Sunday's Paris-Roubaix was a comeback race like no other for Wout van Aert, the Belgian finishing his day in second place just two weeks after missing the Tour of Flanders with a COVID-19 infection.
Van Aert's own Jumbo-Visma team had tempered expectations ahead of the race, saying that he would act in a support role for his teammates, including Christophe Laporte and Mike Teunissen during the Hell of North.
However, despite an early mishap which saw him on the wrong side of a crosswind split, Van Aert was a major protagonist in the final, eventually sprinting to second on the Vélodrome André Pétrieux in Roubaix, sprinting ahead of Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ). In regular circumstances, a second place for Van Aert would be a disappointing outcome, such is his reputation and ability, but he said after the race that he was surprised and happy with the result.
"I'm definitely not disappointed to arrive second because it's a big surprise to feel this good in the race and actually I'm just happy and proud to be in second," he said in the post-race press conference.
"In the final me and Stefan Küng could drop the others from where we were still in the breakaway. And then we raced to the finish, and I think Dylan only gained time on us. So, I would say the strongest was in front.
"Of course, I had some bad luck before the race and during the race, but everyone has his own story in Roubaix, I would say. Just really happy to be on the podium."
After recovering to the front of the race just in time for the brutal five-star cobbled sector at the Trouée d'Arenberg, Van Aert was quickly out the back again, suffering a rear wheel puncture early on the cobbles.
What followed was another chase back to the peloton on a teammate's bike, before, 30km after the mishap, Jumbo-Visma took to the front and blew things apart at Orchies. Van Aert went on the offensive several times during the final 50km and was part of a counter-move with Küng on sector 7 at the Bourghelles cobbles, despite puncturing once again two sectors earlier.
He and his Swiss companion rode to the finish, unable to make headway on Van Baarle, who had joined the head of the race at 54km to go, but second place was just reward after a challenging day.
"I would say actually it was really good situation because we were one of the only teams who didn't have to work in the front or the back," Van Aert said of the split in the peloton after 47km of action.
"From Arenberg it was a different story. I punctured at the rear immediately in the beginning. I was a bit too much on the side of the cobbles where it's really bad. It was really flat immediately, so I damaged my wheel, changed to a teammate's bike and from then it was half an hour of chaos to come back.
"But nothing was lost and in the end, I could still ride in the final. I definitely missed Christophe at that part of the race – he had bad luck earlier on and had to change bikes a few times. It's a shame because when you can work together in the final you have more options."
Van Aert said that he felt different coming into Roubaix having no racing under his belt since before the Tour of Flanders, despite a training stint in Spain in the build-up to the race. He said that pretty soon after getting back into the swing of racing he was back to his normal habits of "focussing on how to win the race and how to stay out of trouble."
There were not what-ifs for Van Aert after the race. He was asked about the races he had missed, and whether he might have been able to hoist the famous cobblestone trophy aloft at the end of the 257km race. However, he dismissed the line of questioning.
"It doesn't make sense to give quotes like this. I can say now that without sickness I would've won Flanders, Amstel and would also have won this one, for sure," he joked. "But it's bike racing and it's not that easy.
"Even if I was 100 per cent and at the best level ever, there's still 180 other riders who were really strong and on top of their game, so for sure it would have been different.
"But that's how it is, and it was also the most important part after Flanders was gone. I really changed my mind and said 'OK, it is how it is now' and really, I have to accept it. Fight again like I always do to come back and to chase new opportunities," he said.
"I think today shows that after sickness, I'm still able to ride the podium. So that actually makes me proud and it's a confirmation to myself that it was worth it to keep believing."
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Daniel Ostanek is production editor at Cyclingnews, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later being hired as staff writer. 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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