An already deeply impressive debut for Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) in the World Tour this season showed no signs of ending in the Tour de France on Monday, as the Belgian clinched his first Grand Tour stage victory in a dramatic small bunch sprint at the end of stage 10.
Van Aert has already had plenty to celebrate this season, with a solid Classics campaign followed by back-to-back time trial and bunch sprint victories in the Critérium du Dauphiné, not to mention the Belgian time trial championship.
But in what is proving to be a dream Grand Tour debut for Van Aert, after three Tour stage victories and a lengthy spell in the overall lead for Jumbo-Visma, the 24-year-old Belgian has now notched up an individual Tour stage win of his own.
If, on Monday's fraught final half hour's racing, Jumbo-Visma's management had nurtured any nagging concerns over the absence of the team's main man for the bunch sprints, Dylan Groenewegen, in the front group, it turned out that Van Aert had the bases more than covered.
A surging-early sprint saw Van Aert shadowed closely by Deceuninck-Quick Step's Elia Viviani all the way to the line in Albi, but that was as good as it got for the Italian.
Van Aert managed to stay ahead, leaving Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) forced to settle for his fourth top-three finish without a victory in 10 days.
"For me, personally, this is the cherry on a very nice cake," Van Aert said afterwards. "As a team we already had some hopes and expectations before we came into the race, but this is way more than we could have hoped for."
Van Aert admitted that sprinting in a 30-strong group like the one that finished ahead on Monday was a very different kettle of fish than in a full-blown mass dash for the line.
But he pointed out, too, that such fraught finales demanded a different skill set than just sprinting, such as "managing to keep our heads cool" when the situation was far from predictable – and once again, he and Jumbo-Visma had passed that test with flying colours.
Genuinely unable to say whether his maiden Tour victory felt better than his multiple cyclo-cross world championship titles, Van Aert pointed out that he was coming from very different perspectives when dealing with them.
"Probably this is bigger, but it’s difficult to answer such questions right now," he reasoned. "When I wake up on the day of the world championships, I know I can win it. This here, is a big surprise."
Questions about his off-road cycling past seem almost de rigeur in a Van Aert press conference, and the Tour was no exception. Asked how he viewed the advantages of cyclo-cross when making the mutation into a road-racer, Van Aert said, "It's a super good way to start cycling in general. You learn good bike handling, you get a high degree of explosivity for accelerations, and it's never boring. It's just one of the nicest things to do in the sport.
"I hope that this win can help give cyclo-cross a big boost so that it will not only be popular in Belgium and the Netherlands, but will begin to be more popular worldwide."
As for his more recent career path, Van Aert reflected that, “It's been a life-changing year, not only on the sporting side. My wife and I got married a year ago, and afterwards I had some difficulties with my previous team, and the winter wasn't what I wanted. I kept working and finally I'm really on a good level, going even better than before. I can only say that every setback has only made me stronger."
And on Monday's stage 10 of the Tour, Van Aert moved onto a whole new level of professional racing altogether.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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