Wout van Aert has confirmed he will have the freedom to target stage victories and the race leader's yellow jersey in the opening stages of the Tour de France, before Jumbo-Visma focus 100 per cent on helping Primož Roglič win the overall title.
Van Aert's multiple talents mean he can win sprint stages, time trials and uphill finishes like the ones in Landerneau and on the Mur de Bretagne on the opening two days, where Classics rivals Julian Alaphilippe and Mathieu van der Poel will also be targeting the rare double of stage success and yellow.
Van Aert will switch to a key domestique role later in the Tour to ride for Roglič in the mountains but emphasised the importance of having the freedom to race for himself in the opening stages.
"I think it’s clear to everyone that I can hunt for a stage victory or a best possible result in the first weekend," Van Aert said during Jumbo-Visma's pre-race video press conference, making his protected status clear despite a poor internet connection from the Jumbo-Visma hotel.
"It's also clear that the team is here with one big goal and that's getting the best possible GC with Primož. We’ll never lose that bigger goal. I don't see issues there but, on the other hand, I'll be free to place myself in the finals."
Van Aert will swap the Jumbo-Visma colours for his black, yellow and red Belgian national champion's jersey after winning the road race title on Sunday. He beat Edward Theuns in a close sprint after an aggressive race and a breakaway with the Trek-Segafredo rider and Remco Evenepoel.
Van Aert's Tour de France training had been delayed due to appendicitis surgery in May and he had initially played down his personal hopes for the first week of the Tour. However, winning the national title has boosted his confidence and confirmed his sprinting ability.
"When I looked at last Sunday’s numbers, it was the best sprint of the season so far," he revealed.
"It's always different when there's a three-rider sprint, the speed you launch the sprint is quite low, but I'm happy with my performance on Sunday. I was doubtful before but I gained a lot of confidence during the race. I hope that at the international level here at the Tour, I’ll be strong enough to sprint in the final in the coming days."
Time bonuses of 10, six, and four seconds are awarded at stage finishes and so victory in Landerneau automatically awards the first yellow jersey of the 2021 Tour.
Success on subsequent stages can do the same or extend any lead, while the stage 5 time trial in Laval could even see Van Aert gain even more team and possibly lead the Tour all the way to the Alps.
"On the first stages it comes automatically, with good results, and if you’re close in GC. I think it’s the dream of every rider to wear the yellow jersey," Van Aert said.
"Mike Teunissen explained what it's like to have the yellow jersey, so I’m curious how it will be. I think until the TT, I have a few chances to be close and so it's something that is on my mind."
'We're confident in our leader'
Van Aert and Jumbo-Visma know they are walking a tight-rope between the Belgian national champion's personal goals, some early success at the Tour de France, and final overall victory, but their strategy seems to have been discussed and decided.
Speaking a little after Van Aert, Roglič appeared happy with the tactical plan, while Van Aert confirmed his loyalty to Roglič's overall ambitions.
"We’re confident in our leader," he said when asked about Roglič's decision not to race in the build-up to the Tour de France and instead focus on altitude training.
"Primož has shown us multiple times he can come out of training right into great shape. I think that's why he decided to change his preparation a little bit and not race. There's always a bit of a question mark because you never know how you respond to the race feeling but for sure he'll be completely fresh at the stage and hopefully that will be an advantage at the end of the race."
Van Aert arrived in Brest on Wednesday after a final training ride in Belgium.
He has done his pre-race homework, studying the stage routes, but is keen to do a reconnaissance ride of stage 1 to see if the route deep into Brittany's rolling country roads is as hard as it appears.
"I've only seen the stages online, for now, I think we'll go and recon stage 1 today or tomorrow," he said.
"From what I see, it's a tricky route all day long and there are some punchy climbs. It'll be an important weekend for the stage winners and for the GC guys. We expect a high pace the whole day and the survival of the fittest in the final sprints because they're uphill and will all be about timing and having some energy left. Normally it suits me but it'll definitely be hard."
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