One of the men who coloured the 2019 edition of Paris-Roubaix was without a doubt Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma). A lot was expected from the triple cyclo-cross world champion – last year, he figured in the finale on his debut, but that performance was overshadowed by the passing of his teammate Michael Goolaerts. This year, Van Aert impressed in Strade Bianche, Milano-Sanremo, Gent-Wevelgem and E3 BinckBank Classic. He entered Paris-Roubaix as one of the major favourites and he didn’t disappoint.
Despite being forced to chase back to the main group twice, first after a mechanical in the Arenberg Forest and then after a crash after a bike switch, he still managed to feature in the decisive breakaway 50km from Roubaix. 20km from the finish line, however, a hunger flat cost him his place up front. The 24-year-old faded back to 22nd place at the vélodrome where he collapsed on the ground.
Surrounded by the media at the finish, Van Aert ended up lying down. He mumbled a few words while trying to recover, saying “I haven’t been very lucky in Roubaix, so far.” A few minutes later, he walked out of the vélodrome and sat at the side of the road.
“I feel terrible. I’m dead-empty. I can’t say much about it,” Van Aert said. “It was very hectic. After my bad luck in the forest I'd been à bloc for an hour. I didn't think about eating or drinking at that time.
"In a race like today, that's something you pay the price for. At 30km from the finish I felt that I was running out of gas. For me, the ideal scenario from there was that the group would continue to work together until the Carrefour de l'Arbre but they started attacking.
“I felt straight away that there wasn't anything left in the tank. It was painful. I had really good legs but that's a small consolation. I didn’t take in enough energy. It wasn’t too be. It’s still the most beautiful race of the year but everything has to go your way.”
Away from the world
After taking a shower aboard the Jumbo-Visma bus and receiving some treatment to the abrasions he suffered, Van Aert walked back out. He sat down in the boot of the team car and took his time to glance back on the race with the awaiting media.
“I'm better now but I was away from the world for a while. The last half hour of racing didn't have much to do with cycling," he said. "It was a bit similar to last year's Strade Bianche. You're empty. Once you're beyond that point then there isn't much you can do, then it's about suffering. I was still riding in a nice sixth place and I wanted to go for it but it wasn't to be today."
Before reaching the Trouée d’Arenberg, everything went according to plan for Van Aert. In the forest, the helicopter shot showed Van Aert near the front of the peloton when he suddenly swerved to the left into the dirt. While riding on a big gear he faded back until the cameras switched back to the front of the race.
“In the forest I had a front puncture. That wasn't a major problem because we discussed a situation like that before the race. I would switch wheels with a teammate. When I stopped, I pulled my chain between the big chain ring and the small chain ring. It was impossible to continue with that bike,” Van Aert said. “Pascal Eenkhoorn gave me his bike. I managed to come back on that bike. At that point in the race it was still ok."
Van Aert had to close down a gap of 40 seconds on the peloton, with Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida) and Matti Breschel (EF Education First) marking his wheel, before switching to his spare bike.
“When I switched back to my spare bike... I still don't know what happened but in the first corner after being on the new bike I slipped away big time. Was there sand, I don't know. It was a big blow. The big ring of that bike was wrecked so I had to continue the rest of the race on the small ring,” Van Aert said, with a laugh. “Luckily the small chain ring is rather big in Roubaix but it wasn't ideal.”
By the time Van Aert got going again, a one-minute gap had opened up at the end of the pavé sector in Wandignies, but once again he managed to close the gap back down, this time with a dash between the team cars on the cobbles of sector 16 from Warlaing to Brillon.
Somewhat surprisingly, Van Aert didn’t receive support from his teammates, with Maarten Wynants and Mike Teunissen staying in the peloton rather than dropping back.
“They are really strong guys in this type of race," he said. "Mike managed to get a nice top-10 result out of it. Maarten encountered bad luck in the feed zone. These were not the guys who were supposed to wait for me. I was still between the cars, so it wasn't the plan to wait for me. If we didn’t make it back, we would've been dropped with three guys. This wasn't a fault from the team, in my opinion.
“I managed to bridge back up once again and still felt good, so I accelerated in the group. I still managed to make the gap with the best guys in the race. All went smooth until 30km from the finish when I ran out of gas. When Gilbert attacked, I had to get out of the saddle and then I knew enough. At first, I was still able to ride tempo to the Carrefour, but then it’s all a big blur. I was crawling over the cobbles. I suffered a lot. It was a huge hunger flat.
“Not only did I forget to eat but I also used more energy than I would've done without the chase. It's not an exact science to say where I exactly missed a gel. It's all just a bunch of stupid things. It was a bit too much to overcome. The time that you had 15 bullets to fire is long gone. Everybody has to spend his energy at the right moment and if you have to spend it too early then you get something like this.”
Van Aert’s fightback recalled Mathieu van der Poel’s at the Tour of Flanders last week, but he downplayed the idea of what he might have achieved without his ill fortune.
“I think it's stupid to make claims about a possible victory in hindsight. The race is over,” he said. “There's more riders who ran into bad luck. It was a real pity that I had to face all these mechanicals and the crash, of which I still can't figure out how it happened but it was quite hard. I had the legs to keep up a bit longer in the finale, that's for sure. Once again, it wasn't to be in Roubaix and that's a bummer.”
Next up for Wout van Aert is next week’s Amstel Gold Race. He was asked if his injuries would cast doubts over his participation in the first of the so-called Ardennes classics.
“I need to think about that,” Van Aert said, with a laugh. “There's only abrasions because I was sliding. I'll have to visit the physiotherapist but for now it's not too bad. We'll have to see how I feel tomorrow. Normally, my planning doesn't need to be adapted.”