Wout van Aert edged closer to taking a stage win at the Tour de France in Valence, taking second place a wheel length behind green jersey Mark Cavendish, who sped to his third victory of the Tour after a textbook lead out from his Deceuninck-QuickStep team.
With few other competing teams able to assemble a train to rival the Belgians – especially with Alpecin-Fenix's Mathieu van der Poel and Tim Merlier out of the race – the best option aside from riding for them would now appear to be to follow Cavendish's wheel.
That's exactly what Van Aert did on stage 10, the Jumbo-Visma sprinter winning the battle for the prime placement and – after a 150-metre sprint to the line – coming closest to dethroning the 36-year-old, who even at this halfway point looks the king of the sprinters at the Tour.
"There are no excuses. He was faster," Van Aert said after the finish. "I was where everyone wants to be in this Tour – on the Deceuninck-QuickStep train."
Van Aert, who finished fourth in the Laval time trial on stage 5 and otherwise has two eighth-place finishes to his name, is leading the charge in search of a stage win for Jumbo-Visma after Primož Roglič's crash, time loss, and subsequent abandon put paid to any hopes of the team winning the Tour this year.
The team has now pivoted to supporting Tour debutant, the impressive Jonas Vingegaard, who lies in fourth place on the general classification, in search of a podium spot in Paris.
Van Aert will be back on domestique duty Wednesday as the race heads to the double ascent of Mont Ventoux, but he'll continue trying to beat Cavendish to the line on the flat stages to come.
"I came out of Cavendish's slipstream but in the wind, I couldn't completely make up the gap," Van Aert said. "I deliberately didn't want to go ahead of Cav with the headwind, but it didn't give me much time to get even closer.
"He's the only sprinter who goes to the finish in a seat and that's a luxury. Although he's a class act, of course.
"I have to thank Mike Teunissen. The teamwork was beautiful. It's motivating to still make something of it in this Tour.
"Every day is hard in the Tour de France. Tomorrow will be really hard with a tough climb. I hope to see a lot of Belgians at the side of the road and help Jonas for another crucial day."
Cavendish now lies just one win away from equalling Eddy Merckx's all-time record of 34 stage victories at the Tour de France, and could make it to 35 by the end of the race. If ever there was any extra motivation for the Belgian…
"Especially for Eddy I'll try it," Van Aert joked. "And also a bit for myself."
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Daniel Ostanek has been a staff writer at Cyclingnews since August 2019, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later part-time production editor. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.
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