Wout van Aert has admitted he set himself up for failure at the World Championships, adding that the aggressive early racing, including from Belgian teammate Remco Evenepoel, worked against him and left him unable to react when Julian Alaphilippe made his decisive attacks on the steep climbs in Leuven.
Van Aert confirmed that he has still to talk to Evenepoel and clear the air after the Deceuninck-QuickStep rider failed to attend a post-race debriefing meeting and went as far as claiming he could have won the world title if he had been a protected rider.
Van Aert, who finished 11th in the race, was speaking during a long joint interview with former rider Dirk De Wolf before the prestigious Kristallen Fiets award evening in Belgium. De Wolf was the first winner of the men’s award 28 years ago, while Van Aert won in 2020 and is again favourite this year.
"[Jasper] Stuyven won a Monument, [Tim] Merlier, [Jasper] Philipsen, [Victor] Campenaerts and [Dylan] Teuns won stages in Grand Tours. That is usually enough to be a contender but my advantage is that I have combined a few things,” Van Aert said, highlighting his Classics results, his three stage wins on different terrain at the Tour de France, and his silver medals in the time trials at the Tokyo Olympics and Worlds.
"After last season I thought it would be difficult to do even better. I think I can say that I succeeded. The only thing I miss is a Classic Monument. That would have topped it all."
Of course, Van Aert's performance at the Worlds left him hugely disappointed. He was unable to react when Alaphilippe began to open the race and then was unable to follow the moves to fight for a medal, eventually allowing Stuyven up the road to do so.
De Wolf revealed he was tempted to send Van Aert a message while he dominated at the Tour of Britain, begging him to ease off. Van Aert won four stages and the overall classification there, but now admits that his success and show of form perhaps hurt him and put him in the spotlight as the rider to beat in Belgium.
"I cycled myself into an unbearable role for the World Championships at the Tour of Britain," Van Aert said. "But riding along anonymously: that is not in my nature."
Immediately after finishing the Worlds road race, which saw Stuyven finish fourth after joining the chase of Alaphilippe, Van Aert admitted he had a bad day. Now he suggests that the racing was just too demanding for him, with the short and steep climbs not ideal for his style of racing.
"The course was not favourable for me. It didn't help me that there was so much flying around 200 kilometres from the finish,” he said.
"In an explosive final, riders like Mathieu van der Poel and Sonny Colbrelli would have to be better than Julian Alaphilippe and his 60kg on those short, spicy efforts of no more than half a minute. That was never going to be easy.
"With my weight, I had to dig far too deep into my energy supplies and in the end I was finished. It was nothing more, I don't think I made any mistakes.
"Alaphilippe and his team played a fantastically smart race, while we underused our collective strength and, instead of remaining calm, we fell into the open trap. Benoît Cosnefroy? Let him ride!" he added, referring to Cosnefroy’s attack with 180 kilometres to race.
Evenepoel jumped in the move to defend Belgian interests, but also drove the attack along for 50 kilometres. That made for a hard race on the early climbs, burning several Belgian riders who could have worked later in the race and leaving Van Aert with sore legs.
The post-race polemics were as big as the pre-race expectation on Van Aert to win. Evenepoel stoked the fire by then refusing to attend the post-race debrief and showing little regret for his own tactical decisions.
The two have still to clear the air, despite calls for them to talk, including from De Wolf, who pointed out they will be team leaders in the Belgium team for years to come.
"It hasn't happened for the time being, because right after the World Championships, I didn't really care about it. I was disappointed with myself and for the group, because I hadn't been able to deliver," Van Aert explained.
"Remco then chose not to attend the debriefing. That was a pity. After that, the season was soon over and everyone took a vacation.
"I've never been angry. I was disappointed because I just didn't think it was smart to spark a controversy in the media afterwards. But you're right: we need to sort it out because we will often be in national teams together."
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