Once again, triple cyclo-cross world champion Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) showed that he has the capabilities to win road races at the highest level. Two weeks ago, he finished third in Strade Bianche and last week, the 24-year-old Belgian rider sprinted for the victory in Milano-Sanremo.
On Friday afternoon, he sprinted for the victory in E3 BinckBank Classic, the WorldTour race that preludes the 'holy week', the Flemish spring Classics campaign that concludes with the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Greg Van Avermaet knew that from now on Van Aert was one of the big boys. "It's mostly about having the legs. He's riding very well. It was man vs man in the final 40 kilometres. They don't get much harder than this one," Van Avermaet said.
Van Aert was very happy with his performance, even though he narrowly missed out on his first Classic victory. He finished as runner-up behind Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep) in the sprint of five, but ahead of Van Avermaet and Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First).
"It's very nice. Today is one of the most difficult races of the spring season and I felt that; it was a tad bit harder than the previous races. I'm glad that I was able to ride the finale," Van Aert told Sporza shortly after the race in their tv-studio.
Van Aert was asked if he thought about winning during the race, also when Deceuninck-QuickStep had Bob Jungels solo up the road.
"Of course you think about winning when you head to the finish in a group of five riders. In the back of your mind I knew that Stybar had the benefit of being in the slipstream for 20 kilometres. A sprint after a race like this is always atypical and one never starts a sprint with the idea that second place is fair enough."
During the upcoming Classics, Van Aert might be able to catch a big fish but when asked about that, he held off the pressure. "I still have less experience than someone like Greg Van Avermaet. My legs are good and I've got to grab the chances that I get. You have to take it like it comes."
Within the final kilometres of the race, Van Aert wasted no time to jump on the wheel of eventual winner Zdenek Stybar when he attacked. Van Aert his reaction was swift, showed great cornering skills and made it looked easy to control Stybar. "It's good that it looked easy,” Van Aert laughed. "I was focused on the attacks because you knew they would be coming up. I think he played it perfectly. Even if he didn't ride away it was clear that we would get more tired. It was no option to give him 10 metres because we wouldn't catch him back. It wasn't easy but the only tactical approach was to get straight on his wheel."
With team Deceuninck-QuickStep racking up the victories, just like they did in 2018, it's hard for the other teams to come up with a fight against the so-called 'wolfpack'. Greg Van Avermaet was asked why was riding in front himself when approaching the Paterberg. Van Avermaet said he didn't have teammates to lead him out and said they all did what they could.
Van Aert jumped in and said that none of the top guns had support out there. "How many riders have teammates to bring them to the front of the pack at the Paterberg," Van Aert wondered. "All the team leaders are alone. It's a matter of positioning."
In no time, Van Aert has become the clear leader of the Jumbo-Visma team, at least for the one-day races. The Belgian rider concluded that he was indeed the team's best bet for a good result in these races while heralding the performance from his teammates.
"The races from the last few weeks show that I've got the best results in the team but after the first selection we see that both in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and today, there's still a lot of riders from the team. I don't have the feeling that I'm alone. Not only Danny van Poppel was good, also Mike Teunissen stayed with me for a long time. Amund Jansen, the Norwegian rider, anticipated the moves. He narrowly missed the move with Jungels," Van Aert said, adding that Jungels was not only smart but also super strong.
"You can say that it was a tactically good move from Jungels but I saw him go. There were not a lot of riders who had much air to breath at that moment. He was very strong and that’s often overlooked."
Jumbo-Visma director sportif Grischa Niermann was pleased to see that his team was performing well. "We've got a good team for the Classics. We're not up to the level from Deceuninck-QuickStep but that’s the direction we’re gunning for. With Wout we’ve got a super strong team leader and that’s pushing our team to a higher level. We rode a very good race as a team. Hopefully we can repeat this, or improve one spot for the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
"On Sunday, in Ghent-Wevelgem, there’ll be a lot of wind. Dylan van Groenewegen is our man for the sprint but we've got other cards to play. If there's a small group then Wout is our best bet but in a big group that'll be Dylan. If we can get on the podium one more time in the upcoming three Classics that would be great. You've got to realize from what level we're coming in the past few years. We were unable to fight along and now we've taken a massive step forward," Niermann said in Harelbeke.
When asked what the key to the strong team performance was on Friday afternoon, Niermann explained that he tried to find that in previous editions of the E3-prijs Harelbeke.
"The whole day long we were riding attentive near the front. We studied this race its typical development from the last few years and learned that from the Taaienberg we've got to be in the race. We did that, even though it got back together a few more times. We rode a very good race as a team and with Wout we’ve got one of the best riders of the moment. He proved that again today. At the right moment he was in front and able to keep up with the best. He’s one of the big guys for the classics now. That’s a massive positive for us. We certainly didn’t expect it to be up to this level,” Niermann told Cyclingnews.
"He knew that he had to keep an eye on Stybar when they got back to Jungels. He knows Van Avermaet and Stybar too. I told him that Bettiol was a fast finisher too. He was probably the most unknown factor up front. He rode very well the last few weeks. There were four really fast riders in that group. It was impressive that he beat Van Avermaet because he's pretty fast."
Van Aert was good - although some will doubt that - throughout the cyclo-cross season and now seems to be able to extend that on the road. Niermann didn't know how long Van Aert would be able to keep up his form.
"He did a great training camp in Alicante for ten days, instead of doing Tirreno-Adriatico or Paris-Nice. For now, it’s turning out to be the right decision. We hope that he can extend this kind of form until the Amstel [Gold Race]," Niermann said.
He was happy to have Van Aert in his team. "I think I can say he feels really good in the team. He's easy to deal with. He doesn't act like a big star. In the race, he's talking to the team to say that we've got to improve our position. It's got a bigger impact if he's saying that than when I say that through the radio. He's a real team leader without demanding that we sacrifice the chances from the other riders. It’s going very well with Wout."