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Remco Evenepoel: The Tour de France contender who might have played for Belgium at Euro 2024

Two storylines have been dominating Belgium’s back pages.

First, the make-up of Domenico Tedesco’s team for these European Championships — and in particular, a problem position at left-back, where Rennes centre-back Arthur Theate is expected to fill in.

Second? The physical condition of cyclist Remco Evenepoel, one of the three favourites to win the Tour de France, which begins on June 29. A victory for him there would be Belgium’s first in the race for 48 years.

The connection? In another world, Evenepoel as the Belgian left-back at Euro 2024 was a very real possibility.

The 24-year-old played for the academies of both Anderlecht and PSV Eindhoven, captaining Belgium up until under-16 level, and played with two of Belgium’s current squad: forwards Jeremy Doku and Lois Openda.

Other past team-mates included Arsenal pair Jakub Kiwior and Albert Sambi Lokonga, while he shared a private training coach with Youri Tielemans and Michy Batshuayi, who were older but from the same area of Brussels.

“He was at the highest level,” Bob Browaeys, Evenepoel’s coach with Belgium Under-16s, tells The Athletic. “I never had a player with such a high-performance mindset. That was unbelievable.”

This is the story of how football helped create one of the world’s biggest cycling stars.

Eden Hazard’s mouth is open and the mirrored sunglasses cannot hide the pain etched on his face.

The ex-Chelsea and Belgium superstar, famously averse to physical conditioning during his playing career, is cycling up the lunar slopes of Mont Ventoux, one of the sport’s most iconic climbs.

Clad in the kit of minor Belgian cycling team Intermarche-Wanty — the equivalent of turning up to five-a-side in a Leyton Orient shirt — his Instagram post is flooded with impressed messages. Thibaut Courtois, the Tour de France, and Evenepoel himself all have their say. “Fenomeno,” says Evenepoel.

Hazard’s post shows that, in Belgium, there are two sports of importance — cycling and football — and Evenepoel has lived them both. And despite Belgium’s golden football generation, the cyclists are invariably more beloved.

Eddy Merckx, widely considered the greatest cyclist of all time and another to comment on Hazard’s post, is Belgium’s greatest sporting son. In modernity, Evenepoel has won back-to-back Sportsman of the Year awards, despite the achievements and popularity of Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku. Wout van Aert, another cyclist, won the previous two.

Evenepoel’s father Patrick was a cyclist; not a major talent but still good enough to win the 1993 Fleche Wallone, a high-profile race in Belgium, before being forced into retirement with a heart condition. A great-grandfather, Frans Van Eeckhout, was also a professional. Remco, born in 2000, picked up their genes.

“At five years old, he accompanied me to the Gordel (a cycling tour around Brussels),” said Evenepoel’s grandfather Eduard in 2022. “He insisted on riding the 50 kilometers. He barely stopped twice. We had only removed the two stabilisers from his bike for a month.”

But Evenepoel’s first love was football, where he was a left-footed midfielder who amazed coaches with his ability to run. Diminutive and with a mop of shaggy hair, his first coaches nicknamed him “Smurf”.

“His gloves were bigger than his face,” former Anderlecht youth coach Marc Van Ransbeeck told Belgian newspaper DH. “He wanted to become a goalkeeper when he first joined and dreamed of being Daniel Zitka, the starter at that time.

“But he already ran very well and had incredible endurance — I always compared it to a moped.”

Evenepoel was quickly moved outfield, where he formed a midfield partnership with Sambi Lokonga, now at Arsenal. The cyclist is an Arsenal fan and was at the Emirates Stadium for their 5-0 win over Chelsea on April 23.

“Lokonga is actually in the team I dreamed of being in, so he’s actually made my dream come true,” Evenepoel said two years ago.

Lokonga himself is similarly impressed at his former team-mate’s exploits. Evenepoel won the Vuelta a Espana in 2022, one of cycling’s three Grand Tours, and would likely have won the Giro d’Italia the following year, which he was leading, if not for a Covid-19 diagnosis.

“He was one year below me but sometimes the 1999 and 2000 players trained together, and so he trained with me,” Lokonga tells The Athletic “It’s crazy what he’s done. I know that when he was young, when we had to run up and down, he was already one of the best so that maybe helped with the distances you ride when you are a cyclist.”

When Evenepoel was in the under-10s, his father showed Anderlecht coaches a document. It was his son’s stress test results. The doctor had left a comment in the margins: “Never seen that in my career”. His coaches’ response was that Evenepoel was displaying triathlete numbers — and they were not far wrong.

From an early age, Evenepoel was aware of some of the technical limitations in his game. He worked hard to improve his right foot, doing post-training ‘extras’ before he reached double-digits.

Nevertheless, his best attributes were always those where he didn’t need the ball at his feet: fitness and mentality.

“My style of play was a bit similar to how I ride a bike,” he has described. “I had a big engine and tried to cover every blade of grass.”

From 11 until 14, Evenepoel moved to the Netherlands to play in the academy of Dutch side PSV Eindhoven. His competitiveness was evident, frequently entering pitched table tennis battles with the father of his host family. However, in 2014, he moved back to Anderlecht for family reasons: his mother was ill in Brussels.

The same year, Evenepoel was called up to the Belgium Under-15s, which was the first time that Belgium Under-16 head coach Browaeys saw him play. The next year, when Evenepoel graduated, Brouwaeys kept him as captain.

“I spoke to him often in that role,” Browaeys tells The Athletic. “And I was always puzzled. He was so professional at such a young age; just 15, talking about his preparations for games, for his careers. He was special. Uncommon.”

“In the older age groups, you’re the right hand of the coach but that’s not always easy with the youth teams because they’re so young,” agrees Anderlecht coach Stephane Stassin, speaking to Cycling Weekly. “Remco, however, was the exception: he was effectively the right hand of the coach and he talked to his team-mates. When I asked him to do something, sometimes he would say that he had already talked with his team-mates and arranged what was needed.”

Though Browaeys kept Evenepoel as captain, he did make one major change: with more technical players in the midfield, he moved him to left-back, where his charge could bomb metronomically up and down the wing.

At Anderlecht, coaches had been wary of controlling his running ability, describing him as inventing a new position: a player who attacked as a No 10 and defended in front of the back four. He would run 12km each game as a young teenager — a huge amount at that age. His biggest rival in endurance tests was defender Hannes Delcroix, one year older, now at Burnley.

“You would see Remco, on the beep tests, continuing to run while everybody else had stopped,” says Stassin. “He always wanted to know before how well Delcroix had done. They had a little competition — and we considered Delcroix a physical machine. That defines Remco. He would never let go if he was not the best.”

In his later years at Anderlecht’s academy, coaches say he even beat the conditioning results of first-team defensive midfielder Lucas Biglia, a starter for Argentina in the 2014 World Cup final after moving to Lazio.

One real-life story — improbable enough to sound like legend — came during the Brussels half-marathon when Evenepoel was just 16.

“I started the race a bit earlier because I was running with a disability association,” says Stassin. “At one moment, I heard a whole group of really fast runners come by, some Kenyans, and then there was one guy who said ‘Hey coach, how are you doing?’.

“He (Evenepoel) was running like crazy again — the morning after playing a game on the Saturday. He finished eighth, I think, in 87 minutes.”

Everybody has a similar story. Sebastiaan Bornauw is a Belgium international centre-back, now at Wolfsburg, who played with Evenepoel at Anderlecht.

“It was a big coincidence that we were once both staying in the same hotel in Lanzarote,” he told Cycling Weekly. “It was a sports hotel with all the facilities, so we were playing some football and doing some pre-season together.

“One day, he asked me to join him cycling. I love cycling — I’m typically Belgian in that I love the classics in Flanders. He asked me to go on a bike tour with him and I said yes. I thought it would be 50km.

“He said, ‘Ah, yeah, the tour is between 160 and 180km’. I said, ‘Remco, good luck!’. I didn’t join him.”

Cycling is a dangerous sport. Last year, Swiss climber Gino Mader died during a descent in the Tour de Suisse; there have been dozens of other tragedies in recent decades.

In August 2020, Evenepoel endured his own terrifying crash during an Italian race: Il Lombardia. He ran wide at a narrow turn over a bridge and his handlebars caught the stonework, sending the rider, just two years into his professional career, over the edge and into a ravine.

Evenepoel fractured his pelvis and punctured his lung — but if branches had not cushioned his fall or a small ledge had not stopped him from falling further into the ravine, the consequences could have been far worse. Nevertheless, the recovery was long and arduous, with Evenepoel open about the psychological distress it caused him. However, he had come through dark times before.

Bornauw — alongside other former team-mates such as Alexis Saelemaekers, Lokonga, Openda, and Doku — all became professional footballers. Evenepoel did not.

“I was captain of the national team, then they put me on the bench and I started to ask myself questions: ‘Is it worth continuing?’” he told The Lanterne Rouge cycling podcast last year. “Then, I wasn’t even on the bench anymore. I just wasn’t in the top 15 players. Then I really started to hate the sport.”

Browaeys, his national manager at the time, thinks that as coaches, Belgium’s management team could have collectively improved other parts of his game.

“His football was based on his physical skill and mentality — but we missed the tactical progression a little,” he remembers. “He maybe played too much with his heart and not enough with his brain‚ but that’s logical when you’re 15 years old. From March 2016, Anderlecht began to leave him on the bench and it was very difficult for me to select him after that — especially difficult because he was my captain.

“He was often poorly placed on the pitch,” Koen Boghe, a coach at KV Mechelen, where Evenepoel played for six months after his eventual release from Anderlecht, told DH Sports. “Especially when losing the ball. We played him as a left-back and he had difficulty correcting himself tactically.

“I had the impression that he was always going full throttle, like on his bike, except that sometimes, you have to hold back from riding so as not to get caught in the back. I wonder if he could have made up for his shortcomings.”

Another view was that while Evenepoel’s fitness was good, he lacked short-distance explosiveness. When his boyhood club released him in January 2017, Evenepoel was distraught. He has never gone into detail about his final months at Anderlecht but spoke of getting “a disgust of football simply because of everything that happens inside the clubs”.

One former team-mate, Vince Colpaert, told the Belgian website VP that “Mechelen wanted him but Anderlecht was childish… they did not want to release him and he was only allowed to play practice matches, while we had competitions every weekend. Then he played twice in six months.”

“I was close to depression,” Evenepoel has said. “I’m a very sociable person, but I didn’t talk to anyone anymore.”

Close to the end of his time at Mechelen, Evenepoel sat in the woods on his bike. He had always used mountain biking as a form of off-season training — but the trails had brought him to a crossroads. He was even considering stopping elite sport himself and becoming a physio.

“I said to myself: ‘Either you do your training and you go for it, or you take your bike, go back home, and change sports, your whole life’,” he told the Lanterne Rouge podcast. “This was at 17. I was a very good student but that year, I was just trash at school. It was an up-and-down year. I just lost my mind.”

That day, he made the decision to quit football and, based on his raw biometric data, pursue cycling.

“He still had a nice profile for a wing-back,” remembers Browaeys. “I was surprised when I heard he had become a cyclist because honestly, for me, it was still possible to become a professional player.”

But stubbornness has always been part of Evenepoel’s make-up and on this day, he was resolved. As he tells it, he snuck into the family garage and took his father’s road bicycle, which was far too large for him.

“My parents didn’t know I was changing sports. Only my personal physical coach,” Evenepoel remembers.

From his home, he rode up the famed Mur de Grammont (more widely known in Flemish as the Muur van Geraardsbergen), completing the 117km in three and a half hours — and at a startling average speed of 34kph. It was his first time using a road bike outside.

As soon as his father saw the data, Evenepoel no longer needed to keep his riding secret. He immediately competed in his first races as an unaffiliated rider in a black jersey — coming 10th in a local time-trial with an ordinary bike with road handlebars, 50 seconds off the winner.

In cycling-mad Belgium, even local races are closely watched by teams — and Evenepoel was immediately picked up by a junior club. His rise to the top of his new sport is another story entirely, but here are some highlights.

He won 34 of his first 44 races. At the 2018 European Junior Road Cycling Championships, just 14 months into his new career, he won both the road race and time trial — finishing nine minutes ahead of the second-place finisher in the former. Both titles in the Junior World Championships followed later that year.

The crash at Il Lombardia in 2020 set him back but Evenepoel is now entrenched as a Grand Tour winner and one of the world’s best all-round riders, a half-step back from the current big two: Slovenia’s Tadej Pogacar and Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard.

What role did his football career play? Relatively few players reach such a high level of football before successfully switching sports, owing to football’s onus for early specialisation. British sprinter Adam Gemili is a rare counterpart. Evenepoel’s raw fitness, in a sense, has always been there but football fostered his competitiveness — and though some coaches deemed him tactically naive, Evenepoel still thinks it provided his strategic outlook.

“I think football maybe helped me with the mind games during the race,” he told reporters in April. “In football, you have to try to crack your opponents mentally by putting your foot a bit harder on their toe than you should do.

“Stuff like that helps me, in a race, to go over the limit a bit and try to have different tactics than other teams would. Maybe physically, football didn’t help me a lot to come into cycling but more the mental games and the other games going in the bunch during the race. Nothing negative but sometimes, when you are suffering, you have to make it look like you are not suffering. Stuff like that is what I learned more from football.”

His tactics were good enough to win the complex 21-stage Vuelta a Espana in 2022, while victory in the following year’s Giro was cruelly prevented by Covid-19. The peloton is agreed that Evenepoel is a rider with the potential to win all three Grand Tours over the course of his career.

The Tour de France is next — and though he sustained a nasty crash in the Tour of the Basque Country two months ago, fracturing his collarbone, he recovered enough to win the time trial at the Criterium du Dauphine in June, the Tour’s main warm-up race.

Back in lockdown, Evenepoel returned to Anderlecht to train. When crowds returned, a parade finally gave him the opportunity to wear purple in front of a capacity Lotto Park. But an interview during training allowed him to explain how he really felt.

“I spent 11 years here,” he told reporters. “To be honest, the last few years were the toughest. They broke me a bit mentally.

“But when I look back on it now, it has made me stronger as a person and in life. Thanks for trying to break me. Frankly, I am more proud to wear (my cycling) jersey. And now I have more fun.”

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Dan Goldfarb)

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