Wout van Aert on Paris-Roubaix purgatory: ‘The Hell of the North seems cursed for me’
The Belgian hits the podium but lost a chance at going for the win after puncturing on the Carrefour de l'Arbre: 'I think I had the legs to do more.'
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ROUBAIX, France (VN) — Wout van Aert is ready to leave purgatory at the “Hell of the North.”
The Belgian suffered his latest misfortune at Paris-Roubaix on Sunday as he suffered a puncture just as he attacked the leading group of favorites over the Carrefour de l’Arbre.
As he pulled over to the side of the road to pick up a new wheel, he could do nothing but watch his rival Mathieu van der Poel ride off into the distance on his way to victory.
“The Hell seems cursed for me,” Van Aert told reporters at the finish. “It’s hard to accept at that moment in the race. Puncturing is part of Paris-Roubaix, but it was a puncture at Carrefour de l’Arbre, the last hard section. Afterwards it was virtually impossible to win. I think I was alone in front and punctured on the corner.”
Van Aert’s relationship with the cobbled monument has been strained at times. His friend and teammate Michael Goolaerts died after suffering a cardiac in 2018, and the following season’s race was beset by mechanical issues and crashes.
He finally hit his first podium on his fourth try at last year’s race, but lost out to a soloing Dylan van Baarle, who returned this year as his teammate. He looked destined to go up against Van der Poel for the win Sunday, but his chances were ended with the puncture.
“It’s a classic Roubaix scenario,” he said. “It looks like you’re doing a good move, and then suddenly in two minutes everything shakes upside down.”
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Van Aert, who said that the rib injury he picked up at the Tour of Flanders didn’t bother him while he was riding, hadn’t put a foot wrong until that point as he surfed the wheels in a group where he was totally outnumbered by Alpecin-Deceuninck riders.
Van der Poel had Jasper Philipsen — who went on to kick to second — and Gianni Vermeersch for much of the final 100 kilometers, while Van Aert was left isolated.
Jumbo-Visma looked strong early on and ramped up the pace over the d’Haveluy to Wallers section with 102km to go, pulling the race apart at the seams. Christophe Laporte was able to go with Van Aert while it was Van der Poel that had no teammates.
Van Aert: ‘It was a difficult situation’
However, things turned on their head coming out of the Arenberg forest with Laporte enduring a very slow wheel change after picking up a puncture on the five-star sector. Laporte would never make it back and he was still stood by the side of the road as the chase group containing reinforcements for Van der Poel arrived.
“It was our plan to surprise everybody already before Wallers. It would have been better of course with one extra guy in the front but me and Christophe were there in the small group and suddenly after the Arenberg I saw that Christophe wasn’t there anymore,” he said. “At that moment, I assumed he had a mechanical but it was unclear and it was unclear how far he was behind.
“Before I realized it, I was in a group with two guys from Alpecin and they were three in the front group. From there, it was a difficult situation, but I tried to stay calm and in the back, I think my teammates kept trying to put pressure on. It was not my responsibility to keep the break going.”
Van Aert did not try to animate the move but he was always quick to jump on Van der Poel’s wheel when he made a number of big accelerations. There was a moment with around 45 kilometers to go when Van der Poel appeared to have cracked everyone except for Van Aert.
The Belgian, however, was not ready yet to ride off into the sunset with Van der Poel, and the duo was caught as the group reformed.
“It’s not tactically not smart to pull with Mathieu because the last weeks he has been attacking from my wheel several times, so I didn’t want that to happen. That’s why I rode rather defensively today,” Van Aert explained.
Van Aert: ‘I think I had the legs to do more’
It was only as the lead group crossed the Carrefour de l’Arbre that Van Aert sensed his opportunity and he launched a stinging move. Van der Poel eventually caught up with him and it looked like the pair might ride like that for some time.
However, it was quickly clear that something was wrong for Van Aert as he talked into his race radio as he sat in Van der Poel’s wheel. He was initially able to hold on, but started losing touch and did, eventually, have to get a new wheel.
Mercifully for Van Aert, he didn’t have to stand on the side of the road as long as his teammate did but the wait for a new wheel was enough to end his chances of contesting the win. In the end, he was able to reach the podium, but he and others were left wondering what might have been if the puncture had not occurred when it did.
“I don’t like to speculate if I’m stronger or not. Of course, he put me on the limit with his attacks but he didn’t surprise me this time. I was really focused on the attacks of Mathieu because I knew that they were the only dangerous attacks for me,” Van Aert said. “At the moment I had the flat tire, I was feeling really strong. Even on a flat rear tire, I finished the sector almost in his wheel so I think I had the legs to do more.
“It ain’t over until it’s over. It’s not because I had a flat tire on the Carrefour that the race was already over. I tried to keep my head cool and fight all the way to the finish. Maybe I was also the only one in the group still fighting for the win and not riding for second place. I’m happy that I’m on the podium at least, but it’s unfortunate that it happened.”