They say a sprinter never needs to wait for the photo finish to know the result. Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) would beg to differ. He endured minutes of uncertainty after a remarkable edition of Amstel Gold Race, where he edged out Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) by the tightest of margins in a three-up sprint.
Van Aert hesitantly raised an arm after passing the finish line, albeit more in hope than celebration, and he already wore an expression of concern by the time he had screeched to a halt. He briefly broke into a smile after being told over his radio earpiece that he had won, but his countenance darkened again as he made his way towards the podium, with word reaching him that the commissaires were in fact still reviewing the photo finish.
A glance at the big screen hardly helped his anxiety. The television still at the finish line – which is not the same as the photo finish image studied by the race jury – suggested something akin to a dead heat. After an interminable conclave, there was finally white smoke. Van Aert was declared the winner – just – ahead of Pidcock.
“It was super tight because after the finish I didn’t know, actually,” Van Aert said afterwards. “A few moments later they said on the radio that I won, but another few moments later I saw some images on the big screen so then I was in doubt again. It took until the jury came into the changing room and said it was sure. It was just super tight. I never had something like this before.”
Pidcock had beaten Van Aert to the line at Brabantse Pijl in midweek and the Briton raced with considerable sangfroid again at Amstel Gold Race after joining the Belgian and Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) in the winning move on the final lap.
After leading beneath the flamme rouge, Pidcock had the presence of mind to manoeuvre Van Aert to the front on the long, long finishing straight. The Belgian was compelled to lead out the sprint, but he managed to kick just hard enough to hold off Pidcock’s thunderous finishing effort by the faintest of margins.
“The only thing I learned [from Brabantse Pijl] is never to underestimate him, but I don’t think I did that on Wednesday; I just did a bad sprint myself,” Van Aert said. “Today was a different sprint, more high speed and flat, so I knew it was in my favour. But if you see how close he is, he’s a big opponent and he’s really strong for a little guy.”
Indeed, the odds were perhaps tilted in Pidcock’s favour at the bell, when he was one of three Ineos Grenadiers riders in the leading group of six that formed over the top of the final haul up the Cauberg. While Pidcock had Michal Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz for company there, Van Aert was suddenly isolated as Primož Roglič, so impressive throughout the afternoon, was forced to a stop by a mechanical issue.
“On the top of the last time up the Cauberg, it was definitely not an ideal situation; three guys from Ineos are hard to battle against,” Van Aert said. “But I think without the mechanical of Primož, we would have been there with two of us and that would have been for sure a better situation, but until that point, we were in control always.”
The numbers became more favourable after the Geulhemmerberg, where Van Aert and Pidcock tracked Schachmann’s acceleration to form the winning break. They built a maximum lead of 20 seconds, though their advantage would drop to just a couple of seconds after the cat and mouse of the finishing straight.
Van Aert paid tribute to the earlier efforts of his Jumbo-Visma team, where Paul Martens – riding his 15th and final Amstel Gold Race – and Jonas Vingegaard impressed before Roglič policed matters on the penultimate lap.
“Everybody looked at us from the beginning of the race and we took our responsibility,” Van Aert said. “Like always it was a huge team performance. The guy who finishes it off takes all the attention but it’s also a big thanks to all the guys.”
Van Aert only added Amstel Gold Race to his programme after the postponement of Paris-Roubaix, and he confirmed that the Dutch race marked the end of his Classics campaign: “It’s perfect like this now.”
Amstel Gold Race marked Van Aert’s fourth victory of the Spring after his triumph at Gent-Wevelgem and two stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico. In 14 race days across all terrains so far in 2021, Van Aert has placed in the top 10 on 12 occasions and never finished outside the top 13. He is due to return to competition at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June.
“I’ll throw a little party tonight and then take a nice week off the bike,” he said.
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