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Road racer of the year: Wout van Aert

Van Aert simply crushed it this year, from the white roads of Strade Bianche to the mountains of the grand tours.

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It is hard to think of Wout van Aert as a breakthrough rider of 2020. After all, the Belgian is already the three-time world cyclocross champion and a skilled road racer. But many cyclocross specialists have struggled to transition to the road. And while the 26-year-old posted consistently solid results on the road over the past three seasons, he got even better in 2020 and dominated part of the season.

Questions swirled around the condition riders would have at the first races of the post-COVID-19 calendar, as many questioned how to best prepare for the first races like Strade Bianche and the nearly 300-kilometer Milano-Sanremo with virtually no warm-up racing.

Van Aert questioned very little, it seemed, winning both with tremendous flair. First, he soloed to victory in Strade Bianche, confirming the immense promise he showed by finishing third in the race’s previous two editions. And then, just one week later, he battled back to catch Julian Alaphilippe on the technical descent of the Poggio and outsprinted the Frenchman on the Via Roma.

Some riders who showed good form in August faded as this year’s condensed season evolved, but van Aert, it seemed, only got better, winning the opening stage in the Critérium du Dauphiné, as well as two stages at the Tour de France. And he continued with podium performances at the world championships, and finally, at the Tour of Flanders.

Van Aert grimacing in front of a mass of cyclists
Van Aert wins stage 1 of the Critérium du Dauphiné. Photo: Vincent Kalut / Photonews

And yet, it was perhaps not in victory where van Aert impressed the most, but instead in his extraordinary role as a Tour domestique for Primož Roglič. Not only did van Aert chaperone his Jumbo-Visma leader through the flat stages, he did a lion’s share of the work on numerous climbing stages, which allowed the team’s true climbers to save themselves for the highest summits.

Few expected van Aert to morph into a real climber, but his ability to navigate the mountains showed that he could soon be much more than a classics rider and sprinter. Someday soon, he could win a weeklong stage race.

“He’s got everything going for him,” said Philippe LeGars, a journalist for L’Équipe. “He is a real natural talent and is meticulous when it comes to material and training. He has a particular style. He is very explosive — something that his years in cyclocross gave him. And he is really powerful and very aerodynamic, as we see in his time trialing. He is still really progressing. And in some ways, it will depend on him and his own ambitions, just how far he will go.”

It is difficult to find another rider in the pro ranks today that is as versatile, since van Aert can sprint, time trial, ride the cobbles, and climb, but mostly it was his ability to master such a complicated season from start to finish that makes him our road racer of the year.