Remco Evenepoel will make his debut at Il Lombardia on Saturday, arguably the sport's toughest Monument Classic, yet the 20-year-old Belgian wonder kid seemed at ease with the tag of pre-race favourite, quietly confident that he has the form to defeat the likes of two-time winner Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix).
Evenepoel travelled early to northern Italy and reconned the final 130km of the hilly route between Bergamo and Como on Wednesday. He then rode some of the route again with his teammates on Thursday, to learn the secrets of the key climbs and perhaps decide where and how he would make his own attack.
Evenepoel has already won nine races in 2020 and dominated the recent Tour de Pologne, elevating his status even higher, only Milan-San Remo winner Wout Van Aert is now on the same level and adored in the same way by the Belgian media. The Tour de Pologne was intended to put him in peak form for Il Lombardia and overall victory only fueled his natural self-confidence.
Evenepoel has seemed destined for greatness ever since dominating races as a junior only shortly after switching from football to cycling. He only turned professional with Deceuninck-QuickStep in 2019 but went on to win the Baloise Belgium Tour, the Clásica San Sebastián, the European time trial championships and finish second in the world time trial championship. He has an unbeaten ruin in 2020 stage races, winning the Vuelta a San Juan, the Volta ao Algarve and after the COVID-19 lockdown the Vuelta a Burgos in Spain and the Tour de Pologne. His run of victories have elevated him to the bookmakers favourite for the Giro d'Italia, above Nibali and 2019 winner Carapaz but even that does not seem to affect him.
"If I'm a favourite maybe it's my own fault…" Evenepoel joked in a video press conference on Thursday morning.
"I feel really, really good, my preparation was very good, so I'm in the best shape of the season so far. It's perfect timing. For a six-hour race with a lot of climbing, I think you need to be in good shape and I think we did a perfect job."
"I think it's part of my personality not to feel any pressure, I only put pressure on myself," he said with an innocent but sincere shrug of the shoulders.
"I just like challenges for myself and to get ready for them. When I have goals, I know I'll be ready that day. Of course there's still the race situation and you need a bit of luck, but I try to feel the least pressure possible."
Evenepoel seemed genuinely excited about making his debut in one of cycling big five one-day Monuments.
"Il Lombardia means a lot to me, it's up there with Liège-Bastogne-Liège, so it's really special to be here. After checking the course I'm happier, too, because it really suits me," he said.
"There's no real recovery points in the last three hours of racing, it's going to be hot and sunny, which I like, I'm really exited to start. The team is ready too and in good shape, so we all have faith for Saturday.
"I've always watched Il Lombardia on television but now I'm in it myself for the first time. Hopefully, I can say after Saturday that something special happened. I hope I can make memories."
Taking on Nibali
Evenepoel's success has already secured praise and admiration from Vincenzo Nibali. They will also face off at the Giro d'Italia in October and be direct rivals on Saturday. The veteran Italian won Il Lombardia in 2015 and 2017 and is targeting the race as part of an all-Italian race programme. Nibali has not impressed since his return to racing but Evenepoel showed respect for his Lombardia pedigree.
"He knows the race inside and out. You can never say Nibali in not a favourite," he said.
"There's Fuglsang and some others – I still need to check the full start list. There's Mollema, too, who won last year and if you win a race, you're always one of the favourites, even if I think Trek will play the Nibali card 100 per cent."
Deceuninck-QuickStep have selected a mix of youth and experience to support Evenepoel at Il Lombardia, while Julian Alaphilippe leads another squad at the Critérium du Dauphiné. The Belgian team is likely to force a selection over the Ghisallo and the steep Muro di Sormano before Evenepoel perhaps tries to launch a solo attack on the Civiglio climb with 20km to go, just like Nibali did in 2017.
"The final, the last 80km, is super hard; starting with Ghisallo, it doesn’t really include anymore flat roads. The finish is kind of uphill because whoever is first at the top of San Fermo will descend to the finish in Como. But I think the race will be decided before the final climb," Evenepoel predicted.
"I have confidence in the team and in myself. If there are two or three teammates with me over the Muro di Sormano, then we can control the race. After the descent of the Sormano there is just 38km left. Whoever is left there will decide the race.
"My form is good, my legs are goods and my head is good. We're ready."