Not since Sean Kelly, perhaps, has a rider been able to toggle between disciplines on the Tour de France as readily as Wout van Aert. On Tuesday afternoon, the Belgian champion was edged out by Mark Cavendish in a bunch sprint in Valence. 24 hours later, he dropped Julian Alaphilippe and Bauke Mollema on Mont Ventoux to win alone in Malaucène.
On both road and mud, Van Aert’s cycling life has been a decorated one, with three cyclo-cross world titles and victories at Milan-San Remo and Strade Bianche on his palmarès. This season alone, he placed second behind eternal rival Mathieu van der Poel at the cyclo-cross Worlds and then collected victories at Gent-Wevelgem and Amstel Gold Race, but he suggested this, his four Tour stage win, was the standout moment of his career to date.
“Maybe it’s my best victory ever,” Van Aert said on crossing the line, and he offered his rationale to the written press half an hour later. “It’s because of the way I did it. Finishing alone on a mountain stage at the Tour de France is definitely not something I expected a few years ago. It’s an iconic mountain on the Tour. Mont Ventoux is really a place of history, and also it’s an area where a lot of Belgians spend their holidays and come out to support the race.”
The context of Van Aert’s season and Jumbo-Visma’s ill-starred Tour also played their part in the sense of occasion. The 26-year-old’s Tour build-up was hampered by surgery for an inflamed appendix in early May that saw him spend ten days off the bike, while his team has already lost leader Primoz Roglič, Robert Gesink and Tony Martin to crashes here.
“For the first three or four weeks, I still felt pain in my core muscles because they went through them for the surgery,” said Van Aert. “I was training as hard as I could for four weeks at altitude, but somehow my body was not responding like I was used to, and it was hard to arrive on the proper level.”
During Monday’s rest day, Van Aert had offered a joking response when asked to describe his current form as a percentage of his best. “96.3 per cent,” he dead-panned to Het Nieuwsblad. “No, I don't know. I sometimes hear people say they’re 80 per cent, but that is not possible. If you participate in the Tour, then you are close to 100 per cent.”
Whatever the true number, Van Aert’s condition allowed him to sit in second place overall after the first stage in the Alps, through he dropped away on the following day to Tignes. After being the best of the rest behind a dominant Mark Cavendish in Valence, he petitioned to be Jumbo-Visma’s designated rider for the day’s early break on stage 11.
Of the early escapees, men like Dan Martin and Bauke Mollema had the most obvious pedigree to win over twin ascents of Mont Ventoux, but it was Van Aert’s raw strength that won the day. He simply cruised away from Mollema and Alaphilippe on the steepest section of the second ascent, 14km from the summit, and then soloed past Kenny Elissonde. He reached the finish over the other side with 1:14 in hand on the chasers.
“Everything is good now after a difficult period before the Tour,” said Van Aert, who will not follow the example of his sparring partner Van der Poel by abandoning the race to focus on his preparation for the Tokyo Olympics.
“For sure I will go to Paris. That’s the plan and I believe it’s also good preparation for the Olympics, especially because I’m still coming back. I feel better every day on this Tour, and I’m in a better shape now than when I started.”
Roglič’s early abandon should, in theory, afford Van Aert greater freedom to seek further victories later in the Tour, though his liberty may be curtailed slightly by the emergence of teammate Jonas Vingegaard. The Danish debutant dropped Tadej Pogačar atop Mont Ventoux and he now lies in third overall.
Then again, Van Aert helped himself to two sprint wins on last year’s Tour while serving as Roglič’s most trusted lieutenant in the mountains. Toggling between roles has never been much of a problem.
“For the second part of the Tour, he will have full support, as everyone can see he is up there with the best and I think the podium is possible for him,” said Van Aert. “Of course, I’m also one of the leaders of the team, and it would be a shame not to give it a try to win more stages, I think. So hopefully we can combine both. We’ll see.”
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