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Belgian hero Evenepoel seals Vuelta title

Remco Evenepoel has put some tough times behind him with the biggest win of his soaring cycling career.

Two years ago, he was flying off a bridge in a horrific crash that left him hospitalised for several days. A year ago, his loyalty to teammates was being questioned by a cycling great.

But it was all forgotten on Sunday as the 22-year-old Evenepoel, of Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, won the Vuelta a Espana for his first Grand Tour victory.

Many believe it’s sure not to be his last.

“It’s history for my team, for my country, for myself,” Evenepoel said. “I think we can be really proud of what we did the last three weeks.”

It was a statement win for Evenepoel, who became the first Belgian to win a major three-week event since Johan De Muynck won the Giro d’Italia in 1978. It will also only enhance his superstar status in the cycling-mad nation.

“Now it really sinks in, it’s really official,” he said. “Already yesterday the emotions were quite high. We were actually there but we still had to finish the race safe and in a good way. We enjoyed as much as possible and now we can really enjoy.”

Colombian Juan Sebastian Molano, of UAE Team Emirates, won the closing 21st stage in Madrid, ahead of points winner Mads Pedersen – his fourth runner’s up place to go with his three stage victories – and Pascal Ackermann.

Evenepoel, who held the red jersey since taking the lead in the sixth stage and overcame a hard crash in the 12th stage, had secured the victory by holding off Enric Mas and the rest of his challengers in the last competitive stage on Saturday.

Evenepoel ended 2 minutes 2 seconds ahead of Movistar’s Mas. Another Spaniard was third, with Juan Ayuso finishing nearly five minutes off the lead with UAE Team Emirates.

Evenepoel didn’t have to worry about three-time defending champion Primoz Roglic, who had to retire because of injuries sustained in a crash near the end of the 16th stage.

Also not contending at the end was 2018 Vuelta winner Simon Yates, who was one of the many riders who had to withdraw during the race because of positive coronavirus tests.

But for Evenepoel, it was about using his pedals to answer his doubters and critics, including Eddy Merckx, the Belgian great who had said last year that the youngster was unwilling to ride for his team.

Also last year, Evenepoel was flung into the barriers in the 17th stage of the Giro d’Italia, and the year before he survived a nasty crash in which he fell several metres off the side of a bridge and was hospitalised with a broken pelvis.

This year’s Vuelta marked an emotional farewell for veteran Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, the 2009 champion, and Italian rider Vincenzo Nibali, the 2010 Vuelta winner. The two greats are set to retire and were greeted with a guard of honour by the other cyclists.

Australia’s Vuelta challenge, which featured two breakthrough stage wins for Jay Vine and another for sprinter Kaden Groves, ended with top-10 finishes for Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citroen, 8th at 10:30 down) and Jai Hindley (BORA-Hansgrohe, 10th at 12:01).

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