The 26-year-old made it into the first echelon with Jumbo-Visma teammate Nathan Van Hooydonck with 180km to go, and the group was whittled down by the strong wind, the climbs and the unpaved Plugstreets that followed. At the finish in Wevelgem, Van Aert out-sprinted a select group of very fast men to get a win he was longing for.
“I’m very happy. It’s the first Flemish Classic that I’m able to win. It’s something I’ve often tried the last few years, but it didn’t work out. It was very high on my wish list. Every year I headed home from Wevelgem crowned as the top favourite for the Ronde but that was always without a victory,” Van Aert said.
“I’m much happier with this situation. Being the top favourite for the Ronde is similar to the two previous years. I have to deal with that. It’s possible in nearly every race. It’s more fun to be the top favourite with a win in the bag.”
Van Aert was speaking at his post-race press conference in the church of Saint-Hilary in Wevelgem, which served as the ad hoc press room as the normal sports hall is being used for COVID-19 vaccinations.
This was the second time that Gent-Wevelgem was contested amid the coronavirus pandemic, with Flemish fans not allowed to head to the course. Only people who live along the route were allowed to go out and watch the race pass by.
“It feels strange to ride the cobbles and ride up the climbs without the fans flanking the roads. It’s important that we keep it like that. People at home can enjoy the race," Van Aert said. “Sometimes I still see a lot of people. I don’t think all the Wout van Aert fans were really living along the course. There were a bunch more. I understand it but I hope that by following the rules we can still do our job and give some entertainment to the people.”
Van Aert certainly provided entertainment to the cycling fans on Sunday, just like he did two days earlier in the E3 Saxo Bank Classic. On Friday he rode a strong race despite a puncture, and he teamed up with Mathieu van der Poel to battle the strong Deceuninck-Quick-Step squad. On the Tiegemberg he found out that even Wout van Aert has limits: he accelerated but was countered by Van der Poel and ended up being dropped. That wasn’t what Van Aert expected from the E3.
“My performance wasn’t bad so there was no reason to have doubts. Friday night I headed home with a bad feeling. I expected a lot from the race, but a few things just didn’t go well,” Van Aert said.
“That was frustrating. There was some sort of doubt. Those doubts were gone during today’s race. I felt good again. I rode much smarter and that’s how I got the win. There was no need to split the group apart on the first passage over the Kemmelberg. It was still very far. It was in my benefit to keep Nathan in the group and try to get everybody to work together.”
Van Aert felt that riding smart was what he forgot on Friday.
“The puncture didn’t help, but afterwards I didn’t race very smart. It’s not about being the best during the race, it’s about being the best at the finish line. I had to blame myself that I no longer had the legs in the finale.
“It was difficult with all those guys from Quick-Step, but it was not realistic to pull for so long and try to drop those guys; obviously they’re too good for that. I should’ve made a choice. I was the only one who was suffering from my efforts. It was frustrating to realize that while I thought I was good I ran into a counter. That wasn’t fun.”
Featuring in the first group early in the race ended up being the key to the 2021 edition of Gent-Wevelgem. “It wasn’t a tactic or an attack. It just happened. Everybody knew there would be echelons. The pace was picking up and I was in the top-50. Jos van Emden brought me much closer. I was able to move to the front where I found Nathan Van Hooydonck. It wasn’t possible to be there with everybody,” Van Aert said.
“It was more a matter of keeping your position. There was so much wind that it had to break behind us. Even though there were only 50 kilometres covered, the plan was to race as if we were in the final 50 kilometres and not give away any positions. That was the mindset you needed when starting this race. It’s not a guarantee but it helps.”
Van Hooydonck controlled the group but then Van Aert had to finish it off in the sprint. The presence of super sprinter Sam Bennett (Deceuninck - Quick Step) didn’t worry him and in the final 30 kilometres the Irishman suffered from a hunger flat and dropped out of the winning move.
“Today, I was confident in my sprint,” Van Aert said. “Of course, there were some really fast guys in the group but it’s always different after such a hard race. With the tailwind in the end, it was hard to do attacks, I guess. That’s why I focused on the sprint. I had Nathan the whole day with me. That was the key factor. He could hold everything together. It’s a victory from both of us.”
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