Having placed second in both the road race and time trial at last year's World Championships, and again at the cyclo-cross Worlds earlier this year, Tokyo marked Van Aert's fourth silver at major international level in less than a year.
However, he was left with no regrets as he survived the climbs and still produced a fearsome sprint at the end of Saturday's race, even if Richard Carapaz (Ecuador) had already crossed the line to take away the gold medal.
"Of course I'm a lot happier than in Imola," he said, referring to last year's Worlds, where he also led home a select group behind a solo winner - Julian Alaphilippe - on a motor racing track.
"I always race to win but I guess today there was one guy stronger. It was hard to arrive still in the group and play my sprint but I managed to do it and I'm really happy with the silver medal. It’s something really special to take a medal in the Olympics, even though I aimed for gold, but I guess it was the best possible result today."
Van Aert's Belgian team played a major role, with the outgoing Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet helping to control the day's breakaway before Tiesj Benoot and Mauri Vansevenant shredded the bunch on the key climb of Mikuni Pass in the final 40km. As Tadej Pogacar (Slovenia) attacked, and Carapaz joined a group that bridged across later on, Van Aert was put on the back foot on the steep gradients, but he hung in and remained in contention over the top.
The race then became a tactical affair and when Carapaz followed an attack from Brandon McNulty (USA) with 25km to go, it turned out to be the winning move. Van Aert was the most prominent force in an uncoordinated chase but, despite reducing the gap from 40 seconds to 20 seconds at one point, the gold medal slipped away.
"I was the fastest finisher and you are always looked at. I knew in advance that this was going to be a difficult situation," Van Aert said.
"Carapaz is the only one to stay ahead and was very strong. A medal was the highest achievable for me. I'm glad I was able to give something back to the guys because we used the perfect tactics. We can be proud of that medal. A second place at the Games is better than in any race."
As in Imola last year, Van Aert has two realistic shots at gold, and is among the favourites for Wednesday's time trial. There was always going to be an element of unknown for the riders arriving in Tokyo straight from Paris, with so little time between the Tour de France and the Games, but Van Aert, who won three stages at the Tour, confirmed his flying form.
"I also think I have a really good chance on Wednesday. After the Tour I feel good. I recovered well and today I showed my legs are good and that I also adapted to the jet-lag and the weather here," he said.
"Hopefully a few days of rest will bring me into the good shape for Wednesday."
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