The Belgian, who placed a disappointed sixth at the Tour of Flanders, decided to extend his spring campaign into the Ardennes following the cancellation of Paris-Roubaix.
While he was, as he put it, "at the appointment" in the Brabant hills, he was roundly dispatched in the three-up sprint by a rider who was familiar from the cyclo-cross circuit and looked set to become a formidable Classics rival.
"I’m a little bit disappointed, but there was one guy stronger," Van Aert said. "No regrets - it was just a proper bike race."
Van Aert and Pidcock approached the line at the top of the snaking S-Bocht climb in Overijse alongside Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates), the trio having emerged as the strongest in the race.
While Benoît Cosnefroy (AG2R Citroën) launched a desperate attack from the chase group behind, Trentin started to wind up the sprint, with Van Aert the first to go before Pidcock nestled into the slipstream then sailed out in front.
"Three is not too many guys so there are not many surprises - you just have to look around a bit so that you’re not going too early or something," Van Aert said.
"I launched quite early, which should be a good tactic for my capacities, but the legs felt awful after a few seconds. I saw Tom coming from behind, and now I saw the replay already and there are no stories - he was just stronger and I have to accept it."
It was Pidcock who kicked off the main hostilities on the Hertstraat climb with just under 40km to go. Trentin jumped on it while Van Aert had to produce a longer effort to get on terms. Those three combined to reach Cosnefroy's chase group before linking up with the day’s main breakaway.
Van Aert was quicker to respond when Pidcock attacked on the same climb on the final lap, and the two made their way across to Trentin, who had launched a speculative solo attack a little earlier. In his post-race interview, Pidcock noted how strong Van Aert's turns were - even suggesting they were so strong they might have cost him in the end.
"It was a difficult race to control, especially in the beginning. Everyone was looking at us. It was no problem - we took our responsibility and in end we had some help as well. On the local laps we lost some control of the race which was a difficult situation but we stayed calm and tried to wait as long as possible to bridge because once you go then the final is full-on for the rest of the race," Van Aert said.
"Just before I went to try some myself, Tom went, and me and Matteo were three in the front. We showed we were three strongest and actually the same happened again on the last lap. We worked together in the front. I thought I had good chance in the sprint but one guy was stronger."
Van Aert will now turn his attention to Amstel Gold Race this weekend before bringing a curtain down on his Classics campaign. He’ll share leadership in Holland with Primož Roglič, who won last year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège and more recently won the Tour of the Basque Country.
"The men from the Basque Country join us so we are going to have a strong team. I'm looking forward to it, but I was really thinking about this race today," Van Aert said.
"Our tactics? That becomes obvious. I am faster at the finish and Roglič can make more of the race."
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.
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