He may struggle against the likes of Egan Bernal, Tadej Pogačar and 2020 winner Simon Yates on Saturday's key mountain finish to Prati di Tivo, but he could pick up precious time bonuses in other stages and pull back a significant amount of time in the flat 10.1km final time trial.
Both the 25-year-old Belgian and his Jumbo-Visma team are keen to find out just how well he can perform in stage races. There is no lofty goal of going on to target Grand Tours at the moment but a process of constant improvement and more success.
"If it turns out that he can also win stage races then we’ll also strive for that. The big plan is that he remains the best rider in the world. That's what he wants and that's what we want," Jumbo-Visma team manager Richard Plugge said in an interview with Het Laatste Nieuws.
Van Aert is curious about his Tirreno-Adriatico ambitions.
"There is a mountain finish and that will tell me exactly what I want to know: how far can I go and how much [time] will I lose. I am realistic: hurting Pogačar on the climbs probably isn’t going to happen, but I want to know how well I can do, without too much expectation," Van Aert said.
Van Aert finished fourth at Strade Bianche in what was his first road race of 2021 after the cyclo-cross season, becoming a father, and an intense three-week altitude training camp. He was unable to go with rival Mathieu van der Poel’s attacks at Strade Bianche but Jumbo-Visma are convinced Van Aert can improve by several per cent during Tirreno-Adriatico, so he is at his very best for the Cobbled Classics.
He impressed on the mountain stages of the Tour de France last year while working for Primož Roglič. In the absence of Tom Dumoulin, Van Aert will be Jumbo-Visma’s protected team leader at Tirreno-Adriatico.
He will fight for bonus seconds at stage finishes, limit his losses on the mountain stage on Saturday, and try to respond to attacks on the steep Muri climbs on Sunday’s stage around the hills of Castelfidardo. Filippo Ganna was 50 seconds faster than overall winner Simon Yates in last year’s final time trial and Van Aert can surely pull back a significant amount of time.
If everything goes to plan, Van Aert could lose up to a minute on the 14km climb to Prati di Tivo and still have a shot at overall victory on an encouraging podium place. However, it is as much about the journey and the challenge as final success, especially with such a high-quality Tirreno-Adriatico start list, with Bernal and Pogačar expected to do battle.
"I think he is ready. Wout is of course not Pogačar or Bernal. They’ll always have an advantage but Wout feels good," Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Merijn Zeeman told Sporza.
"He wants to explore his limits and see where his limits are. We’re curious. You don't become a classification rider overnight. We want to develop that. He is now trying it for the first time at WorldTour level and he must be given time to develop. The result is not important to us, but the experience is.
"Riding Tirreno-Adriatico this way, he can take a step up on a physical level and, on the other hand, he can learn as a classification rider. We want to expand that and Wout wants that too."
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