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Wout van Aert seeking to expand stage racing horizons in 2021

Dutch Mathieu van der Poel of AlpecinFenix and Belgian Wout Van Aert of Team JumboVisma pictured in action during the Ronde van Vlaanderen Tour des Flandres Tour of Flanders one day cycling race 241 km from Antwerp to Oudenaarde Sunday 18 October 2020 BELGA PHOTO DIRK WAEM Photo by DIRK WAEMBELGA MAGAFP via Getty Images
Van Aert with long-time rival Mathieu van der Poel at the Tour of Flanders (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Wout van Aert has said that he is seeking to widen his horizons on the road, aiming to target a new set of races with Jumbo-Visma as soon as the 2021 season, with weeklong stage races in his sights.

The Belgian was one of the top performers of 2020, winning Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo and two stages of the Tour de France, as well as taking runner-up spots in the Tour of Flanders and in both the road race and time trial at the Imola Worlds.

 Van Aert's performance at the Tour de France, where he showed off a knack for climbing as a super-domestique for Primož Roglič, had some asking whether he could transform into a Grand Tour rider. He dismissed that at the time but has said that stage races and hilly Classics are among his future goals.

"Expanding my Classic palmarès remains a priority. Maybe one day I will change course, but that is still a long way off," Van Aert said in an interview with Sport/Voetbalmagazine

"I would also like to shine first in Tirreno-Adriatico, the Critérium du Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse. In the shorter term that is possible, especially in stage races with a time trial, such as Tirreno-Adriatico. I'd like to go for a GC result in 2021, and later in  the hilly classics such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia."

The 26-year-old also said that he rediscovered his passion for the sport during his long recovery from his crash at the 2019 Tour de France. He suffered a deep thigh gash after hitting a barrier in the Pau time trial, only returning to racing during the cyclo-cross season in late December.

"When you're glued to your hospital bed and then your couch for a month, you realize how much fun cycling is," he said. 

"I didn't used to think about that; it was self-evident. Now, while cycling, I think a lot more how much I like to be a cyclist.

"At a certain point, I also disconnected myself from negative thoughts, I no longer constantly asking myself whether it would still be all right. I focused on rehabilitation. That's how the sportsman in me came back again."

Coming back from several months off the bike, he was beaten handily by long-time rival Mathieu van der Poel when they met in several 'cross races through the winter. 

He flipped the script on the road in the rescheduled 2020 season, taking Milan-San Remo and Strade Bianche victories as Van der Poel finished outside the top 10, and he then starred at the Tour de France and Worlds. The Dutchman had to wait until the Tour of Flanders to get the better of him. 

Van Aert suggested that the perception of their rivalry is different on the road. 

The two are invariably separated and superior from the rest on the cyclo-cross field, where Van der Poel often comes out on top, while the pair were both winners when competing against far deeper fields and bigger rivals during the 2020 road season.

"Last season I achieved similar performances as Mathieu in the past in many different top races. I am certainly proud of that," Van Aert said of his 2020 road success. 

"Even if Mathieu beats me, like in the Tour of Flanders, I am still the second best in the world. That's not bad either.

"Fortunately, the perception on the road is different than in 'cross. Because there, it only goes between the two of us, the beaten one is always the 'loser' who is worse than the other. But when, as in Flanders, we blow other top riders off our wheel, then everyone realizes how good we are."

The war of words after Van der Poel marked him closely at Gent-Wevelgem means the two remain rivals. 

"In cyclo-cross, where we stand out, it's different. I think more about Mathieu during the week: about how I can beat him, and how I can adjust my training to his strongest qualities," Van Aert said.

"Losing a 'cross will certainly be easier to accept than being beaten in the Tour of Flanders. Not that the cross is a sideshow, but it has become a little less important than the road."