Next Eddy Merckx? Maybe, but whatever happens, the future of Belgian cycling looks bright with these young guns…

When it comes to the new crop of young Belgian talent are we to believe Public Enemy when they sang ‘don’t believe the hype’?

Or, maybe, we should listen to Thomas De Gendt when he, tongue in cheek, tweeted to petition for the banning of Remco Evenepoel, Wout Van Aert et al to give the rest of the peloton a fighting chance.

If recent results are any guide we most certainly start to believe the hype regarding these young Belgian lions as they look set to become the peloton’s very own public enemy.

Young Belgian cyclists have often suffered from an expectant nation labelling them as the next Eddy Merckx. The truth is that we may never see his like again. What we are now seeing though is a very talented pool of riders coming through the ranks together. 

The name on everyone’s lips at the moment is Remco Evenepoel. His record at junior level was quite simply sensational, so much so that he bypassed the Under 23-level and jumped straight into the World Tour ranks with Deceuninck Quick-Step at the tender age of 19.

Hot on Evenpoel’s heels as the next big thing in Belgium is Wout van Aert. For years his name has been at the top of cyclo-cross results whilst he has learnt his trade on the road. However, this season has seen him come of age on the road as well.

The names of Evenepoel and Van Aert are at the top of most peoples watch lists as those who have the potential to shape the face of cycling for the next few years.

However, these are exciting times for Belgium as there are other riders coming through the ranks and making exceptional progress.

At Lotto Soudal they are nurturing one such rider. Having come through their under 23 team ranks successfully Bjorg Lambrecht took the step to the world tour team in 2018. It’s fair to say that 2019 has been his breakthrough year and the results back that up. 

Meanwhile, Team UAE have taken on board neo-pro Jasper Philipson who has come to them via the under 23 ranks of BMC. Last year he was under the tutelage of his compatriot Axel Merckx.

So who are these riders that have the potential to define the immediate future of Belgian cycling?  

Remco Evenepoel 

Cycling was not Evenpoel’s first calling.Despite his father Patrick being a professional cyclist in the early 90’s Remco’s first calling was football. He played junior football for both Anderlecht and PSV as well as representing the Belgian national football team at under 15 and under 16 level.

Following an injury, he took up the bike and it seems football’s loss has become cycling’s gain. It must be remembered that Evenepoel has only been riding competitively for two years but what a two years they have been!

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He dominated the junior calendar winning practically every race he took part in. That domination included victories in the Belgian, European and world championships in both the time trial and road races.

His world road race victory was done with a great deal of style and panache. Such was his domination at this level Deceuninck Quick-Step signed him up for the 2019 season.   

In his first world tour race at the Tour de San Luis he won the young riders classification. His team are clearly nurturing his talent as his race programme did not include any of the Belgian classics. However, the Belgian tour could just have been the moment that Evenepoel answered the questions about just how good he can be at this level.

Stage two of the race saw a very Flandrian parcours. There were cobbles a plenty and even the iconic climb of the Muur van Geradsbergen featured during the days racing.

This didn’t stop Evenepoel taking his first professional win.

The victory also catapulted him into the GC lead. Here he showed he has what it takes to handle the pressure and responsibility of defending a race lead. 

At the end of his National tour, not only had he won the GC but he also took home the points jersey as well.  

Wout van Aert

Having dominated cyclo-cross for many years Van Aert has been learning his trade on the road. Last year saw him compete at Strade Bianchi, a race which suited his off-road skills. The race proved to be his seminal moment on the road bike.

As he collapsed on the flagstones within sight of the finishing line in Sienna, his mud-covered body suffering the effects of cramp, it was clear that here was a rider who was successfully making the transition from cross to road and was doing so with flair.

Van Aert rides with his heart on his sleeve and has a never give up attitude that surely comes from his cyclo-cross background. Its what the sport needs, a bit of charisma.

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A change of team this year has seen him join the ambitious Jumbo-Visma squad. His first season with the Dutch team has already produced some stellar performances. A second place at E3 Harelbeke, another third place at Strade Bianchi and a sixth place at Milan Sanremo. All good solid results but no race win.

That was until the Criterium du Dauphine.

This was where the world looked on in awe and saw Van Aert announce to those watching what he is truly capable of.

He demonstrated that he can not only time trial but also sprint finish as well.  He took two stage wins into the bargain. It was not just the fact that he won two different types of stages but the manner in which he dominated them as well. 

He left the race with the green jersey on his shoulders. His next stop is his first grand tour – the Tour de France. One suspects he will not be phased by it at all.

Bjorg Lambrecht 

Having ridden for the Lotto under 23 team between 2016 and 2017 Lambrecht took the step up to the World Tour team last season.

His junior results show he has a penchant for climbing – he won the mountains classifications at Driedaagse Van Axel, Oberosterreich Juniorrundfahrt, GP General Patton and Ronde de I’issard. An impressive set of results. 

In 2016 he won a silver medal at the UEC European U23 road championships while the Espoir version of Liege-Bastogne-Liege from 2017 is also on his palmares and demonstrated the great array of skills in his locker.  

His first season in the World Tour saw him win a stage at the Tour des Fjords as well as finishing second on the GC and take the young riders jersey. The season finished with him winning another silver medal, this time at the under 23 world road race championships.

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This season has seen the young man from Ghent have an amazing year. A sixth place at Amstel gold cup, fifth at Brabantse Pijl and a fourth place at La Fleche Wallonne all show steady progress.

This culminated at the recent Criterium du Dauphine where, after a week’s worth of racing, Lambrecht got his standout result in claiming the young rider’s jersey.

Just reward for the patient and effective style of racing he has. 

It is interesting to see what type of rider Lambrecht will develop into. Currently he is equally at home in one day races as he is in week long tours. That big race win is almost certainly not too far away as well. Lotto Soudal have a great prospect on their hands. 

Jasper Philipsen

Coming through the youth ranks at BMC and the excellent Hagen Berman Axeon team it’s fair to say Jasper Philipsen has learnt a lot on his way to the world tour.

He was also in the lucky position of being able to be a part of training rides with one of his cycling heroes Tom Boonen who is a near neighbour. Judging from some of Philipsen’s results he clearly learns quickly.

At junior level he was the national time trial champion in both 2015 and 2016, while he also won the junior E3 Harelbeke in 2016. A year later and he was in first place at the challenging Le Triptyque des Monts et Chateaux and followed this victory up again the following year.

The Espoir’s version of Paris-Tours showed that he has a mean sprint in his repertoire. At the Girobio he won a stage and the Points competition.

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In 2018 he proved he could compete with World Tour riders and possibly his best result last season was not a win but a third place. It was in the Three days of De Panne when he mixed it in the sprint coming in behind Elia Viviani and Pascal Ackermann.

The results were showing an all-round ability which prompted Team UAE to add him to their world tour roster for the 2019 season.

In his first race for his new team he came away with a stage victory at the Tour Down Under. The impressive results have flowed effortlessly as he finished second in Heiste Pijl, third in Nokere Koerse, fifth in Dwars Door het Hageland and ninth in Schelderprijs.

Just last month, he took ninth place on GC at the Baloise Belgium Tour and finished third in a sprint at Elfstedenronde.

We must remember that he is only 21 years old and still in his first year at World Tour level but the light certainly shines bright for this young rider.

There really is an abundance of riches in Belgian cycling at present. Whilst attention has been drawn to these four excellent prospects it should be noted there are many more riders coming through.

Katusha have the talented pairing of Stef Cras and Jenthe Biermans whilst Lotto Soudal have both Stan Dewulf and Harm Vanhoucke coming through their ranks..

We might never see anyone surpass Merckx but the future for Belgian cycling looks set to be very good for some time to come. 

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