Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) is expecting victory in this Sunday’s Tour of Flanders will be fought out between a group at the finish line, rather than a lone breakaway. Van Aert believes that the favourites – of which he said numbered around 10-15 – are so close together that it makes it difficult for riders to establish a significant gap over the other major contenders.
“We’ve seen a lot of times that there are breakaways but there are always small gaps, and when the course is not quite so hard, like we saw in Gent-Wevelgem, we see a very big group going to the finish line,” Van Aert told the press at his team’s hotel in Ghent. “I think that everyone is quite close to each other, and then it’s more important to have a very strong team because it will be very likely that we’ll have a bigger group in the final and we can play with several guys if it's good.
“I look forward to the race, and I try to enjoy this fact of being favourite being for the Tour of Flanders my second time. It’s kind of crazy.”
Of course, there is a ranking among the favourites, and Van Aert named Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) , Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) and his cyclo-cross rival Mathieu van der Poel (Correndon-Circus) as the top of that particular tree.
Van der Poel, who won his first WorldTour race at Dwars door Vlaanderen, is going through the same process as Van Aert did last year as he embarks on his first Classics campaign. So used to going toe to toe in cyclo-cross, the pair will be locking horns on the Belgian roads this weekend. Van Aert is not surprised that his regular foe had adapted to the Classics so quickly.
“I think I am the guy who knows him the best or maybe suffered the most in his wheel already. Of course, I expect him to be there directly, for me it’s not a surprise at all and he will be there as well on Sunday,” said Van Aert.
Van Aert leads Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) at Strade Bianche (Bettini Photo)
For Van Aert, this will be his second tilt at the Tour of Flanders after making his debut last season. He rode a more selective campaign in 2018, but impressed hugely with ninth in Flanders and then 13th at Paris-Roubaix. This year, he has picked up where he left off with another podium position at Strade Bianche - his second race on the road – followed by sixth at Milan-San Remo and then second at E3 BinckBank Classic last weekend.
“It is a different sort of experience,” he said of his second Tour of Flanders appearance. “[Last year] I had some good results, but I was definitely not a favourite or a guy that others were looking for. For me, it was more about enjoying the race and doing my best, and that was it. This year, I’m a lot more ambitious. I made a big progression in the previous races and I hope to do the same next Sunday.
“It’s always good for the mental part to have some consistent results. It’s something that I always had in cyclo-cross when I was good I was always good for a longer period. It’s good to find myself again these past few weeks and going from one good result to the next puts you in a positive flow and everything comes a bit easier than when it’s not like that.”
As well as Van Aert, his Jumbo-Visma teammates have really stepped up to the plate this spring. That was most evident at Gent-Wevelgem, where the team put on a show of force at the front. Van Aert is confident in his team going into this weekend and believes that they can take the race to the others.
“I think, like in Gent-Wevelgem, we saw that we were able to do the moves ourselves and not wait for the other teams to make moves and try to catch up with them,” he explained. “I felt that we were able to do that and if we can race like that then it is up to me to wait as long as possible. I think maybe I have the best shot on the final climbs and this will put me in the situation where I can stay quiet as long as possible. It’s really important in a race like Flanders because it’s super hard.”