Remco Evenepoel stretched his arms into the Madrid evening sky and took a kiss from his girlfriend right after crossing the finish line.
At the age of just 22, the Belgian secured overall victory in the 77th Tour of Spain on Sunday in Madrid and ended a long dry spell in Belgium as a cycling nation after 44 years. Johan De Muynck was the last Belgian to win one of the three grand tours at the Giro d'Italia in 1978 - Freddy Maertens won the Vuelta a year earlier.
"Now it's really official. I was a bit nervous today but we pulled it off perfectly. It's historic for my team, for my country and for myself. We can be really proud of what we've achieved." said Evenepoel afterwards.
Ackermann finished third
The victory of the day was secured after 96.7 kilometers in the sprint by the Colombian Juan Sebastián Molano in front of the former Danish world champion Mads Pedersen. Pascal Ackermann from the Palatinate, for whom the day's winner Molano was actually supposed to start the sprint, finished third in the day's classification and ended the 77th Tour of Spain without a stage win.
Evenepoel is now hoping to become the first Belgian Tour winner since Eddy Merckx in 1974. "The cannibal" Merckx had won the Tour and the Giro five times each - three times he was road bike world champion. "He might be even better than me. Remco has all the quality to do it," said cycling legend Merckx in August 2019 after Evenepoel had celebrated his first major victory at the age of 19 in the demanding one-day race Clásica San Sebastián in Spain.
Didn't start cycling until he was 17
Only five days later he became European time trial champion. A few weeks later he drew attention again in the fight against the clock with second place at the World Championships in Harrogate. Superlatives such as talent of the century, child prodigy or "little cannibal" were quickly attached to Evenepoel. "I'm not the new Eddy Merckx, I'm Remco Evenepoel," replied the highly acclaimed man at the time.
Much would not have been missing and Evenepoel would have embarked on a soccer career. He played nine junior international matches (U16 and U15). He played as a left-back for PSV Eindhoven, RSC Anderlecht and KV Mechelen - before devoting himself to cycling in 2017 for better prospects.
There was a first break in Evenepoel's young career on August 15, 2020, when he collided with a bridge wall on a descent on the Lombardy Tour and fell almost ten meters into a gorge. Evenepoel suffered a fractured pelvis and a contused lung at the time - only one has to say in retrospect. Evenepoel had to take a break for around eight months after that, then returned with his Grand Tour debut at the Giro d'Italia, but had to end it three days before the end after a fall. A little over two years later, he bagged his first overall Grand Tour victory.
Vuelta website Rider profile Evenepoel at procyclingstats