When Wout Van Aert moved to the front of the Tour de France peloton midway up the final climb to Orcières-Merlette on Tuesday, few thought he would be on pacing duties for long. Two kilometers later, the burly Belgian was still there, pummeling away at the front as the group behind him became increasingly thin.
It’s hardly what anyone would have expected from a rider better known for clattering over cobbles in the classics or wading through the muddy winters of cyclocross.
However, since the season restarted last month, the 25-year-old has proven he can do seemingly whatever he likes, whether it be winning in the dust of Strade Bianche, in the last-gasp kick of Milano-Sanremo, or an uphill sprint at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
“His results say how good he is,” Jumbo-Visma teammate Primož Roglič said of Van Aert Tuesday. “It is a pleasure to have such a strong rider in the team. When he goes full throttle, everyone suffers. But it’s not only him that does his job, everyone does. It’s up to me to finish it.”
Roglič certainly did finish it yesterday, sprinting clear from the lead group to snatch stage victory and move into third on GC on the Tour’s fourth stage.
The Slovenian’s victory had been set up by both Van Aert and young Coloradan Sepp Kuss. When Van Aert finally pulled off at 1.5km to go and grind to a near standstill, the peloton paused in shock for a split second at what they had just seen. Kuss was first to react and resumed Jumbo-Visma’s hostilities, setting an even fiercer tempo at the front to set up his leader’s winning move.
Having sat a couple of wheels back in the group as Van Aert motored away with Michal Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers) grimacing and gurning on the Belgian’s wheel, Kuss had an armchair view of his teammate’s climbing chops.
“He’s an inspiration to me,” Kuss told Eurosport after the race. “Wout took control almost from the foot of the climb. Every time I see him riding uphill, that is an inspiration to me. He can really go uphill with the big boys, he is a real winner.”
Kwiatkowski and his Ineos Grenadiers teammates will be reeling in shock after their rival Dutch team’s powerhouse performance. To add further fuel to rivals’ fears, Van Aert wasn’t even planning on making such an effort.
“It was not agreed that I would go along for that long,” Van Aert said. “The intention was that [George] Bennett and Kuss would assist the leaders uphill, but I was in the front at the start of the climb, and the rest were not really visible.”
“It spoke for itself to ride it like this,” he continued. “We wanted to avoid it getting too hectic and I felt I still had a few minutes to ride at a high pace.”
Although Van Aert’s pace on the front stretched the lead bunch into a snaking line searching for a wheel to suck, the massive-motored Belgian insists that it was nothing from the ordinary.
“That I went really deep? Not deeper than usual when I go full throttle, although it may have seemed so,” Van Aert said when asked about his performance.
“It gives confidence of course if you have someone with such a final shot, then you can give more yourself,” he continued. “Since the restart, everything has been going well. In the Tour, I have not yet been able to show myself as before, but I don’t have to.”
Will Wout get to show himself at this year’s Tour de France, or will he be confined to the Jumbo-Visma engine room? Who knows. But if he does get let off the leash, the grippy dragging sprint likely concluding the stage in Privas on Wednesday may well be his time.