Remco Evenepoel in bloom can put a Belgian back on top of Tour de France | William Fotheringham

Naming famous Belgians is a pub quiz staple, but for cycling fans, there is a more intriguing piece of trivia. Your starter for 10 – name the last time a Belgian stood on the Tour de France’s finish podium in Paris. The wording is critical, but the question remains a massive one for the country that produced Eddy Merckx, whose achievements were thrown into the spotlight this past week for the umpteenth time.

The last Belgian to win the Tour remains the curly haired diminutive climber Lucien Van Impe, who is also the last to stand on the podium in Paris; incredibly for a nation of Belgium’s cycling stature, that was in 1981. One Belgian has figured in the top three since then, and here is the trivia twist: the now forgotten Jurgen Van den Broeck, a gangling time-trial specialist, never got on the podium, but was awarded third long after the 2010 race, when Alberto Contador and Denis Menchov were disqualified for doping offences.

Lovers of the close-knit nature of Belgian cycling will appreciate the fact that Van den Broeck shares a home town, Herentals, with Wout van Aert and another legend, the “Emperor” Rik Van Looy, who ruled cycling immediately before the Merckx era.

The prospect of a Belgian returning to the final podium is looking closer. Last Tuesday, the 24-year-old former national youth footballer Remco Evenepoel passed his biggest test in the high mountains of the Tour on his debut, crossing the moonscape of the Col du Galibier, 2,642m above sea level, not far behind the favourites, Tadej Pogacar and Jonas Vingegaard.

Last Sunday, when Vingegaard and Pogacar went head-to-head on the Colle di San Luca in Bologna, it was Evenepoel who chased successfully behind the pair to close on the finish line.

On Friday, to cap an excellent opening week, the young man from Aalst beat both riders to take the 25km individual time trial through the appellation vineyards between Nuits-Saint-Georges and Gevrey-Chambertin, closing to 33sec behind Pogacar. Behind the Slovenian, four other men can realistically now hope to finish in the first three: Evenepoel, Vingegaard, Primoz Roglic and Carlos Rodríguez. There will be many pitfalls over the next two weeks – beginning on Sunday’s stage through the dust roads of the Champagne region – but Evenepoel does have an ace lurking up his sleeve.

For the first time since 1989, the Tour’s final day features a time trial, and he will be playing to his strongest suit. British fans could cast their minds to the pre-Covid era, to the world road race championships in Harrogate in autumn 2019, when Evenepoel appeared from left field to take silver in a rain-lashed time trial, the youngest elite time trial medallist aged all of 19. He was already European champion and since then he has gone on to win time trial stages at all three Grand Tours, and the world time trial championships.

Remco Evenepoel has Tour title credentials as he won the Vuelta a España in 2022. Photograph: Óscar del Pozo/AFP/Getty Images

The Merckx comparisons are invidious – different times, different men and so on – but Evenepoel is a prolific, and precocious winner, at the forefront of a recent trend which has seen more and more junior riders talent-spotted by World Tour squads and riders’ agents. From winning the junior road and time trial world titles in 2018, at the end of what is one of the finest junior season any rider can have produced, with 23 wins in 27 in race days, Evenepoel went straight into the Quick-Step team aged 19, and promptly won the Clásica de San Sebastián in impressively clinical style.

His annus mirabilis was 2022, when he took 16 wins topped by the Vuelta a España and world road race title at all of 22 years old, the first Belgian to win one of the three Grand Tours since 1978, performances that prompted a restructuring of Quick-Step from a Classics-oriented team with multiple leaders to a squad focused entirely on supporting Evenepoel in the Tour, notably with the signing of Mikel Landa and Jan Hirt.

Character-wise, there were shades of Bernard Hinault in his actions at the Vuelta last year; after losing the overall title in a horrendous off-day, he made it his duty to rip the race to shreds on every possible occasion, winning two stages and providing superlative entertainment for the neutral fan.

If he has an achilles heel, it is going downhill. He has been in two horrific smashes on descents, one in the Tour of Lombardy in 2020, when he broke his pelvis, and the other in this year’s Tour of the Basque Country, when he fell in a vast pile-up with Vingegaard and Roglic and broke his collarbone and scapula. In the Giro d’Italia in 2021, having rushed his comeback from the broken pelvis, he was visibly out of sorts on the stage through the gravel roads of Tuscany.

In 2012, I discussed with Van Impe why it had taken Belgium forever to find his successor, given its ample talent pool. His answer was that most Belgian racers are Flemings who are directed towards the wealth of one-day Classics topped by the Tour of Flanders, that most consider to be worth a world title.

Evenepoel has always strictly limited his outings in Flemish one-day races; heretically for a Belgian cyclist, he does not like cobbles. Shocking that might be to the adherents of spring Classics such as Gent-Wevelgem and the Grand Prix E3, but it seems to work well for him.

The Guardian