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Wout van Aert hits Paris-Roubaix podium despite mishaps: ‘I rode on four bikes today’

Wout van Aert on comeback podium: ‘Every classic is hard, but Roubaix is utter chaos and a suffer-fest until the finish line.'

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ROUBAIX, France (VN) — A few days before his beloved Tour of Flanders race, Wout van Aert was confronted with a COVID diagnosis, forcing him to skip the race.

The team doctors decided to give him the go-ahead to start in Paris-Roubaix. The lack of races and training posed a major question mark behind the Belgian champion’s name for the “Hell of the North.”

The team took the pressure off his shoulders and moved Mike Teunissen and Christophe Laporte forward as team leaders. The duo didn’t have a great run on the blistering-fast and dusty Paris-Roubaix ride, but van Aert bounced back from some mechanicals to sprint to an unexpected second place in the velodrome, in Roubaix.

“It’s an amazing feeling, but coming second after sickness like this it’s a huge achievement and I am proud. Glad I kept the faith and kept racing,” van Aert said. “It’s certainly a surprise to me to be able to perform like this. I had to take it really easy and I wasn’t able to prepare in the way that I would love to do.

“I was among the strongest riders in the race without taking anything away from Dylan’s victory. When he rode away I knew it was dangerous. I was tangled in the tactical game,” he said. “When he’s going, he’s not slowing down anymore. I felt like I was missing out on the right move there. Once I and Stefan Küng could distance the other ones, we chased him down flat out but we didn’t come any closer, much to the contrary actually. After the preparation that I had and the race that I did, I’m really happy.”

A journalist asked van Aert during the post-race press conference about the doubts that were raised about the Jumbo-Visma statements regarding his form and role as a “helper” in the race. Van Aert couldn’t be bothered. “I don’t care at all.”

The decision to race wasn’t taken lightly van Aert said, and he didn’t know he would be able to perform.

“Of course, everything felt a bit different coming into the race,” he said. “Once you feel during the race that everything feels quite normal, which was the case. You quickly switch to normal habits and, for me, that’s to focus on how to win the race, to stay out of trouble, and pick the right moments. As soon as I felt good it was quite easy to switch to this normal thinking.

“It was a collective decision to race here between the team, the medical staff, my own doctor, my own trainer, and also how I was feeling. We did the checks that were necessary. Then it was about how I was feeling on training,” he said. “The problem was that I could already start training after one week but then I was always feeling really tired afterward. Then it didn’t make sense to come back to the race. That’s why Amstel [Gold Race] came too early. The last two days I felt the recovery improved. Luckily, today, I found out that I didn’t lose too much of my form. It was a good decision to still do this race.

“Even though not everybody believed me or whatever today shows that also after sickness I’m able to ride the podium. It makes me actually proud, and confirmation to myself that it was worth it to keep believing.”

The question remains whether van Aert would’ve been able to fight up against Mathieu van der Poel at the Tour of Flanders, excel at the Amstel Gold Race, or perform one place better at Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix.

“Without the troubles I had, I would’ve been better. I would’ve had nice weeks behind me instead of these shit weeks,” van Aert said in the mixed zone.

Later, in the press conference, he explained it didn’t make much sense to look back.

“Bike racing is not that easy. Even without any problems and at 100 percent there would’ve been other guys at the top of their game. Once Flanders passed I really changed my mind and said: ‘OK, that’s how it is now and I have to accept it.’ I had to fight again like I always do to come back and to chase new opportunities.”

One of these opportunities is to ride Liège-Bastogne-Liège next week. The monument in the Ardennes usually isn’t part of his schedule, but that turned around due to his sickness.

“One has to try to turn a setback into an advantage. I’m more fresh than usual because I didn’t race the last few weeks. If I would feel OK in Roubaix then we would add Liège to my program. If you finish as runner-up in this race it’s clear that I’m well recovered,” he said. “I no longer need to worry about what happened. It’s always been a race that I wanted to do. Now we can use this to my advantage to experience how that race is and how far I can get there.”

Paris-Roubaix showed that van Aert is able to keep his head cool and fight back from a lost position.

“I was too far back when the peloton split,” van Aert referred to the major split after less than 50km of racing. “We had four guys up front, so we didn’t have to ride in the first group and not in the chase group so it ended up to be a good situation for us.”

About 100km later the major favorites were back together and the race steamed towards the famous Arenberg forest pavé stretch. Van Aert was suddenly spotted by TV cameras at the back of the group.

“Luckily I got the podium today because I broke some equipment today. I rode on four bikes,” he said. “I had three bikes ready for today and rode 10 kilometers on a teammate’s bike. I rode near the front of the group when entering the forest but I rode too much to the side and quickly hit a rock. I rode 50-60kph over those cobbles on a dead flat and damaged my wheel.

“When I halted my wheel broke to pieces and I took Timo’s bike. The next half hour was chaos. I had to stop again to switch to my spare bike. Later I punctured again. That’s part of the race. I definitely missed Christophe in this part of the race but he had bad luck earlier. That’s a shame because together we would’ve had more options. Every classic is hard, but Roubaix is utter chaos and a sufferfest until the finish line. Everyone had their bit of bad luck. Everyone has to stay calm and that’s the beauty of the race, and that’s why I love it so much.”