Gilbert the 37-year-old five-time Monument winner, met 19-year-old Evenepoel properly for the first time at Deceuninck-QuickStep’s pre-season training camp last December. They raced together for the first time at the Belgium national championships in June, followed by the Adriatica Ionica and the World Championships.
While Gilbert has had a successful 17th season as a pro, winning Paris-Roubaix and two stages of the Vuelta a España, Evenepoel has had a sensational debut season after skipping the U23 ranks. He won the Baloise Belgium Tour, Clásica San Sebastián and European time trial title, and placed second in the elite Worlds time trial.
He has emphatically proven his credentials, but Gilbert admitted to initially thinking he was all talk.
"In the beginning, I didn’t take him too seriously," Gilbert told Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws.
"I thought he was a little crazy. He said things before the race, of which I thought, ‘hey, boy, what are you saying here?’ Calm down a little."
A case in point was the Adriatica Ionica, where Evenepoel attacked with 25km to go on stage 3 and reached the line alone, more than two minutes clear of the rest of the field, led home by Gilbert.
"He was arrogant, I thought, until a few hours later, when he put it into practice," Gilbert said. "Impressive."
Gilbert’s relationship with Evenepoel became even stronger while they were riding for Belgium at the World Championships in Yorkshire. When Gilbert crashed on the approach to the first crossing of the finish line with 126km to go, Evenepoel was the rider who waited for him and then sacrificed himself to try and help him back to the peloton.
They never made it back, and Gilbert abandoned the race in tears two laps later, but Evenepoel had made a strong impression.
"The youngest of the gang was the class act. That really struck me," Gilbert told HLN.
"That’s also proof of his rich potential. He thinks and acts tactically. What he did in Yorkshire was super professional. It will take him far in the future."