Even before the final reckoning on the Oude Kwaremont, Wout van Aert perhaps already sensed that this wasn’t going to be his Tour of Flanders. After making the race at Gent-Wevelgem a week ago, the Jumbo-Visma man often seemed to find himself chasing it on Sunday afternoon.
Van Aert was still in contention come the finale, of course, and he still had the strength to join the day’s pivotal move, tracking eventual winner Kasper Asgreen’s attack over the top of the Kruisberg in the company of eternal rival Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix).
But when Van der Poel delivered his umpteenth, searing acceleration on the uneven cobbles atop the Kwaremont, Van Aert could follow no longer.
"I was on my limit," Van Aert said afterwards. "I didn’t have the feeling I wanted today. I tried to survive as long as possible, but the last time up the Kwaremont was the moment where I collapsed.
"I just didn’t have the legs in the final, so that’s a little bit disappointing but I have no excuses, I just wasn’t good enough."
Van Aert chased grimly over the Kwaremont but he was unable to make any inroads into the advantage of Asgreen and Van der Poel before the following Paterberg. His challenge came to a definitive end on the short and sharp final climb, where he zig-zagged across the road in a desperate bid to keep his gear turning over.
On the run-in to Oudenaarde, Van Aert opted to wait for the chasing group, but by then he knew that he was competing for a minor placing. He came home in 6th place, 47 seconds down on Asgreen, who surprisingly outsprinted Van der Poel to the win.
"I hoped they’d look at each other in the final, but apparently they worked together afterwards," Van Aert said. "The Paterberg was a struggle. I tried to stay ahead of the chasers. But I was not good enough anymore, so I dropped back to the group behind."
The Tour of Flanders was expected to produce a tussle between Van Aert, Van der Poel and the Deceuninck-QuickStep collective, though Asgreen’s victory owed as much to individual strength as team strategy. Asgreen outlasted Van Aert on the Kwaremont, matched Van der Poel on the Paterberg, and then overwhelmed the Dutch champion in the sprint in Oudenaarde.
Although Van Aert expressed mild frustration that Asgreen had not, in his view, contributed wholeheartedly to the winning move before the Kwaremont, he accepted that the Dane, already winner of the E3 Saxo Bank Classic, was full value for his victory here.
"Kasper was not allowed to pull with us because he had teammates behind. It was a bit silly because he attacked himself, but once they dropped me, I think they worked together better. And I was just not good enough in the final," said Van Aert, who wasn’t entirely surprised that Asgreen had beaten his old rival in the two-up sprint.
"Maybe if they go both the finish, you would expect Mathieu to win, but Kasper is a world-class bike rider, and at the end of a hard race like this, it’s always a strange sprint."
Van Aert’s Classics campaign will continue with Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold Race, but he acknowledged that the Ronde was the centrepiece of his Spring. Last October, he was pipped by Van der Poel in the two-up sprint, but this time out, it was a different kind of disappointment.
"Today I was missing the legs, no excuses," said Van Aert, who refused to criticise the absence of his Jumbo-Visma teammates from the front group in the finale.
"When the race was full on from second climb of the Kwaremont, it was basically only the leaders left. Only QuickStep had maybe a few riders. The boys did a really good job until that point. I couldn’t ask for more."
Last month, Van Aert produced a remarkable body of work at Tirreno-Adriatico, winning two stages and outperforming some of the world’s best climbers to place second overall. A week ago, he marked himself out as – perhaps – the favourite for the Ronde with an assured victory at Gent-Wevelgem.
On the day of days, however, Van Aert was unable to replicate those displays, but he gently downplayed the idea that his previous exertions, on the road and on the cyclo-cross circuit this past winter, had extracted too high a toll ahead of the Ronde.
"I think it’s a bit too early to take big conclusions or big lessons," he said. "In the end, it’s not that I was nowhere: I was 6th in the Tour of Flanders, I was just missing a little bit. My legs were good until today, but today there was just not the super feeling. To win a Monument like this you need everything right."
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