Wout van Aert: I'm just a little cyclist compared with Eddy Merckx
Belgian denies Cavendish Tour de France record on Champs-Élysées
The final stage of the Tour de France ended at 7:20 p.m. local time and Wout van Aert's flight to Tokyo was due to depart at 11:30 p.m. on Sunday night. He had hoped to spend a couple of quiet hours with his wife and young son before travelling onwards to the Olympic Games, but victory in the bunch sprint on the Champs-Élysées meant that his time was suddenly limited.
The podium ceremony, anti-doping control and television interviews meant that Van Aert was still lingering on the Champs-Élysées more than an hour after the finish, but despite the impending dash out to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, the Belgian sat into the press conference truck to talk reporters through his third win of this Tour and his second in as many days.
In landing a mountain stage, a time trial and a bunch sprint in the same Tour, Van Aert has notched up a hat-trick of multi-tasking last achieved by one Bernard Hinault in 1979. The multi-tasking wasn't limited to the bike. Van Aert had previously vowed to keep his infant son away from the public eye, but now, with family time at an even greater premium than before, he carried Georges in his arms on the podium. "I asked my wife for permission after the stage," he smiled.
On Sunday evening, the stage was set for Mark Cavendish to break Eddy Merckx's record of Tour stage victories. While his Deceuninck-QuickStep team led into the final corner, it was Van Aert's lead-out man Mike Teunissen who took up the reins of leadership on the finishing straight, which was some 300 metres longer than the last time Cavendish won in Paris.
"It gave more of a chance to a team like us who could come after the corner, and I was fully confident that Mike was going to deliver me in the right position," said Van Aert, who sprinted from 230 metres to go, comfortably holding off Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) and Cavendish. "I just had to hold Mike's wheel. It was just a world-class lead out today, hats off."
Van Aert's victory – his sixth in three Tour appearances – came in the jersey of Belgian champion, and it was perhaps inevitable that after preserving Merckx's hold on the record, he would be asked if he was, in fact, the second coming of the Cannibal.
"I heard that one coming," Van Aert deadpanned. "I guess it's the same comparison that journalists made to Cavendish when he won number 34. It's impossible: Eddy Merckx won the GC of the Tour five times and he won basically every race in the world of cycling. I'm just a really little cyclist compared with Eddy. I'm just proud of my own performances."
Even among a generation of riders who toggle between disciplines, Van Aert's dexterity across a range of terrains makes him arguably the most complete cyclist in the contemporary peloton. His remarkable level of form on this Tour, meanwhile, posits him as an obvious favourite for gold in both the road race and time trial in Japan next week. Like American sports star Deion Sanders in his days of playing both professional baseball and football, Van Aert was unable to single out one discipline over the other.
"I guess I'll try to win both, but of course it's going to be really difficult. Though for now, I'm still overwhelmed by the victories of this weekend," said Van Aert, who acknowledged that his condition was the best it had been since last year's World Championships in Imola when he took silver in both disciplines.
"Probably yes. Maybe also at Tirreno-Adriatico in the spring, I was on almost the same level. But the feelings I had this weekend are pretty close."
The Tokyo Olympic Games are just the next step on Van Aert's never-ending tour. After returning from Japan, his thoughts will turn quickly to the World Championships on home roads in Belgium, and, of course, the postponed edition of Paris-Roubaix. When the dust settles on the road season, he will once again take to the mud of the cyclo-cross circuit to continue the undying rivalry with Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix).
And, in 12 months' time, he will be back on the Tour. After winning over Mont Ventoux, claiming an individual time trial and then landing the blue riband of sprinting on the Champs-Élysées, Van Aert has ticked a lot off his laundry list of ambitions this July, but there always seems to be more.
"There are still a few things left. I want to come back one day and go for the green jersey. I think that's what's next on my mind. But the Tour is over now, so I wasn't really thinking about the Tours to come," said Van Aert.
In the more immediate term, he had the Sunday evening traffic on the A1 towards Roissy to consider. Just another relentless few hours in a seemingly relentless career. "Once I'm on the plane, that will probably be the first time I can sit down," Van Aert said. "I'll try to get there on time."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.