Wout van Aert admitted he had been surprised to be invited to the Strade Bianche pre-race press conference and nervous to sit between Peter Sagan and Michal Kwiatkowski. Yet he showed he deserved his place at the table with a third place on the podium behind Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) and Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) in Saturday's race.
Helped along by rain that turned the gravel roads to mud, Van Aert showed that he can successfully translate his cyclo-cross prowess to WorldTour road racing with an aggressive performance.
"I don’t think I had anything to lose. I did the 'cross season and I wanted to do these races to learn as much as possible. Sometimes you learn more with trying and losing than if you don’t try at all. That was my mindset," he explained after enjoying his moment on the podium in Piazza del Campo in Siena.
Snow during the week melted before the race, but it had turned the 63 kilometres of gravel roads that pepper the 184km route into mud bogs, with a cold rain making conditions even more difficult for riders.
"It was a really tough race, fast right from the start and the gravel sections were in bad condition, actually a lot worse than I thought. It was really muddy in places. For me it was good because I was able to go on the front on the gravel sections using my skills and I was not afraid compared to others. I had a nice day.”
Van Aert had the courage to jump across to Romain Bardet when the Tour de France contender attacked with 45km to go, sensing it was the right moment to take a risk and test his limits.
"He was a really strong guy to be with on the front. I think he had same goal as me - to anticipate the others a little because the collaboration in the group was bad," Van Aert explained.
"He was stronger in the end but I was lucky that I could hang on to him on the last difficult parts in the last 15km."
The efforts took their toll on the final steep ramp towards the Piazza del Campo as Van Aert cramped up and came to a standstill before literally falling to the ground. He picked himself up and ran with his bike for a few yards before remounting and finishing the job.
"I was just happy to stay on the podium," he said.
Van Aert has already won several road races but his performance at Strade Bianche lifts his status as a rider, even in cyclo-cross-mad Belgium. He is already a three-time cyclo-cross world champion and seems to have the physical and mental qualities to emerge in road racing, too. He will add an extra dimension to the Spring Classics in the next seven weeks.
"Road racing is still a lot bigger, with different guys in the front but 'cross riders are at a high level too," he rightly argued.
"It’s only 30 minutes after the race, so it’s difficult to think about what it all means. Maybe next week I’ll think more about the performance and podium place. But for sure I surprised myself and definitely want to come back for more in the future."
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