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Tour de France

Analysis: Wout van Aert an unknown quantity at the Tour de France

After having his appendix out in May, Wout van Aert has had to fight hard to get back into shape for the Tour de France.

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The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Last September, Wout van Aert was lighting up the tarmac at the Tour de France for Jumbo-Visma. The Belgian looked like he was winning stages for fun as well riding deep into the mountains in service of his team leader Primož Roglič.

Van Aert and his team hoped he would be able to pick up where he left off last fall by nabbing an early yellow on the opening weekend before charging through France on the Roglič train.

Also read: Wout van Aert and his summer-shaping setback

Less than two weeks out from the Grand Départ, that yellow dream is flickering as the 26-year-old works to regain his form following surgery for appendicitis at the beginning of May. After being ever-reliable in last year’s Tour, van Aert’s bumpy road to Brittany makes him an unknown quantity in 2021.

“We are not where we want to be,” was the blunt assessment of Jumbo-Visma’s head of performance Mathieu Heijboer to Het Laatste Nieuws this week.

“The appendix operation has been a major blow. Wout was busy building up after the classics. He would go up with us, to the Sierra Nevada, and then ride the Dauphiné. Instead, he sat at home and was unable to do anything for quite a while. That still bothers him. He is certainly not where we hoped he would be in a normal situation.”

Van Aert has not ridden since his paper-thin victory over Tom Pidcock at the Amstel Gold Race back in April after pulling out of the Critérium du Dauphiné in favor of building his form back via training.

If the training-only road to the Tour de France is good enough for Roglič then it is certainly good enough for van Aert.

But it is also different for van Aert, who was forced to take a week off the bike after his appendectomy and could only do gentle efforts for a while after that.

Riding the Dauphiné could have done more damage than good for him and pacing his way to the Tour through training became the only real option. However, the gently does it approach has meant that van Aert has had a lot of ground to make up since he began winding up his training again.

“It was an operation where his abs have been cut open. It has had an impact on his physique, it’s not just that he’s been sitting still. His body has also taken time to heal. That obviously thwarted good preparation,” Heijboer told Het Laatste Nieuws.

Countdown to yellow

With the clock ticking inexorably towards the Tour de France, van Aert is running out of time to find what lost during his enforced hiatus.

In order to make up for lost time, Van Aert has been raking in the miles at altitude. He did a stint in the Sierra Nevada in Spain at the end of May, and he’s back living the high life in the ski resort of Tignes in the French Alps this week.

He has decided to forgo the all-out effort of the Belgian national time trial championship later this week and Sunday’s road race will be his only pre-Tour competition. Unless he pulls out a big ride Sunday, we and he are unlikely to know how well he is going until the Tour de France rolls out on June 26.

Despite the setbacks, “Wout remains Wout” according to Heijboer, and while the yellow dream is flickering, he hasn’t given up on his own summer goals just yet.

“Wout has already shown a lot of special things that we didn’t think were possible. We have a lot of confidence in him. That first Tour weekend will make it clear whether that catch-up race has been successful. Be sure not to write him off. We will do everything we can to make him successful in that first weekend.”

While it would be stupid to count van Aert out of just about anything he tries, it would also not be right to place him as a favorite for a win in the Tour’s opening weekend. He will come up against some serious competition in Mathieu van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe, and Alejandro Valverde — to name but a few — for that first maillot jaune of the race.

Van Aert might have his heart set on yellow at the end of the month, but it isn’t his only goal of the summer after he was confirmed to be part of the Belgian squad for the Tokyo Olympics at the end of July. He also still has a job to do for Roglič, who wants to turn around his fortunes from the 2020 Tour de France.

“The summer has not gone smoothly, but after my appendicitis, I was fortunate to be surrounded by the right people and I am convinced that they have chosen the best possible approach,” van Aert said in an update posted on social media Friday by Jumbo-Visma. “In the meantime, I am training, with my family, in Tignes.

“I want to stay here as long as possible to train as well as possible according to the Tour de France and the Games. My only competition before the Tour is the Belgian road championship in Waregem. We think that after the injury, I can mainly use all the time to do hours of training.

“This approach will allow me, I hope, to be in the best shape possible at the start of the Tour and with absolute certainty at my best to make it to Tokyo after the Tour.”

Only time will tell what van Aert is able to do and if he can live up to last year’s romp of a ride, or if he has to dial back his own expectations as well as those of the fans.