The Belgian Jumbo-Visma rider, who was third at Strade Bianche, sixth at Milan-San Remo and third at the E3 BinckBank Classic last Friday, was one of a number of favourites for an open edition of De Ronde, and perhaps the home nation's leading hope.
However, despite early signs of aggression after the Muur van Geraardsbergen with just under 100km to go, the 24-year-old faded in the finale and had to settle for 14th place.
He finished the race in a group of 16 riders, behind solo winner Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First), who had escaped on the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont and held his lead over the Paterberg and the 13-kilometre run-in to Oudenaarde.
"I wasn't strong enough. I suffered a lot and wasn't able to be any better today. On the final time up the Kwaremont, I was on my limit, and then I struggled on the Paterberg. After that, it was over for me," Van Aert said beyond the finish line in Oudenaarde.
"It was a tough race from the Muur, so I thought it would explode, but we still went into the finale with a large group. It was said beforehand that many good riders were closely matched. On the climbs you could see that we were all worth something. But it was hard. You don't want to explain that feeling in your legs on the Paterberg."
Van Aert started the Paterberg in second wheel but started slipping back around the midway point of the short but viciously steep cobbled climb. He was distanced over the top but the group came back together for the run-in to Oudenaarde.
Containing nearly every team's designated leader, Van Aert was among the many to point out that it was an unruly group and not one conducive to chasing down a lone leader.
"It's hard to get organisation in a group like that. It's always the same. The rider who goes flat out in the chase will lose out on victory, so that plays a role," he said.
Later, speaking to Dutch website Wielerflits, he appeared to criticise Bora-Hansgrohe's Peter Sagan for a lack of collaboration.
"There are always guys who want to cooperate, but then there are riders like Sagan who do nothing but accelerate explosively, which then kills the tempo straight after."
In any case, Van Aert, by his own admission, wouldn't have been fighting for victory even if Bettiol had been brought to heel.
"I was dead empty after the Paterberg. I couldn't do a good sprint. Just following the guys in front of me was the maximum possible," he said.
"We came for more than that, but in the end I couldn't do better than what I did, so I cannot be dissatisfied."
Van Aert, like almost every other member of that group, heaped praise on Bettiol. The Italian was something of a surprise winner, who appeared in few pre-race predictions, but his acceleration on the Kwaremont didn't lie.
"Chapeau to him. He took a good opportunity. When he went, everyone knew it was dangerous – he was very strong there," Van Aert said.
"I saw him at E3, where I was in the break with him and Greg Van Avermaet [CCC Team], and he was certainly not the weakest of the three of us. Maybe before the race he was overlooked, but he was a deserving winner today."
Van Aert will now turn his attentions to Paris-Roubaix next Sunday. He placed 13th there last year in what was a breakthrough debut spring Classics campaign and, after taking another step forward this year to genuine contender status, hopes will be high.
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