The Via Roma in San Remo played host to cycling's superstars on Saturday afternoon, with the likes of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) and world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) all bested by the indomitable Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) at Milan-San Remo. And within that star-studded elite group was also Wout van Aert (Team Jumbo-Visma) – the 24-year-old three-time cyclo-cross world champion in only his third road race of the season.
The Belgian finished sixth, taking another outstanding result after his third place at Strade Bianche two weeks ago. At 291km, Milan-San Remo was the longest race Van Aert had ever ridden, but he has already shown that he knows his way around these mammoth road races.
Last year saw him debut at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, finishing in ninth and 13th place, respectively. He was on the podium at the late-season European Championships road race, too, held in Glasgow, Scotland, which was over 230km.
The bigger distances are therefore not new territory for Van Aert, who was racing at WorldTour level for the first time this year at Milan-San Remo. But as he rolled out in front of Milan's Sforza Castle on Saturday morning, surely not even the prodigy himself would've imagined that he'd be battling it out for the win seven hours later.
"That's a difficult question," he said at the finish, asked whether, ahead of the race, he'd thought he could be in contention for the win. "It's always in your mind, of course, but at your first attempt, you doubt yourself a bit. But I'm definitely happy that I made it into the final breakaway."
With 285km covered, and with just six kilometres left to the finish in San Remo, Van Aert was still up there, still fighting with the cream of the pro peloton at the top of the Poggio di San Remo. It was there, fighting into the headwind, and led by eventual winner Alaphilippe, that the winning group would be formed, and Van Aert felt right at home.
"It was about just fighting to keep the wheel on the top of the Poggio. I saw we had a nice gap with a few of the guys; from there on it was a little tactical on the downhill. No one seemed to want to do the pacing.
"At the bottom, my plan was to try to find a good moment for an attack. But at the end of the day, I'm maybe a little disappointed that I chased Matteo Trentin [Mitchelton-Scott, who attacked with two kilometres to go] because I used up a lot of power, and maybe I missed that in the sprint."
Everything hinged, therefore, on just one small mistake: pulling the group along in pursuit of European road race champion Trentin when perhaps a faster finisher such as Sagan or Valverde might have been expected to do so. But perhaps it's better to risk a mistake than to vacillate and let the winner ride away. After 290km of racing, lapses occur in the mind as well as the muscles.
A race like Milan-San Remo is a long way from the hour-long dashes through the sand of Zonhoven or the mud of Heusden-Zolder – arenas that play host to the feats Van Aert is most famed for. It's clearly not a problem for him, though.
"Yeah – it was the longest race I've ever done today," he said, "but it doesn't actually feel any longer than the Tour of Flanders or something. It even feels shorter because only the final is hard. It's a long way until it becomes interesting – but, yeah, the final was spectacular, and that's nice.
"I think that I should have maybe trusted myself in the sprint a bit more, but on the other hand it was a good idea to try a breakaway," Van Aert continued. "Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't – and I'm starting to now know what the principal difficulty of Milan-San Remo is: it's about having just one chance, one opportunity."
Van Aert now turns his attention to the cobbled Classics, culminating in April with a second shot at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in, where he finished ninth and 13th, respectively, last year.
After recently taking third place at Strade Bianche for the second year in a row, Van Aert's sixth place at Milan-San Remo has left him brimming with confidence for what's to come.
"I definitely feel really good," he confirmed. "After Strade Bianche, we did a nice training camp, which went really well, and I'm now feeling more than ready for the northern Classics."