On Friday's Tour de France stage, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) were finally allies rather than enemies. Instead of racing against each other, slugging it out in the biggest cyclo-cross races or the spring Classics, they worked together for a common goal on stage 7, the longest day of the 2021 Tour de France.
They had shared goals: the Dutchman to extend his lead in the overall classification to keep the leader's jersey one more day, and the Belgian keeping his time in the hope of taking yellow from Van der Poel in the Alps. Van Aert is now set to offer an alternative strategy for Jumbo-Visma after Primož Roglič continued to suffer from his crash injuries and lost any hope of overall success.
Van Aert and Van der Poel were unable to stop Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious) from going clear before the final climbs and staying away to win the stage. However, they combined to chase the other attacks, worked to gain time on the peloton and sprinted for the placings, with Van der Poel finishing fourth and Van Aert eighth.
The Alpecin-Fenix rider leads his Jumbo-Visma rival by just 30 seconds, with the two Alpine stages to come at the weekend.
"If you didn't look around you'd think it was the Ruddervoorde Superprestige rather than the Tour," Van Aert joked after the stage.
"We're long-time rivals and I think it will stay that way forever but today we had a few laughs out front during the stage. I enjoyed breaking out of the usual routine of the Tour and going into battle. The plan was to join the attack today, both to go for the win and for the overall standings.
"I already know Mathieu a bit, so I knew he would be on the lookout, too. It's great that he's racing like that. I couldn't get away from him and so he deserves a lot of respect for keeping the yellow jersey," he said.
"I put everything on one attack but I couldn't get away. Then I said that we'd both benefit if we work together, we'd both stay close to the other and in the GC. Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do against Mohorič. He pushed on before the toughest climb and somehow he stayed ahead of us."
Van Aert couldn't resist putting the squeeze on his eternal rival in the final kilometres of the stage, once it was clear Mohorič would not be caught.
"I first let Asgreen attack because he was also a small danger for Mathieu's yellow jersey. That forced him to ride in the final but he was still the strongest in the sprint."
With Roglič slipping to 33rd overall, 9:11 down on Van der Poel and 5:30 down on Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), Van Aert is now Jumbo-Visma's 'Plan B'.
Twenty-four-year-old Jonas Vingegaard is 11th at 5:18 and could also ride for a top-10 place in Paris.
The hope now is that Van Aert can recover from his big ride out front on the road to Le Creusot and distance Van der Poel in the Alps enough to take the yellow jersey from him, while doing enough to stop Pogačar pulling back his 3:13 deficit and snatching the race lead.
"I definitely shouldn't give up just yet. But I'm curious how I will feel tomorrow after today's ride. I'm guessing I'll have bad legs," Van Aert said with a pinch of realism. "If Pogacar is strong and aggressive, very little will be possible."
With Roglič still licking his wounds and coming to terms that his overall chances are over, Van Aert did not want to grasp team leadership at Jumbo-Visma. That will occur naturally on the road to Le Grand Bornand on Saturday.
"It was certainly not my intention to become the team leader. We had hoped that Primoz would have recovered sufficiently but that is not the case, unfortunately," he said. "Now we need to take a look at what we're going to do in the rest of the Tour."
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