing behind a single one for even a brief moment of recuperation. The last of them was Groupama-FDJ’s Bruno Armirail, currently one of the strongest domestiques in the peloton. The Frenchman slotted in behind Evenepoel and began to fuel up.
Any other rider would have taken advantage of the company of the hard-riding Armirail to collaborate. But Evenepoel wasn’t interested. He ploughed on at the front, pushing the duo’s advantage up to more than 30 seconds as they neared La Roche-aux-Faucons. Armirail may have been expecting a flick of the elbow to encourage him to come through, but he never got one.
As the pair swept onto the lower slopes of the final ascent, exactly the kind of steep climb where Evenepoel has come undone in the past, including earlier this month at the Itzulia (Tour of the Basque Country), Armirail hung on doggedly for a couple of hundred metres or so until the fatigue he’d accumulated from being at the front for more than 200 kilometres finally told. The Frenchman slipped back and the only question now was whether the group behind had the climbing firepower to bring Evenepoel back into line before the summit of La Roche-aux-Faucons.
Led by Bahrain Victorious and Movistar, they started up it around 35 seconds in arrears and it soon became clear that this was far too much of a cushion to allow the young Belgian. Thrusts by Michael Woods, Aleksandr Vlasov and Flèche Wallonne winner Dylan Teuns trimmed Evenepoel’s lead back to 24 seconds at the top of the false flat above La Roche-aux-Faucons, from where 10 mainly downhill kilometres remained to the line.
Like Annemiek van Vleuten, who had attacked on La Roche-aux-Faucons and gained a similar gap in the women’s race a few hours earlier, Evenepoel is far too strong a time triallist to yield an advantage like that unless the chase behind is well organised and fully committed. It wasn’t in either case, and as a result both of these riders actually increased their lead on the drop into Liège, where van Vleuten took her second victory in the race and Evenepoel his first on what was his debut appearance, making him, at 22, the youngest Liège victor since Valère Van Sweevelt in 1968 and the youngest winner of any Monument since Jean-Pierre Monséré won the Tour of Lombardy later that same year.
While these stats back up the extraordinariness of Evenepoel’s victory, the fact that he managed to cast aside contemporary logic on how to race and win the oldest of the Monuments and the way that he did it was far more impressive. Belgian Eric Van Lancker’s victory in 1990 was the last solo success to be forged with a break from so far out. In emulating his compatriot, Evenepoel reminded us that La Redoute can still be as decisive now as it was for a long time following its introduction in 1974.
Remco’s success also added a final and entirely fitting flourish to what’s been a thrilling spring Classics campaign. It began with van Vleuten and van Aert winning enthralling editions of Het Nieuwsblad at the back of end of February, continued with Matej Mohorič’s dropper-post-propelled dive to success at Milan-Sanremo, saw Tadej Pogačar and Lotte Kopecky offer brilliant demonstrations of verve at Strade Bianche, then Mathieu van der Poel and Kopecky produce winning sprints at the Tour of Flanders, Michał Kwiatkowski and Marta Cavalli upset the favourites at Amstel, and then Elisa Longo Borghini and Dylan van Baarle doing the same at Paris-Roubaix. It’s concluded with two more equally electrifying displays at Liège. What a two months it’s been!