Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) wasn’t able to follow winner Remco Evenepoel on the Côte de la Redoute and he was surprisingly beaten to second place by Quinten Hermans, but he came away from his Liège-Bastogne-Liège debut reassured that he could one day win the race.
The Belgian champion’s third place meant that he became the first rider since Adrie van der Poel in 1986 to finish on the podium of both La Doyenne and Paris-Roubaix in the same year. That achievement was the more remarkable given that Van Aert’s Classics campaign was interrupted by the COVID-19 diagnosis that forced him to miss the Tour of Flanders.
“I think it’s a happy feeling,” Van Aert said when asked to assess his race afterwards. “Of course, I always try to win the race but I think it’s a bit the same as last week [at Paris-Roubaix]: I did the best result possible. Remco was really strong, by far the strongest. The way he stayed in front was really impressive.”
Van Aert won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the E3 Saxo Bank Classic earlier this Spring, when his form meant that his Jumbo-Visma team usually dictated the terms of engagement on the cobbles. At Liège-Bastogne-Liège, by contrast, Van Aert’s target was to hang tough on the final climbs in the hope of a reduced group sprint at the finish.
Although Van Aert was distanced by the chasing group on the final ascent of Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons, he managed to claw his way back on over the other side. His reputation as a sprinter, however, seemed to have a dampening effect on the spirit of collaboration among the chasers, even if Evenepoel never truly looked like being reeled back in.
“For me, I needed everything I had just to hang on at Roche-aux-Faucons, and I had to close the gap again over the top again. I put in a lot of energy to make it a sprint for second place and it was a hard fight to finish on the podium,” said Van Aerrt, who confirmed his intention to return to the Ardennes in the years ahead.
“I think definitely I will come back in the future. It’s nice to experience this race. Beforehand, I thought I had a good option to win it. And I think now afterwards, I can say that if everything goes in a good situation for me, then I am able to win this race.”
Van Aert was the overwhelming favourite for the Tour of Flanders before COVID-19 disrupted his Spring. He defied expectations to return to competition and place second at Paris-Roubaix a week ago and he completed a remarkable Classics campaign with another podium finish in Liège.
The 27-year-old has now finished on the podium at four of the five Monuments, a sequence that began with victory at the pandemic-delayed Milan-San Remo of 2020 and continued with second place at that year’s Tour of Flanders. He has yet to participate at Il Lombardia.
“It’s hard to say that I still had the super top shape I had a few weeks ago, but finishing second and third in the last two Monuments is still a big achievement,” Van Aert said. “When I got COVID, I never thought it would be possible, so I’m happy with that.”
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