The Tour de France ended just five days ago but Van Aert was still strong, pulling 20 seconds back on Ganna in the second half of the course as the tailwind blew them – at an average of 57kph – back to the motor racing circuit.
Ganna stopped the clock in 35:54 to give Italy its first-ever time trial world title. Van Aert was 26 seconds slower, with Stefan Küng (Switzerland) third at 29 seconds. Geraint Thomas was fourth at 37 seconds and Rohan Dennis fifth at 39, highlighting Ganna's ride and also that of Van Aert, who moved up from sixth-fastest at the midwary checkpoint.
"I don't think I could have gone faster, so I have to accept second place. I was beaten by a better rider today, so congratulations to him," Van Aert said of Ganna in the post-race press conference, after eating two sandwiches as he kicked-off his post-race recovery with thoughts already of Sunday's road race, where he is considered a favourite.
"The second part of the race was good for me, I still had something left but in the five kilometres before the intermediate time check, I had to slow down a little and I lost too much time there to Ganna. I knew it was the most important part of the course and couldn't go any faster."
Van Aert had no regrets about riding the Tour de France. He won two stages and played a fundamental role in helping Primož Roglič almost win the yellow jersey. Swapping three weeks of success and suffering in France to focus exclusively on the World Championships was never a consideration.
"I wouldn't have done it differently. The Tour de France is an important race and if you win stages and have such a good race, then why change that?" he asked.
"I had a good TT and pushed the numbers I had in mind, so who knows if it could have been different. I don't think so."
Van Aert missed out on the time trial rainbow jersey but he still has a chance of a world title in Sunday's road race, where he is a huge favourite thanks to his superlative and eclectic bike skills.
In just the last seven weeks, while others suffered during the return to racing after the COVID-19 lockdown, Van Aert has won Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo, the Belgian time trial title and then his two Tour de France stages, while also often hurting the best climbers in the mountain stage as he rode for runner-up Primoz Roglic.
He is arguably the best bike rider in the peloton this year, but kept his ego under control when asked if he thinks he is the best.
"It's the first thing I think when I look at myself in the mirror…." Van Aert joked. "Of course I don't think about that. I'm just really grateful that I can achieve different things. That's what I always try to do," he explained, confirming his career goals.
"I've won three cyclo-cross world titles and so I also thought I could do something on the road. Now I hope to end my career with a very big palmares. It's a big motivation to show that I can do different things. For a long time in cycling, we thought we had to focus on just one thing, but I hope to do as much as possible."
Van Aert's performance in Imola secured him a berth in the Belgian team for the Tokyo Olympics but he considers the summer of 2021 a long way away.
He will only really turn his attention to Sunday's road race on Saturday when he trains on the hilly course in the Imola hills.
"I haven't seen the road race course yet, I've focused on the time trial. From tomorrow (Saturday) I'll recon it and then know more," he said
"Of course it'll be a hard race, there are some steep climbs on the circuit and a lot of twisting roads. I guess it will be a long day of suffering and the differences will be made automatically.
"I hope to recover as well as possible. It was a hard effort today but it was only for 35 minutes. I had a good rest after the Tour de France, I saw that today and think it's enough. I feel I have the same legs as the last few weeks, so I feel confident for the road race... we'll see how it goes in the finale."
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