Wout van Aert switches from climber to sprinter at the Tour de France

Try to think back through the annals of the Tour de France (opens in new tab) and recall the last time a mountain domestique one day has gone on to beat pure sprinters to the line the next. If it seems too unbelievable to be true then it has been, at least until Jumbo-Visma's Wout van Aert (opens in new tab) pulled it off on stage 5 (opens in new tab).

On Tuesday's stage 4 (opens in new tab) to the summit finish of Orcières-Merlette, the Belgian took over pulling at the head of the peloton as Mikel Nieve (Mitchelton-Scott) dropped away at the 3.5km mark, only handing over to teammate Sepp Kuss 1.5km from the line.

On that evidence, it looked as though Van Aert's Critérium du Dauphiné assertion (opens in new tab) that he'd have his own chances at the Tour had bitten the dust. The 25-year-old now certainly well and truly committed to burying himself for team leaders Primož Roglič and Tom Dumoulin, rather than taking his own chances.

But on Wednesday, after a strange stage which may have been the first-ever at the Tour with no breakaways or attacks, he was once again in vaunted company, this time beating sprinters Cees Bol (Team Sunweb), Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).

"It was a heavy finish," Van Aert said after dispatching with that trio as well as stage 3 sprint winner Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) on the run to the line in Privas.

"It was maybe the easiest stage I did in a cycling race because there was no breakaway and not a high pace at all, but then everyone was fresh and the last hour was really hectic. Today gave me all the time to recover [from stage 4] because the beginning was quite easy. If the shape is good, then you recover better.

"There was a lot of wind, so all the sprinters and GC teams wanted to be at the front. Then the last kilometre was slightly uphill, so I knew this was a stage that suited me. I'm just so happy that I got an opportunity from the team to go for it. If you have one shot and you can finish it off, then it's even more sweet."

Van Aert, a three-time cyclo-cross world champion who, since racing restarted has won Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo, a tough reduced sprint at the Dauphiné and Belgium's time trial title, looks like the most versatile rider in pro cycling right now.

That much could probably be deduced on the evidence of these two Tour stages alone, but Van Aert said after the stage that he didn't want to label himself this or that – something of an impossible task, in any case.

"I don't think it's necessary to put one label on myself. Maybe it's even my strength to refuse to do that. That's why I believe in a lot of options that I have, so I think it's just great to be versatile and like today it's not just an ordinary bunch sprint.

"It was quite hard in the final with a lot of uphill and hard wind. So, I knew that would suit me well and I'm really happy that I got the opportunity from the team to go for it and just deliver immediately.

"It was important to keep position [in the final], it was a hard uphill, and I managed to be behind Sunweb who had a good lead-out. I launched my sprint from the moment I saw Bol going in front of me. I was quite tight, but I was also on the outside, so I think it was maybe just half a wheel or something, but it was enough."

Van Aert said in the post-stage press conference that he had taken confidence from those big wins he took throughout August, adding that he wasn't too surprised about his condition at this point.

But now with a stage win in hand he'll be back to focussing on super-domestique work for his team leaders, starting tomorrow with a second summit finish of the Tour's opening week at Mont Aigoual, a new addition to the race.

"I have my stage win now and from now on I will support the team even harder than I did before," he said. "[It's] with a lot of happiness. Our leaders showed that they had strong legs yesterday and tomorrow is, again, an important stage.

"It's a huge honour and huge motivation to ride in this team and go for a GC victory at the Tour de France, the biggest race in the world," he said when questioned on whether his work for Roglič and Dumoulin could be seen as a misuse of his own vast skills. 

"It's just amazing to be part of it. It makes me a bit tired to always answer this question because it's not like helping someone else is something bad or something. It's also beautiful, and if nobody wants to help team leaders then we'd ride the bunch with 20 guys.

"That's no fun, and in the meantime, I showed that if there are stages that are less important for our leaders then I can go for myself, so I don't see any reason to complain about that."

It may only be stage 5 of the Tour, but it looks like Van Aert is committed to his helper role for almost all of the remainder of the race. There will be a few sprint opportunities before Paris, but he said that the Champs-Èlysèes could be his next chance to add to his win tally.

"I think because that's the final stage we don't need to keep something left for the day after," Van Aert said in response to a question that, in fairness, has come very early in the race to be given full consideration.

"So of course, if I'm still there then I want to give it a go. It's a really special finish and a nice one to have on your palmarès. Looking at that but before we have 2.5 weeks coming with a lot of difficulties and hopefully a lot of work because that will be a good sign.

"I think from now until then the focus will really be on the teamwork, and I'm really glad I could do that."

That's stage 5 winner Wout van Aert, seemingly comfortable on any course and in any team role.

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