On Tuesday afternoon Wout van Aert ended Tirreno-Adriatico as he had begun it seven days ago, with a stage victory, securing a second place overall ahead of far more esteemed stage racers in the process.
The Jumbo-Visma leader, who opened with a sprint win and closed with a time trial victory in San Benedetto del Tronto, finished the week ahead of Bahrain Victorious climber Mikel Landa, Ineos Grenadiers man Egan Bernal, and more, only losing out to 2020 Tour de France winner, UAE Team Emirates' Tadej Pogačar, in the week-long stage race.
He said after his time trial effort – where he became the first rider to win a time trial against Ineos' World Champion Filippo Ganna in over a year – that he took confidence from the week's racing, which he kicked off with a sprint victory ahead of Lotto Soudal's Caleb Ewan.
"I hoped to be close to those guys, but to beat them is good for the confidence," he said. "It is really good for the confidence that I can beat those guys here. I also think the conclusion is that winning Tirreno-Adriatico is within my capabilities – but everything has to go my way. Against the real climbers it will be very difficult."
Van Aert flew around the 10.1-kilometre out-and-back course on the Adriatic coast, putting a second into then-leader Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) and five into Ganna at the first checkpoint before going quicker in the final six kilometres, ending up six seconds clear of the Swiss rider and 11 clear of the Italian.
"It was a really hard one even though it's short," he said of the time trial. "You always hurt yourself to the maximum. I'm improving my time trials in the past years and this field is almost all the best time triallists on the start line.
"The first part was with the wind and the second part was against the wind. So, it was important to have something left for the final, but it was too short to really hold back. In the first part I rode mainly on speed and in the second part on the power I could still maintain. Actually, I gave everything.
"It's the first time I aimed for a GC in a WorldTour stage race, and I only got beaten by TDF winner, so I guess that's a pretty good start. I will definitely try more of these in the future but for now I have my eye on the Classics."
Van Aert will head to Milan-San Remo on Saturday to defend the title he won last August, beating Deceuninck-QuickStep's Julian Alaphilippe to the line after the pair had attacked on the Poggio. In the post-race press conference, though, the questions unsurprisingly zoned in on his rivalry with Mathieu van der Poel.
The Alpecin-Fenix rider, and eternal rival of Van Aert, put one of the more stunning efforts of the week's racing, riding 52-kilometres to victory on a grim, hilly day to Castelfidardo and only just holding off Pogačar to win. Like Van Aert, he also took two wins at Tirreno, so comparing the two ahead of San Remo was always going to be an inevitability.
"We are both suited to that course. The Cipressa and Poggio – they are a five-to-10-minute efforts and that suits us both. And we can sprint too," Van Aert said of their chances at the weekend.
"It's a less obvious tactic to break open the race at 50 kilometres from the finish on Saturday," he added, referencing the events at Castelfidardo. "The course does not really lend itself to that and we have also seen in the Strade Bianche that Mathieu can wait until the finale.
"You can't assume that he will attack at an unexpected moment every race. If I'm good enough, it doesn't matter what tactics he uses. If I follow, I always have my chance."
Van Aert has said that the week's racing hasn't taken it out of him ahead of his San Remo defence, and added that he's focussed on taking the win in Liguria despite already having the race on his palmarès.
"I think I recovered well after the tough stages of the past few days. I have 'thrown myself' everywhere and when you have such a time trial in your legs, it says something about your condition.
"It's more fun to achieve something you haven't achieved yet, but it's also fun to win a race twice. It's not the case that I am consciously less interested in Sanremo. We will give it our all there, too."
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