Despite having appeared to burn too many matches by attacking and marking attacks early on, the Belgian still had the legs to beat Axel Laurance (B&B Hotels-KTM) into second and Alexander Kamp (Trek-Segafredo) into third.
Lotto-Soudal’s Arnaud De Lie seemed to be primed to take victory as his teammate Jasper De Buyst led him out, but faded as the line approached to drift back to fourth.
Only about 20 riders were left in the peloton Van Aert sprinted to win the race after a tough, selective day of racing in Brittany.
It took until 4.2km for the final survivor of a break that went clear over 60km from the finish, Jan Tratnik (Bahrain Victorious), to be caught, when he was joined by Van Aert, Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ) and Oliver Naesen (AG2R Citroën), a trio that had just broken clear of the peloton on a short uphill.
These four riders were then caught by the peloton 2.5km from the line, and Lotto-Soudal ensured no more last-ditch attacks would go clear, but Van Aert nevertheless came out on top with the quickest sprint finish.
He might have been expected to have been challenged by Biniam Girmay (Intermarché–Wanty–Gobert), who was also present in the lead group at the finish but the Eritrean lacked his usual kick.
Earlier in the day, Van Aert had also played a role in bringing back the break, and at one point even attempted to bridge up to them single-handedly.
It was another convention-defying victory for Van Aert, just over a month after producing multiple such performances at the Tour de France.
How it unfolded
There was a change to the 254.8km course overnight, as two gravel sectors were removed at the request of some of the riders due to safety concerns.
But the course remained a testing affair, with thirteen classified hills in total, and plenty of undulating roads in between.
Pierre Rolland (B&B Hotels-KTM), Chris Hamilton (Team DSM), Yevgeniy Gidich (Astana Qazaqstan) and Martin Urianstad (Uno-X) used the first of those climbs to break clear from the peloton at the start of the day.
They were shortly joined by Luke Rowe (Ineos Grenadiers) and Johan Meens (Bingoal-Pauwels Sauces-WB) to form a group of six, and that group built a lead that grew to almost four minutes.
As the race approached the final 150km, where the other twelve climbs were situated, it decreased gradually, thanks to the work of Jumbo-Visma in the peloton. With so much more left to ride though, the peloton were in no rush to catch them, and the gap crept back up towards four minutes.
The race therefore remained calm and serene, and it took until 130km to go before the day's first crash, when Tom Paquet (Bingoal-Pauwels Sauces-WB) hit the deck.
As the business end of the race approached, there was some jostling for position at the front of the peloton, but the pace was still slow enough for Samuele Zoccarato (Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè) to jump out of it 77km from the finish and gain an advantage of almost a minute.
A bigger crash near the front of the peloton occurred 73km from the finish involving multiple riders, including Biniam Girmay, then another a few minutes after near the back.
With 66km to go, the race finally got going, as Aurélien Paret-Peintre (AG2R Citroën) instigated a move that saw him escape with Andrea Piccolo (EF Education-EasyPost), Jan Tratnik (Bahrain Victorious), Kevin Geniets (Groupama-FDJ) and Rui Oliveira (UAE Team Emirates).
They caught up to Zoccarato, and, 52km from the finish, were joined by Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates), Pavel Bittner (DSM), Krists Neilands (Israel-Premier Tech) and Markus Hoelgaard (Trek-Segafredo).
These nine riders quickly made ground up on the leading six, and by 46.5km to the finish had bridged the gap, forming a new leading group of 15 riders that were one minute ahead of the peloton.
Although the peloton did at one point bring them back to about 30 seconds, the leaders worked well together, and with 30km their lead had grown to over a minute.
By now panic was setting in in the peloton, and Wout van Aert took it upon himself to try to make up ground with an acceleration. A small group briefly went off the front along with him, but soon came back together and the pace eased up again, but not before the gap had gone back down to about half a minute again.
The climb of Marta 28km from the finish saw dangerous attacks in both the lead group and the peloton. First Tratnik used its steep slopes to attack out of the former; then Van Aert again jumped out of the peloton, and this time got a gap and began to work his way through stragglers dropped from the lead group, which was now fragmenting.
The effort clearly took a lot out of the Belgian though, and was unable to quite bridge up to a seven-man group that had formed behind Tratnik. Before long he was once again reabsorbed by the peloton.
With 16.5km, Tratnik was joined at the front of the race by Piccolo and Zoccarato. Upon hearing the bell heralding the final lap of 12km in Plouay, their lead over the peloton was 30 seconds, with Trentin, Paret-Peintre and Neilands stranded in between, along with Benjamin Thomas (Cofidis), Mikkel Frølich Honoré (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) and Toms Skujiņš (Trek-Segafredo), who had broken out of the peloton.
These stragglers were all imminently swallowed up by the peloton, followed by Zoccarato and then Piccolo, who were distanced by Tratnik on the Bosse de Lezot climb 5km from the finish.
Pierre Latour (TotalEnergies), Madouas, Van Aert and Naesen all tried separate attacks prior to Tratnik being caught 4.2km from the finish, but none were successful as the race instead was decided by a small group sprint.
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