Remco Evenepoel shows up in the hotel cafeteria after his massage, apologising for the 20-minute delay, an occurrence that's part and parcel in the day-to-day life of a cycling journalist, where the waiting room is an everyday place. He speaks unhurriedly and does it very well, with an honest reflection and a maturity unbefitting his age.
The Volta a Catalunya has been the scene of the reunion with Primož Roglič, his great rival in last year's Vuelta a España until the Slovenian had to abandon after a fall in the 16th stage. Once again they are the two favourites to win a Grand Tour title, this time at the Giro d'Italia. Which is why the Volta a Catalunya became a very important final rehearsal, from which clearer conclusions will be drawn from each rider's successes and mistakes.
The feeling of tension, the importance of the meeting, and the level of performance each demanded from the other was palpable from the first metre of the race to the end. In head-to-head battle each of them was tested, pushing the limit and finding weaknesses in each other and themselves. Evenepoel was aggressive, testing all the possible scenarios he might find in Italy, still discovering himself; Roglič was conservative, with the security and calmness that comes from experience. The result was an absolute domination of the race, with daily battles, two stage victories for each, the overall classification for Roglič and second place for the Belgian just six seconds behind.
"I understand that Primož didn't want to give me turns, but it would have been nice to fight for the victory between the two of us today." Three hours have passed since Australian sprinter Kaden Groves' victory on stage six of the Volta, which Evenepoel once again tried to animate without Roglič passing him. I turn the recorder on....
This week has been like a test from start to finish.
"That's right, we tested the 'climbing train' for the Giro on the stage I won in La Molina. Also the attack in the middle of the climb, like the one on the sixth stage, as well as the sprint both at the finish [ed. he was fifth] and in the intermediate sprint with 8km to go [ed. he won over Roglič and Marc Soler]. It was a good test. We have also been testing everything in relation to nutrition, drinks, staff. It was like a one-week Grand Tour for us."
Evenepoel and Roglič fought for every stage (Image by Getty Images)
And what conclusions do you draw?
"I think I still have a margin of improvement of 5% in terms of fitness and other things like watching my weight, which is good news because there are still three weeks to go until the Giro and that's enough time to improve. My team-mates are very good and we have a very good atmosphere, so the conclusions of this week are only positive."
It was clear from your victory on stage three that you were hungry to win. How much value did the team's work and winning over Primož Roglič add to your victory?
"It was a very good day for us because it showed us that the team is capable of pulling the peloton for a long time on long climbs. I knew that if I wanted to win the stage I needed to make the race harder, and that climb was 20km at 5-6%, and we were at 2000m altitude which made it hard for everyone. I had made mistakes in the first two stages: first by launching the sprint from too far away and the next day by not calculating the distance between the last corner and the finish. I had the feeling that I was missing the chance to give something back to my team-mates in return for their work.
"That morning I woke up and told my team-mate Louis Vervaeke: 'today has to be the day, no matter what; if I don't win I'll be very angry with myself'. Everyone could see how hungry I was to win and I felt so capable of doing it. We went very fast at the start of the climb because it was the hardest part for 5km. It was very effective that my team-mates were pulling the peloton for 70 km and I took control of the race in the last 10 minutes. It all came down to the sprint and I won over Primož, who is also very fast. It was a very nice win, and thinking about the team as a whole, I think it was the most special win I've ever had."
Roglič 'gifted' the last stage to the world champion (Image by Getty Images)
In the Volta a Catalunya you stole the limelight from a whole peloton. Has anyone come to complain that the race was blocked by your rivalry?
"Not really. I think Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) was very happy to win the second stage. It's true that I provoked all the attacks and the only one to respond was Primož. Right now we are a step above the rest and I think they know that and they are fighting for third place, but in the Giro it can be a completely different story: you can get sick, you can encounter many complications on the route, explosive stages. It would be a mistake to think that we will be above everyone else in that race as well. You have to be careful with expectations and with that mentality. I think there will be riders in very good physical shape in Italy and we shouldn't make the mistake of only looking at two."
You've raced 21 days since the start of the season, don't you miss wearing your world champion's jersey more?
"Yes, of course. That's one of the reasons why I will race in Liège, which was in doubt in my programme at the beginning because it will be one of the few occasions I can wear it. As was the case here at the end, I'm wearing the best young rider's jersey overall and it could be the case in the Giro as well. At least I can see the rainbow on my bib shorts and on my beautiful bike, and that always helps. But it's true, I'm sorry I can't wear it more."
Speaking of Liège, it will be an entertaining meeting with Tadej Pogačar, have you seen him racing lately?
"Yes, it's a great motivation to see him racing. Climbing in Paris-Nice, then pure explosiveness in the pavé Classics. It's spectacular to see him do almost anything. It's always special to race against riders like Pogačar because you know he's going to fight for it and he's not going to settle. Still, what motivates me the most for Liège is to start with the number one jersey as the last winner there, wearing the world champion's jersey and in my country."
Evenepoel wearing his rainbow jersey at San Juan earlier this year (Image by James Startt)
What are your plans after Liège?
"I will start with a few quiet days to recover from this race and then I will go back to Tenerife to spend another 20 days with practically the same group as last time. After Liège I'll go to Syncrosfera [hotel for athletes with hypoxia service in the rooms] in Denia and I'll spend another 10 days there, and then straight to Italy. It will be almost 41 days at altitude after the Volta, which is a tough preparation on a mental level."
Excellence and demand go with him. A sportsman almost from the cradle, Evenepoel knows how to do nothing but set himself goals and work hard for them. Now back in training, he prepares calmly, quietly, and with precision to achieve his maximum without missing a single detail. The countdown to the Giro d'Italia began on Montjuïc.
Cover image: Getty Images