As Belgium prepares for the Tour de France Grand Depart in Brussels, where cycling legend Eddy Merckx will be feted on the 50th anniversary of his first maillot jaune, there is ample attention surrounding another Belgian star of the present day, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), the winner of two stages - the individual time trial and the next day's bunch sprint - and the points jersey in the Critérium du Dauphiné and, more recently, the new Belgian national time trial champion.
It's been a whirlwind year for the 24-year-old, who was nearly jobless after a heated contract dispute with his former Verandas Willems team, but once that was resolved Van Aert was swept into the WorldTour a season early with Jumbo-Visma. Van Aert quickly turned his year around after a disappointing cyclo-cross season, landing on the podium in Strade Bianche and the E3 BinckBank Classic before his stand-out performance in the Dauphine.
He was called on to be part of the Dutch squad's Tour de France line-up even before his victories in the Dauphiné, and in his team's pre-race Tour de France press conference said he is looking forward to getting started and helping his teammates in the Grand Tour.
"I didn't expect to take part in the Tour de France this year, but I got used to the idea," Van Aert said. "In addition, the Tour starts from Belgium. Such opportunities don't come up often, and I'm happy to be part of it. You can feel the excitement for the Tour. A lot of people talk to me about it, it's almost the only topic of discussion. But it's normal, Belgium is crazy about cycling. Sometimes we forget that this is just a race."
Obviously, Van Aert is in good condition, and he is focused on helping the team get results and completing his first Tour de France. "I don't have many personal ambitions on this Tour. First I want to support Dylan Groenewegen in the sprints and Steven Kruijswijk in the flat and transitional stages. You never know if an opportunity will present itself, but I am not preoccupied with that. My personal ambition is to finish the Tour. It's a tough tour. They always say that the Tour makes a rider stronger and I hope that will be the case. I remain cautious in my statements, it's still the Tour. I don't know what to expect."
Van Aert went elbow-to-elbow with cycling giants like Julian Alaphilippe, Sam Bennett and Philippe Gilbert in the Dauphiné bunch sprint and emerged victorious, but he says that he will be committed to helping Groenewegen. "Dylan proved that he is one of the fastest guys in the peloton. It's our biggest chance at success, so we're playing his card. My role will be to put the train in a good position in the last kilometer. Our goal is to win the first stage on Saturday and see Dylan take the yellow jersey. The next day, it will be the team time trial, where I will have an important role with Tony (Martin)."
After taking home the Belgian title in the time trial in commanding fashion, topping talents like Yves Lampaert, Remco Evenepoel and Victor Campenaerts by over 30 seconds, Van Aert will debut his new national champion's jersey on the stage 13 individual time trial in Pau.
"I'm looking forward to the Pau time trial. I won't have to consider anyone," says Wout van Aert. "I'm curious to see how this is going to go. This will be the second week. Anyway, it will be nice to compete in this stage with the Belgian championship jersey. I hope for a good result but I don't know what to expect and what my state of freshness will be in the second week."