Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) dominated the opening sprint at Tirreno-Adriatico on just the second day of his 2021 season, but he played down the idea that it was a way of responding to rival Mathieu van der Poel's Strade Bianche victory or an indication that he could go on to be an overall contender at the Italian stage race.
Van Aert proved at the 2020 Tour de France that he likes long, clean sprints and he used his power to leave some of the best sprinters in the world shaking their heads in anger and regret in Lido di Camaiore.
The finish was on the long, straight and wide boulevard along the Tyrrhenian seafront. There was space for teams to drag up their sprinters from behind, but Van Aert rode smartly, with a Jumbo-Visma teammate dropping him on Fernando Gaviria’s wheel and the UAE Team Emirates lead out inside the final kilometre.
When Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) tried to come from behind and make up ground, Van Aert kicked early to anticipate him. He then used his long sprint and power to hold his speed to the line.
“The final straight was really long, so today it was all about the right timing,’ Van Aert said, making it sound so, so easy.
“I had high speed and so when I saw the 200 metre sign and maybe a bit before, I thought not to wait and I launched my sprint. I had the speed to maintain it to the finish.
“When I launched it, I took the lead and I saw that nobody was coming, which is always a good sign. I think I started my sprint at just the right moment. I didn’t want to wait too long.”
Velon and Jumbo-Visma revealed that Van Aert produced 1215 watts during his 13-second final effort. He reached a maximum power of 1445 watts and a maximum speed of 72.6 kph.
Those numbers were higher than Van der Poel’s 1004 watts over 20 second on the final climb of Strade Bianche, but Van Aert insisted his win was not in response to that of his Classics and cyclo-cross rival.
“I’m quite used to Mathieu winning big races, so every time he wins it’s not a good thing if I get stressed about that,” he said, dodging a question about their rivalry. “It’s two different races. I guess Strade Bianche is a big Classic and maybe a bigger achievement too.”
Van Aert’s last victory came at the 2020 Tour de France in September. He won Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo and the Belgian time trial title beforehand and ended his incredible season with second place at the time trial and road race at the World Championships, before placing second to Van der Poel in their two-up sprint at the Tour of Flanders.
He spent much of the winter racing cyclo-cross and trained at altitude for three weeks before his season debut at Strade Bianche, but he made sure to find time to work on his sprinting.
“In this part of the season you need a high maximum power. There’s a lot of climbing in Tenerife but that doesn’t mean we don’t focus on it. I also did some sprint training yesterday,” he explained.
“Cyclo-cross is also a really good exercise for explosivity too. I was more worried about a lack of speed in my legs. Sprinting from 30 kilometres per hour and sprinting at 60 kilometres per hour is different. But my cadence is always pretty good and I think I surprised myself with this win.”
Every second counts in Tirreno-Adriatico GC battle
Van Aert started sprinting early for a reason: to give him the best possible chance of picking up at least some of the 10, six and four-second time bonuses awarded to the first three on the stage. Every second can count at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Before the start of the race, Van Aert and Jumbo-Visma confirmed this would be a test of his stage racing ability and leadership skills but they played down their chances against the likes of Egan Bernal (Inoes Grenadiers) and Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates).
The 14km climb to the mountaintop finish at Prati di Tivo on Saturday is expected to be the decisive stage for the overall classification. Van Aert will try to limit his losses and then try to pull back a chunk of time in Tuesday’s 10.1km time trial in San Benedetto del Tronto.
Van Aert and Jumbo-Visma have surely done the pre-race maths. Victory seems possible but they are keeping their calculations close to their chests for now.
“It was an objective to try to take some bonus seconds but winning the sprint against such fast guys was not what I expected,” Van Aert explained. “Maybe [there is a chance of doing well in the GC] but it’s still a long week. It’s early to speak about that.”
Knowing he may face a long week in the leader’s jersey, Van Aert was quick to praise and encourage his Jumbo-Visma teammates, who will now have to control the race and ride on the front of the peloton on Thursday’s 202km-long stage to Chiusdino near Siena. Wisely the team studied the finish last Monday during a post-Strade Bianche recovery ride.
“For sure I think today and at Strade Bianche we saw a strong team,” Van Aert said, keen to rally his troops.
“We’re in high spirits and have big motivation for this week. Starting with a win is perfect for the GC. We’ll see what the next stages bring but we’ve already achieved one goal today.”
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