the prodigy and his discontents
2022 men's elite world championship road race
After I learned, at 2:06 in the morning, that Remco Evenepoel had won the World Championships, I immediately logged onto Twitter, where I was not disappointed. Indeed, the Belgian boy wonder, whose exploits incite perhaps the most combative discourse on social media, had done so again: suspicion abounded. Complaints of domination were intertwined with overt negging. Cycling was once again declared “boring” and “over.”
As a journalist, and thus a public figure in the sport, I often bear the brunt of these comments because I am seen as some kind of authority or worse, as a direct conduit to the riders themselves. I become embedded within the discourse every time I post something regardless if I consent to a debate.This is Twitter, after all. Hence, if you’ll allow me to sample from my lived experience, I’d wager to say that no rider in contemporary cycling is more divisive than Remco Evenepoel.
Remco Discourse™ is a curious phenomenon. On the one hand, Evenepoel has his rabid fan base, often along nationalistic lines. This is likened by his detractors to the blind, chauvinistic adherence shown by fans of Max Verstappen in Formula 1. On the other, he has (especially in the Anglophone sphere) an army of haters. I won’t even call them haters — it’s more passive aggressive than that, more performatively deliberative.
Hate itself is a rare thing in contemporary cycling (I’m working on an essay about this as we speak) but passive aggression is inherent. So when Remco assumes a similar win condition as Pogačar or van der Poel, which is to say a Hail Mary solo time trial to victory, it’s boring. When he expresses an opinion, no matter how benign, he’s arrogant. When he wins, it’s suspicious. When he loses, it’s his own pigheaded fault. When he’s in tears on the Vuelta podium after being the first Belgian grand tour winner in decades, the reaction is patronizing: Just look at what this young man has done for himself. Or, good for him, but I’m not a fan.
The legs, however, speak for themselves. Evenepoel has had a dream season. He proved he can do it all. He won two one-week stage races (Tour of Norway and Volta ao Algarve), a grand tour (La Vuelta, plus two stages), Belgian Time Trial Nationals (and three other ITT stages followed by a bronze medal in Worlds), Gullegem Koerse, Classica San Sebastian, a monument (Liège-Bastogne-Liège) and now, the World Championships. Even cycling’s papal figure, Eddy Merckx emerged from the shadows to finally give Evenepoel his blessing. There is no denying this young man his glory, regardless of how one feels about him.
Many of Evenepoel’s win conditions are similar: get in a small group (or break away from the peloton) during a race’s mid- or endgame, attack, and then time trial like hell. This is, in fact, how he won the World Championships.
The race began, as has been the case in the last three editions of the Worlds, with a French Offensive. This time, it was Pacher who pulled out a small gap on Mount Pleasant around the 75km mark, thus causing a split. An underrated tactician, Evenepoel merely slipped into where he needed to be. As though testing the waters, he jumped off the front a handful of times with 50km to go, but this was too early and he was brought back.
In Worlds, riders are not allowed to have radios. This explains many of the seemingly baffling decisions made by individuals now reliant on their own instincts and the instincts of their teammates. All it takes is one moment of questioning, of hesitation or inattention, and suddenly the race is gone and you’re left trying to scramble for answers without the guidance of an all-knowing, digitally connected sports director.
Thus the Pacher move became a tricky situation for many teams who had riders such as Pavel Sivakov or Jai Hindley — talented cyclists, but not really potential winners on a punchy parcours such as this — up front. Evenepoel, too, had a pair of teammates with him which helped to neutralize the situation in his favor. With 35 kilometers to go, right on the button, the young Belgian attacked. It wasn’t even an explosive detonation, more of a concerted acceleration, but it was enough. For a moment, only Alexey Lutsenko could follow — and it was a moment, five kilometers in the grand scheme of 266. The second the pair hit the slopes of Mount Pleasant, it was over. Remco escaped. Lutsenko couldn’t hang on.
When Evenepoel crossed the line, he put a finger to his lips, a message to both the fans and media that have been dogging him since his seemingly arrogant Worlds exploits in Leuven a year ago. (This, of course, inspired an outpouring of tut-tutting and bitterness on social media, which immediately compared this act to Mohorič’s infamous zipped lips.)
The gesture, however, is somewhat understandable. For years, Evenepoel has been hyped up to be the second coming of Belgian cycling greatness and as a result, a veritable entourage of journalists remain dedicated to him alone. But the thing is, Evenepoel has unequivocally delivered on those promises. This exposes yet another interesting phenomenon: Many fans really, really didn’t want him to fulfill the hype. We hate neat, nicely tied up stories. He’s the wrong prodigal son, we want a more likable one. As a result, Evenepoel’s deliverance has often been perceived as insouciance. This is one of many instances where contemporary cycling is revealed to be a psychologically bizarre sport, perhaps the only sport where repeat winners are routinely disdained. (Again, more on this another time.)
Through my surveying a myriad of negative fan perspectives on Evenepoel, my hypothesis is that the dislike has something to do with the fact that Evenepoel is not “a cyclist” — he does not behave in the way “a cyclist” behaves: a kind of Calvinist, self-flagellating beacon of hard work, humility and suffering, never angry, never haughty, always accepting, quiet, and pleasant. No, Remco Evenepoel is a pure sportsman. He is an elite athlete, a winner, a hawk. His job is to be good at sports, not diplomacy.
Famously, Evenepoel was once a successful footballer before he ever took to the bike, and indeed he is more footballer in disposition than “cyclist.” People also hate this. Football is often presented — usually via the always credible medium of quote tweets — as the antithesis to everything cycling stands for, a sport full of melodramatic pretty boys always crying foul play, vain men who have gone soft from money and fame. Hence, Evenepoel uttering a single complaint or protesting the constant media circus following him around is simply footballer behavior for which there is no place in our Hallowed Sport. As a fan of many other sports in which, unlike cycling, trash talk and conflict is a healthy part of fandom, I think this is silly and our outrage is best reallocated elsewhere.
Thus we arrive at the final phenomenon of Remco Discourse™: Whether one supports or loathes him, it remains almost impossible to look at Remco Evenepoel as an individual with hopes, dreams, beliefs and experiences all his own. The 22-year-old is always a sacrificial lamb at the alter of something bigger than himself. Many perceptions and discussions around him have become irrevocably intertwined with outside anxieties (e.g. age, propriety) and allegiances: he cannot be seen independent of the country of Belgium and its cycling pedigree and, especially since Leuven, he has been ruthlessly juxtaposed to Wout van Aert, a man seven years older who has the advantage of many seasons’ worth of narrative, emotional investment, and personal development.
Ultimately, if I had to guess, what makes many fans the most angry is that Remco doesn’t give a shit and his team supports him in this. He refuses to be assimilated, refuses — this time successfully — to play second fiddle to Van Aert, to Belgium, to Merckx, to the Hallowed Sport.
In other words, Remco Evenepoel is a true time trialist. He is simply riding his own race.
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If you look through the (mostly polite!) comments on this tweet I made and on the follow up tweets in the thread, it is like looking into a petri dish of Remco Discourse.
Thanks Kate, couldn’t agree more. For some reason, Pog’s prodigiousness makes him endearing while Remco’s makes him obnoxious. Maybe Remco just needs to release some questionable music videos?