Wout van Aert's two podium finishes on the opening three stages of the Critérium du Dauphiné for Jumbo-Visma were bettered on Wednesday with the Belgian's first WorldTour stage victory on the stage 4 time trial, putting 31 seconds into Tejay van Garderen (EF Education First) and 47 seconds into former time trial world champion Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb).
The victory is the icing on the cake for the three-time cycle-cross world champion in his debut stage race for a WorldTour team, where a third-place finish on stage 1 and a second place finish on stage 3 saw van Aert in both the green sprinter's jersey and the white best young rider's jersey at the halfway point of the race.
Van Aert has previously won a prologue time trial at the Baloise Belgium Tour in 2016, beating another former time trial world champion in Tony Martin. At only six kilometres in length, the prologue was a very different beast to today's 26.1-kilometre time trial, which featured a climb with around 200 metres of ascent at the midway point of the course.
"I think it was a prologue that I won in Belgium a few years ago but this is a longer TT and at WorldTour level so of course, it's a bigger result," van Aert said in the stage winner's press conference in Roanne.
"Obviously it's a surprise because I don't have too much WorldTour level time trials before and actually, we trained quite a bit over the last few weeks and worked on my position but not longer than a month so I didn't think that would be enough to compete on this level. It worked though, so I'm very happy."
Van Aert's stellar week comes off the back of the Jumbo-Visma team announcement that van Aert will also be riding the Tour de France next month. The Belgian's consistent results during the past two Classics campaign have marked him as a serious contender during the spring but whether the performances could be replicated in a serious stage race was an unknown.
This week, however, van Aert has put any of those questions to bed showcasing his ability in sprints, as a valuable assistant for team leader Steven Kruijswijk in the GC battle and, now, his time trialling talent.
"The Tour de France selection was a surprise but it was actually a dream come true. Especially with the start in Belgium, it's going to be very, very special. Now, I'm in good shape and I'm hoping to keep that shape through to the Tour de France and help the team where possible in the weeks to come.
"The ambitions for the Tour will be to help the team and help our leaders, [Steven] Kruijswijk and [Dylan] Groenewegen for the sprints of course and the GC for Steven, I hope to help with the team time trial in the beginning and the sprint train for Dylan [Groenewegen]."
Cyclo-cross star to time trialling talent
Van Aert has previously mixed his cyclo-cross ambitions with Belgian Pro Continental squad Verandas Willems-Crelan on the road, but following the team's merger with Dutch squad Roompot-Charles in the off-season, contract talks fell apart and the 24-year-old signed a three-year contract with Jumbo-Visma who will allow him to still race 'cross in the winter.
The Belgian's abilities in one-day races saw top-ten finishes at Strade Bianche, E3 BinckBank Classic and Gent-Wevelgem this season and the technical nature of racing 'cross can often be replicated in tough one-day races on dirt, cobbles and often muddy surfaces.
The high intensity of 'cross, albeit for just an hour, also perhaps replicates the short and similarly intense efforts of a time trialling, with today's result potentially offering long term targets for van Aert's future on the road.
"Maybe it will be a good objective to focus on time trialling, I wasn't as good at time trials before but certainly this season I have more experience, better equipment and the team behind me. This result is very sudden but very positive to be able to do it on a stage race like this one.
"I think [cyclo-cross] has been a big topic the last few months, especially with [Mathieu] van der Poel also being very strong on every bike. I think in Classics, I definitely feel I have an advantage with the high intensity of cyclo-cross and that's what you need on the steep climbs of Flanders. I don't know, maybe you can compare with time trials a little bit too because they're both full gas from start to finish and you have to fight with yourself so maybe that's a good comparison. On the other hand, they are still different so it's hard to say."
While van Aert has showcased his ability in the first half of the Critérium du Dauphiné, after a relatively flat stage 5 on Thursday, the race heads to the mountains. It will be there that van Aert will not be able to continue competing alongside new GC leader Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), plus the likes of Nairo Quintana (Movistar Team) and former winner Jakob Fuglsang (Astana Pro Team) when the road goes upwards.
"The real mountains are going to come this weekend and it'll be just too tough. I weigh 78kg, which is not ideal. I would need to be 10kg lighter to be able to compete with the best. Maybe now, I just want to focus on the green jersey but whatever happens, it has been a positive week with a third, second and now first place.
"I have won a lot in cyclo-cross and it's obviously nicer to win rather than finishing third or second. I was happy with my Classics campaign but now it's even better."
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