After Sunday's Tour of Flanders, Wout van Aert will make his debut in De Brabantse Pijl and also race the Amstel Gold Race. The news follows the postponement of Paris-Roubaix on Thursday afternoon to October 3.
The Jumbo-Visma rider regretted that Paris-Roubaix would not be contested this month but put his focus toward Tour of Flanders, known to Belgians as the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
“It’s a pity. The Ronde is obviously very important, so that doesn’t change. Too bad that when the Ronde will be done and dusted, the cobbled Classics will be abruptly over. Obviously, I’m disappointed.
"It’s not a major surprise but until this morning I kept hoping that Roubaix would happen. If that was the case we needed to be prepared. It’s interfering with our preparation for sure. Paris-Roubaix should be contested now, not in October. Due to the cancellation of Roubaix the approach to the Ronde is different. It reminds us a lot of last year.”
With the cancellation of Paris-Roubaix, Van Aert decided to add the Brabantse Pijl, and Amstel Gold Race to his programme but will forego the rest of the Ardennes Classics. “I’ll be racing the Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold Race. Afterwards it’s time for a break.
"I’ve just started my season so it was possible to add these races to my schedule. I wanted to do more with the form that I’m currently at. With Roubaix happening I would not have done the two other races. In the current scenario there’s time to recover from the Ronde and get ready for those races,” Van Aert said on Thursday afternoon during a small press conference in the team hotel in Ghent.
It'll be the first time Van Aert takes the start in De Brabantse Pijl. The semi-classic starts in Leuven – where the 2021 World Championships will be contested - and finishes in Overijse right after the Schavei climb. Last year, the Brabantse Pijl was won by Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), taking his first victory in the rainbow jersey after the narrow loss in Liège-Bastogne-Liège (and relegation) a few days earlier. In 2019 the winner was Mathieu van der Poel, now with Alpecin-Fenix.
“The course is not unknown to me. I often ride there during training rides, even yesterday. If you want to climb a bit in the area then that’s where you have to go,” Van Aert said.
During his training ride on Wednesday, Van Aert headed to Terlanen to check out the Moskesstraat. The 550 metre-long cobbled climb features a maximum gradient of 17 per cent and will be an important section at the World Championships, while also featuring in the Brabantse Pijl. The road was recently repaved, using the same cobbles. Van Aert didn’t like the outcome.
“We intentionally rode towards the Moskesstraat to see how it is. They repaved it but it’s a pity to see how it was done. It used to be a cobbled climb where it was impossible to stand up from the saddle. Now it’s just a smooth ride. It’s a real pity, also for the World Championships in Leuven.
“We trained quite hard both yesterday and today. I didn’t get to see yesterday’s race live. They rode too fast, or we were away too long,” Van Aert laughed. He wasn’t surprised to see Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers) won.
“He [Van Baarle] was already high on my list but yesterday he confirmed his capabilities. He was really strong at E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Gent-Wevelgem too. It’s a rider for the Classics who’s often forgotten. He’s ambitious and a rider who likes to attack.”
It would have been a race where Van Aert certainly had chances too, but coming fresh from the double E3 Saxo Bank Classic and his win in Gent-Wevelgem, the Belgian rider opted to skip Wednesday’s semi-classic.
“If you’re not taking part in a race then you’re always missing the chance to win a race. It would’ve been too much of intensive racing. During training it’s possible to do that as well but you get to choose where and how long.
"It’s ideal if you can train on the actual course. We noticed that the course is quite different compared to last year. Without the passage over the Muur in Geraardsbergen the course ended up twisting much more and there’s more cobbled sections. Today we passed the climb where Dylan van Baarle rode away in Dwars door Vlaanderen; I forgot the name. It’s now part of the Ronde but I never rode there before,” Van Aert said, referring to Berg ten Houte, near Ronse.
“I re-watched the race from where Dylan rode away. At that point the peloton was already split into several groups so it must’ve been hard before that point. It was probably harder than it looked like and many riders hit the wall."
When asked if the favourites for the Ronde were not going flat out, the 26-year-old pointed out that he didn’t like to talk about other riders.
“It certainly didn’t look like they were hiding. Mathieu wasn’t riding like he normally does. Yesterday I was also surprised by the sudden heat and maybe that was the cause. He’s never had two bad days in a row so I’m sure he’ll be ready on Sunday. I will not react differently in the race because he wasn’t going great on Wednesday. Alaphilippe probably needed the racing the most but it’s not up to me to judge them. Behind Van Baarle it was clearly difficult to shake each other.”
Focus on Flanders
When looking back at last year’s Tour of Flanders, Van Aert was reminded about his close defeat in the sprint against Van der Poel.
“The two-man sprint was inevitable. We were unable to get rid of each other. I certainly made mistakes. I probably should’ve started my sprint earlier. If we end up in the same situation like last year, I’ll certainly think about it but I’m confident about my sprint."
A change of bikes from Bianchi to Cervélo might also make a difference this year.
"This year I’ll be racing with the S5 [aero road frame] which is certainly faster. I used it in Gent-Wevelgem and that made me decide to go for that bike over the Caledonia which is made for the cobbles. It’s fast, too, but there’s some differences between those bikes which make me decide to go for the S5.”
Van Aert feels more ready for Flanders than last year when the race was contested after the Tour de France. “Physically I’m just as good as last year. Since Tirreno-Adriatico I’ve been at a high level and I aimed to stay as good and even add a percentage until Roubaix. Mentally I’m feeling more fresh.
"Last year was about grabbing along what was possible after the Tour and trying to extend the form as long as possible. There was motivation but no real hunger; the mental strength was different. Back then it was the dessert, now it’s the main course,” Van Aert said.
Cyclingnews asked him about the first riders he thought were able to win the race apart from the top favourites.
“Jasper Stuyven is good and Greg Van Avermaet seems to get better in every race. Stefan Küng is always near the front. I read that Turgis rode top 10 in every classic. He’s maybe not the man who’ll win but there’s very few riders who can do that. There’s a lot of riders who can win the Ronde, apart from the top favourites.
"They say in cyclo-cross that it’s impossible to win the World Championships race if you’ve never won a race before. I feel like that’s true. A win gives you the confidence that it’s possible to finish it off. There’s probably 10 to 15 riders at the start of the Ronde who can win. A hundred kilometres into the race there’s already a few off that list,” Van Aert replied.
Since 2005 the Tour of Flanders winner has always finished in the top 10 in the E3, except for Nick Nuyens before his surprise Tour of Flanders victory in 2011. Van Aert, 11th in the E3 this year, laughed when asked about that statistic.
“If I would’ve known I would’ve tried harder but I finished where I deserved to finish that day. I made some mistakes that day. Let’s end that series. Can’t you find a similar statistic about Gent-Wevelgem,” Van Aert asked.
Tom Boonen showed that the E3 Harelbeke was a perfect rehearsal for Flanders by winning it before each of his three Tour of Flanders victories. It'll be a comforting thought for Van Aert that Tom Boonen also showed that the Gent-Wevelgem/Tour of Flanders double is possible in 2012, and so did Peter Sagan in 2016.
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