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No timeline for Wout van Aert to return to racing after COVID-19

Wout van Aert and Christophe Laporte went 1-2 at the E3 Prijs
Wout van Aert and Christophe Laporte went 1-2 at the E3 Prijs (Image credit: Sprint Cycling Agency)

Until mid-week, Jumbo-Visma had the outright favourite to win the Tour of Flanders in Wout van Aert. But after their Classics captain came down with COVID-19 and was forced to miss his home race the team came away empty handed despite taking the race on with an aggressive strategy. The best the team could manage was ninth with Christophe Laporte.

Jumbo-Visma sat out the early breakaway but as the peloton approached the first block of hellingen in the final and the escape began to be reeled in, Nathan Van Hooydonck attacked on the Molenberg and drew out a dozen riders, including teammate Mick van Dijke, in a strong counter-attack.

However, the Tour of Flanders is hardly ever kind. As the pace ratched up ahead of the second block of cobbled climbs, Laporte found himself climbing out of the roadside culvert after being taken down in a crash, and neither he nor Tiesj Benoot were able to follow when Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) launched the winning move. Van der Poel stormed to his second win in the Tour of Flanders while Pogacar was out-sprinted for the podium by Dylan van Baarle (Ineos) and Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ) who caught the duo in the final 250 metres.

With Van Aert the team's most-proven rider for the Classics, it was another missed opportunity for Jumbo-Visma. Directeur sportif Arthur van Dongen told Het Nieuwsblad that he felt Van Aert would have been there with Laporte by his side.

"I do think that given the course it would have been a course for Wout, especially with a strong team around him," Van Dongen said. "If Laporte hadn't crashed, he would have been with the others who animated the final. And Wout normally would have been there, too, I'm convinced of that."

Paris-Roubaix is luckily now two weeks away after swapping dates with the Amstel Gold Race because of the French elections but Van Dongen is making no guesses whether he can come back in time for the Hell of the North.

"For now it's far too early to say when he will return. As long as he is not fit, we can't say anything about that. It's first a matter of getting him better, then medical checks and then we have to see if it makes sense to schedule races."

Jumbo-Visma made the most of Tour of Flanders, wisely sitting out the early breakaway and helping to control the gap. As the peloton approached the first block of hellingen in the final and the escape began to be reeled in, Nathan Van Hooydonck attacked on the Molenberg and drew out a dozen riders, including teammate Mick van Dijke, in a strong counter-attack.

However, as the pace ratched up ahead of the second block of cobbled climbs, Laporte found himself climbing out of the roadside culvert after being taken down in a mass crash.

"I felt good today", Laporte said in a team press release. "It's unfortunate that I crashed. I had to put in considerable effort to make up for the lost ground. A crash always comes at the wrong time, especially in this case. The team worked hard to get me back in a good position."

Coming across the line in a five-man chasing group 48 seconds behind, Laporte finished in ninth place.

"I'm in good shape, which is a good sign for the races to come," said Laporte, who is next up for the Amstel Gold Race and Paris-Roubaix. "I am satisfied with ninth place. It turned out to be the maximum we could achieve."

Benoot, who finished in 13th place at 1:02 agreed that Laporte's crash cost the team critical efforts. "We wanted to attack on the Molenberg. I think that worked out well. Mick and Nathan got away, so we had two guys in front. It was a shame Christophe crashed. It cost the team a lot of energy to bring him back to a reasonable position. I felt good, but unfortunately, I couldn't keep up when the others accelerated," Benoot said.

The team's star of the day was neo-pro Van Dijke, who was wearing Van Aert's number 11 and starting the first major classic of his career at Tour of Flanders. He finished in 75th after his last-minute call-up.

"I surprised myself today", Van Dijke said. "For me, the Tour of Flanders is the most beautiful classic. The fact that I was able to attack is very nice. It became clear that I still lack that little bit for a race of this length. But I concluded that I have made progress and am very proud of that. As a team, we have not given up. We have shown that we are strong in this kind of race, and over the last weeks, I have shown that I have something to look forward to in these big classics."

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