Few debut Classics campaigns have been as keenly watched as Wout van Aert's, and the three-time cyclo-cross world champion has not disappointed. The Veranda's Willems Crelan rider was the picture of pain over the final climb of the 2018 Tour of Flanders, but he held on and took a hugely impressive ninth place, just 25 seconds behind the winner Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors).
The 23-year-old admitted he had harboured hope of making the top 10 prior to his Tour of Flanders debut.
"It had been said beforehand that this course is a war of attrition, and that was right," he told Belgian broadcaster Sporza, mud still covering his face. "The difficult climbs continued to follow each other. That was not easy, but I got through it. I had secretly hoped for a place in the top 10, but I think that I will soon realise what champions I have ridden with."
Van Aert began his Classics campaign back at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad at the end of February. While he finished 32nd in the end, coming home in the main group behind the winner Michael Valgren (Astana), he had been in an elite breakaway group that included Valgren, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors). Van Aert said that this was more surprising than that early performance.
"It is, of course, more surprising than my performance in the Omloop. Yet I had signed for this in advance," he said. "Only on the last time up the Paterberg, I fell back for a moment. I turned onto the climb badly. I had to tell myself not to ride into the barriers and I lost my cadence that way. When Jasper Stuyven and Oliver Naesen left a gap, I myself did not have the strength anymore to move up. But once we were at the top, the three of us took turns to take the gap quickly again."
Van Aert's impressive campaign will move onto its next stop at Paris-Roubaix in a week's time. It is the final race of his spring before he enjoys a holiday in the United States with his fiancée, Sarah. With a course that lends itself to good bike handlers, Van Aert's form is a promising sign for the 'Hell of the North' and he is hopeful that he can keep it going for one more week.
"The condition is still good, and I have to be able to stretch it for another week. In Paris-Roubaix, I hope to save as much energy as possible by driving over the cobblestones. I think," he said.
"Well, it is actually difficult to say a lot about it beforehand. I know, it sounds old-fashioned, but Paris-Roubaix is something new again. Do I have the advantage as a 'crosser? I hope so, but I can only give you the right answer within seven days. In any case, I am eagerly looking forward to it. And whatever it gets there, my spring cannot be broken anymore."