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“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.” – Naomi Osaka, 26 May 2021
By Nick Bull | Images by Chris Auld
A single Instagram post from tennis star and reigning US Open and Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka this week reignited the ongoing conversation about the mental health of professional athletes. By declaring that she won’t attend any of her media obligations at the forthcoming French Open, Osaka acknowledged that she will be fined, potentially as much as $20,000 each time. “I believe that the whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind,” she wrote. Her critics will claim that facing the press and being scrutinized is part of being a professional athlete. Supporters will say that only her performances, not her words, need to be analyzed.
Based on the criticism he received from Eddy and Axel Merckx since the start of the Giro, Osaka’s words wouldn’t have been out of place had they come from Remco Evenepoel. “I just want to say: Remco will still have to improve in many areas to win a grand tour,” the elder Merckx wrote in his daily Giro column for Het Nieuwsblad. “I think that he underestimated the Giro. There’s nothing wrong with that. Of course he’s talented but the road is still long. Sometimes he seems to think he’s already made it.”
The idea that Evenepoel was going to be a major player in this year’s Giro—his first grand tour, remember—is a reflection of the burden placed upon the 21-year-old. While some riders have been successful in their first three-week race, the Belgian started the Giro off the back of just 11 racing days since March 2019, the last of which ended with the frightening sight of him plunging over a bridge at Il Lombardia last August. He was only cleared to resume training in early February. Considering the challenging route, inclement weather conditions and a GC field featuring Egan Bernal, Simon Yates, Aleksandr Vlasov and Romain Bardet, that he sat seventh overall after 15 stages was nothing short of impressive. The same can be said of his fourth-placed finishes on Ascoli Piceno and the graveled climb of Campo Felice. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that Evenepoel came into the race acknowledging that his primary obstacle wasn’t the opposition or the parcours. “First of all, I just want to get used to the bunch again,” he said. “It’s always quite tricky to ride in a bunch, for sure, during nervous stages.”
Why has Merckx criticized Evenepoel so publicly? Is he actually threatened by anybody who is labelled “the next Merckx”? Forget Hannibal Lecter, we’ve just come across cycling’s Cannibal Lecturer. Prior to turning 21, Evenepoel won the Tours of Poland, Burgos, Algarve, San Juan and Belgium, so claiming that he underestimated the Giro is a staggering accusation. “It’s all part of the learning process,” the rising star said after losing 24 minutes to Bernal in Monday’s stage to Cortina d’Ampezzo. “I’m taking that lesson into next year.”
Admittedly, Osaka acknowledged in her Instagram post that she has a “friendly relationship with most” journalists. As somebody who will only ever ask questions as opposed to answering them, I’m fully aware that this next claim is akin to marking my own school work. Nonetheless, in Evenepoel’s case, I’d say that Merckx’s comments about him are far more damaging than any question directed at him in the Giro’s first rest day press conference. Nor are Merckx’s recent remarks the first time that he’s singled out Evenepoel. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves with Remco,” Merckx said last summer. “He hasn’t shown anything yet. He talks a lot, but I am waiting to see the rest.” The Deceuninck-Quick-Step rider was incredibly gracious in response to these comments: “Eddy Merckx has the right to put someone in their place,” he told Het Nieuwsblad. “Look at his career, there is nothing to add.”
Perhaps, in hindsight, it was a mistake giving him the 91 dossard for the race (something that the team have said was a decision made by Giro organizer RCS). Making him co-leader alongside João Almeida did little to manage people’s expectations, but are Deceuninck really to blame for that? The team’s general manager Patrick Lefevere acknowledged this to Het Laatste Nieuws this week: “The only thing we could not control was the euphoria that arose in Flanders in the run-up to the Giro. But that is precisely why we, and certainly the press, do not have the right to judge Evenepoel.” I’m no fan of the over-used “I’ll take it day by day” line that GC contenders robotically come out with ahead of grand tours, however I sensed genuine authenticity in Evenepoel’s expectation-lowering comments he made pre-race. “I’ll be happy if I can end this Giro without any setbacks or problems, or talking about injuries and all that stuff,” he said before the race started in Turin. The Belgian reiterated doubts over his performance level on the first rest day, too. “Maybe in this press conference next week, I’ll be 10th,” he said. At the time, he was second overall.
Unless Bernal fades badly in this year’s race between now and Sunday’s time trial into Milan and concedes the maglia rosa to Damiano Caruso, the gap to the last Italian winner of the Giro will extend to five years. God help the next native rider to show any GC potential in the years to come while that run continues. The sooner everybody does away with labels such as “France’s next Tour de France winner” or “the new Merckx” the better.
Evenepoel is not even 18 months removed from being a teenager. He’s already being subjected to a level of scrutiny that is both uncomfortable and evokes Thibaut Pinot’s and Tom Dumoulin’s candid comments they made about the sport earlier in the year. If the Frenchman saying “there’s no fun [in cycling] anymore” and Dumoulin admitting that he struggled to deal with the weight of expectation surrounding him didn’t make you sit up and consider the mental health of professional riders, I’m not sure what will. So what if we don’t know how good Evenepoel is going to be in grand tours after his Giro debut? Fans, experts and former professionals alike should embrace the intrigue, as opposed to kicking him while he’s down.
“We knew that the Giro could go in many different directions for me…” – Remco Evenepoel, 24 May 2021