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Wout van Aert lays down Tokyo Olympics marker with Tour de France TT win

Wout van Aert of Jumbo-Visma wins stage 20, his second stage win of the 2021 Tour de France
Wout van Aert of Jumbo-Visma wins stage 20, his second stage win of the 2021 Tour de France (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Wout van Aert’s glum expression atop La Planche des Belles last year became a defining image of one of the most tumultuous days in Tour de France history, but from the first intermediate check on Saturday, it was clear that Tadej Pogačar would not pull off another late heist at Jumbo-Visma’s expense in the final time trial of the race.

Last September, Pogačar denied Van Aert’s teammate Primož Roglič Tour victory at the last. This time out, the Slovenian was already safely ensconced in yellow, but even if his motivation was dampened by his sizeable overall lead, there was no debating the quality of Van Aert’s winning ride.

Van Aert clocked an average speed of 51.5 kph across the 30.8km test through Bordeaux wine country to win by 21 seconds from Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and 32 from his teammate Jonas Vingegaard, while Pogačar came home almost a minute down in eighth.

“It means a lot, because winning a Tour de France time trial is not an ordinary time trial. It’s an achievement that was on my bucket list. I’ve tried it several times now, and today was the day it finally worked,” said Van Aert, who crashed out of his debut Tour in 2019 while seemingly en route to victory in the Pau time trial.

“This time trial was more rolling and fast. With my weight, it was more in my advantage than the first one, which was more punchy. At the finish, I saw I had a nice margin on the specialists like Asgreen and [Stefan] Küng, and when I saw the intermediate times of the GC guys, my hopes were rising.”

The victory was Van Aert’s second on this Tour after his remarkable solo victory over Mont Ventoux on stage 12, and his body of work across this race has marked him out as a favourite for gold in both the road race and the time trial at next week’s Olympic Games. Of the riders who used the Tour to build towards Tokyo, few have appeared to be in crescendo quite like Van Aert, even if he downplayed his status as favourite for the time trial.

“I don’t think so, because today there was about 250 metres of altitude and in Tokyo, it’s more than 700 metres in the time trial,” he said. “For me it’s a big challenge on that hard course, but on the other hand, it was hard circumstances today with warm temperatures and it was good practice.

“I take more confidence after this TT than I did after the first one in the Tour, I feel good and I’ll try my best, but I guess in a hard TT, it will be more for GC guys like Tadej. He’s not doing it? Maybe we’re lucky he’s not on the start line…”

Champs-Élysées

Van Aert’s feats of strength against the watch and in the mountains this July have only heightened expectations that he might one day seek to cast himself as a ‘GC guy,’ though the Belgian insisted that he had miles to race and promises to keep in the Classics before he could think about devoting his attention elsewhere.

“I didn’t look to GC too much, but I’m quite far behind. I obviously didn’t go full on every stage, but I did go full on some mountains stages and I was still a few minutes behind the fastest climbers,” Van Aert said. 

“If I target GC, I’ll have to improve my climbing still a lot. At this point in my career, I just want to focus on the strengths I have now. First on my list are winning a lot of Classics which are still missing and I’ll try to focus on that first.”

Van Aert’s dexterity across disciplines lends a certain relentless to his seasons, as he moves briskly from cyclo-cross to the Classics to the Grand Tours, and there will be no respite before his flight from Paris to Tokyo on Sunday night. 

The Belgian confirmed that he will contest the bunch sprint on the Champs-Élysées on Sunday evening, where he is perhaps the man most likely to prevent Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep) from breaking Eddy Merckx’s record haul of Tour stage wins.

“I’m going to try, because it’s a special stage. It’s one that everybody wants to win. I’m going to try but we’ve seen the Mark is very strong and his team is very good at leading out sprint,” said Van Aert, who will also look to slot a moment of family time into his schedule. “I hope to see my wife and son for a moment tomorrow night, and then I’ll take the plane. That will be hard but that’s the life of the cyclist.”

Le Temps report

A report in Swiss newspaper Le Temps on Thursday cited an unnamed rider who said he had heard “strange noises” coming from the rear wheels of bikes belonging to four teams, including Jumbo-Visma. Van Aert was asked about the issue of mechanical doping in the peloton during his post-stage press conference.

“I can only talk about myself. I’m sure of how I came to this level in cycling and basically I’m on the road all the time to become a better bike rider, and I can’t believe it’s within our team. I’m really sure that’s not happening,” Van Aert said.

“In the entire peloton, it’s hard to say something about others, but I didn’t see extraordinary things in this Tour. I just saw a lot of talents and a lot of strong guys who were prepared perfectly.”