From the beautiful game to cycling fame: Remco Evenepoel's "dream plan" to win Olympic gold
Remco Evenepoel played football for PSV Eindhoven, Anderlecht, and even the Belgian national team under-15 and 16s, but now he's blazing a trail on two wheels.
Building on an incredible first season at just 19 years of age, his explosion onto the road cycling scene has earned him comparisons with the great Eddie Merckx.
It's hardly any surprise when you look back over his debut season:
Tour of Belgium 2019 winner in June, third in the national time trial champs, a stage win in the Ionica Race in July then back-to-back wins in San Sebastian and the European Continental Championships time trial.
To top it off he took second place at the elite men’s time trial at the World Championships in September behind Rohan Dennis.
All of this earned Evenepoel the Belgian sportsman of the year award in December - the first cyclist since Rio 2016 road race champ Greg Van Avermaet won it that year.
In 2020 Evenepoel added to the hype by winning the Vuelta a San Juan, Volta ao Algarve and the Vuelta a Burgos - the first proper stage race of the season after coronavirus cancellations.
That hat-trick of wins made him only the second Belgian in the last 20 years to win 3 UCI stage races in a single year, after Dylan Teuns in 2017.
Now 20 years old, Evenepoel has his sights set on succeeding Van Avermaet as Olympic champ at Tokyo 2020.
"The Olympic Games transcend the traditional sports atmosphere; you are part of something larger" - Remco Evenepoel
He says he has the perfect plan too:
"We've drawn up the dream plan, and my preparation will be perfect," he told the Belgian Cycling Federation.
And he couldn't have got 2020 off to a better start either, winning the Vuelta a San Juan, following victory in his first time trial of the year in his European champion jersey.
Boots to roots for Evenepoel
Playing youth football for PSV Eindhoven and Anderlecht, the future looked bright, he even made the Belgian national team playing four times for the U15s and five times for the U16s.
But when things didn't work out on the football pitch, Evenepoel refused to slow down.
He picked up a race bike and went faster.
Going from football boots back to his cycling roots - his father Patrick Evenepoel was a pro rider - Remco hit the ground running and was soon ruling the junior scene.
The switch to cycling came in 2017, and in 2018 he won both the time trial and road race at the 2018 European Junior Road Cycling Championships.
The gap between him and the second place rider in the road race was 9 minutes and 44 seconds.
"We always say that everything good happens quickly, so I think it's good," Evenepoel told RTL after picking up his sportsman of the year award in December 2019.
2020 is set to fly by even faster with the biggest races on the calendar coming at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the World Championships and the Tour of Lombardy.
And, of course, the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Football may have been his first love, but now Belgium's rising superstar has another golden goal.
There's no hesitation when he's asked whether he'd prefer to be World Champion or Olympic champion:
"To become Olympic champion – without a doubt," he says, "the Olympic Games transcend the traditional sports atmosphere; you are part of something larger, and no longer in that cocoon of cycling."
"And if I could win there, that recognition would also be different, I suspect. Of course, as a world champion, you also get a lot of respect and appreciation, but I think that an Olympic title would be different again – both for you and by how the public sees you. So, if I'm honest, winning Olympic gold would give me the most satisfaction."
"Within cycling, winning at the Worlds is the highest attainable goal of a season," he continued. "On the other hand, you only get to experience the Olympic Games once every four years – a unique opportunity that you may only get to experience once in your career, so I can understand why people rate an Olympic medal so highly."
Remco - Man with a plan
So how do you win the Olympics and still complete all the obligations of pro cycling?
The road race in Tokyo takes place on 25th July and then there's just three short days to rest, recover, and reload for the TT on the 29th.
Add to the mix the uncompromising nature of the two events, and the demands of the hilly courses, and it means that preparation is everything, Evenepoel is "fully focused" on a specialised training routine already this winter.
Then there's the weather in Tokyo in July: hot, heavy, humid.
"Adapting to the climate will be very important," says the Belgian, "in that respect, we've already explored a few options. My training will be different – more specific – and I'll drop certain races."
"But this has all been done in consultation with the [Deceuninck-QuickStep] team. We've drawn up the dream plan, and my preparation will be perfect – at least, I hope it will."
So which race is the priority? His approach is to take it "day by day" in Japan.
"If I do well in the road race, fantastic. If I don’t do so well, well, that's just unfortunate."
"But in either scenario, my focus will then switch to the time trial. You can't concentrate on two things at the same time over there. If you neglect any little details, it can be the difference between winning and losing."
If he continues 2020 the way he has started it, then there may be no stopping him come Tokyo 2020, at the age of 20.
Lofty ambitions are firmly grounded with Evenepoel due to the strong support base he has.
Receiving the award for sportsman of the year in Schelle last December, he gave us a glimpse at the life and family structure that he can constantly draw from:
"Last year I was ‘a Hope’ and now I'm the ‘sportsman’ of the year," he began, Such an award just motivates me more for the future. It doesn't make me nervous, I want to go even stronger. It will always be so in the future. I also get a lot of help from my family and girlfriend and of course my fantastic team."
Much of what he achieves has a strong foundation in family and solid personal and professional relationships.
Remco Evenepoel is already a name on every cycling watcher's wall who's worth their salt, but he still has a long way to go to justify the comparisons with the great Eddy Merckx.
For many the best there's ever been, Merckx won an unparalleled eleven Grand Tours including five Tour de France, five Giro d'Italia and five Vuelta de España, add to that the five Monuments, the three World titles, the hour record and so much more and you get an idea of the challenge that faces Evenepoel.
Merckx competed at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo as a 19-year-old amateur and turned pro the next year, meaning he never competed at the Olympics again due to the no-pro rule which was lifted in 1996.
At Tokyo 2020 the latest Belgian rider on the rise could achieve something that cycling deity Merckx never did and put himself on the path to greatness.