Well, I certainly didn’t.
But after finishing second to Mark Cavendish on stage 10, the Belgian champion rode to victory on one of the 2021 Tour de France’s most brutal stages. On his way to Malaucène, he dropped Julian Alaphilippe and Kenny Elissonde.
Expectations were high for van Aert at this year’s Tour de France after his superlative ride in 2020. He had a real shot at yellow over the opening weekend and several chances for a stage win during the first week.
However, van Aert has taken his time to build into this year’s Tour de France. Though he came in off the back of winning the Belgian road race title, he’d suffered a significant setback in the run-up to the race after having his appendix removed in May.
The surgery meant van Aert had to take a significant period off the bike, losing much of the form he’d built up at the spring classics. Some hard work at altitude put him back on track but he’s lacked that extra few percent to finish off the big efforts he’s put in so far at the Tour de France.
Van Aert’s luck appeared to be turning with his second place to Cavendish in Valance and it seems to have been the impetus for the Belgian to have a go Wednesday.
“I’m lost for words. It’s so stupid to say, but of course, I did not expect to win this stage before the Tour de France. But, actually, yesterday I already believed in it. I asked the team to be the guys to go for the breakaways, and it’s one of the most iconic climbs in the Tour, and the world and the world of cycling, and maybe this is my best victory ever,” van Aert explained after the stage.
“It’s of course emotional, personally, it was really hard to come in this Tour on a proper level and the first week we had so much bad luck with the team. Even today, we lost Tony Martin in a crash. This is so nice. If you keep being motivated and you keep believing it, someday it will work out. I’m really proud.
“Finishing alone on a mountain stage in the Tour de France is not something I expected a few years ago. I iconic mountain in the Tour, Mont Ventoux is a place of history, and also it’s an area with a lot of Belgians who support the race, so the atmosphere was just crazy. It was really an honor to ride in the national jersey with all the fans,” he added.
Van Aert is back and we could see him lighting up a few more stages, either in the sprints or on the climbs, before the race rolls into Paris. After a tough time at the Tour de France for Jumbo-Visma — who lost Tony Martin in a horrible crash during the stage — it is something to smile about.
WHAT. A. WIN.😱 pic.twitter.com/FiCLN4fEAT
— Team Jumbo-Visma cycling (@JumboVismaRoad) July 7, 2021
Future yellow jersey challenger?
Wout van Aert, Tour de France champion. How does that sound?
On top of questions about Mathieu van der Poel, another question that has plagued van Aert is whether or not he could ride GC at a grand tour.
His Tour de France ride in 2020, where he went deep into the mountains for Primož Roglič, set tongues wagging but van Aert has dismissed the idea whenever it has been brought up.
“It’s certainly not on my list of priorities. To win a grand tour you have to perform at the highest level for three weeks,” van Aert said during last year’s Tour de France. “In other words, even higher than how I’m performing now. Now, I can let go at some point in the ride, and at that moment I’m completely finished. If I were to go for a victory I’d really have to participate until the very end.
“I have other ambitions I want to pursue first. If I retrain myself to become a great prodigy, I’d go to a point of no return — my body will change, I’d lose kilos and lose all my qualities to win classics and sprints. I don’t want that.”
However, with his ride to victory over Mont Ventoux, van Aert has done little to dispel the talk.
Van Aert is right, of course, he would likely have to retrain himself and adapt his physiology if he wants to turn himself into a classification contender.
🏆 🇧🇪 @WoutvanAert claims the win!
— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) July 7, 2021
At around 78kg, he’s always going to struggle to keep up with the best of the mountain goats. With the level of the peloton these days, we’re unlikely to see a rider as heavy as the 80kg Miguel Indurain win a Tour de France in the near future.
Indeed, the weight of Tour de France champions has been gradually decreasing and there hasn’t been a winner that weighed over 70kg since 2004.
Despite his weight, van Aert dropped some good climbers on Mont Ventoux and held his own over the GC group for much of the ascent, losing about 20 seconds in the opening two-thirds of the climb. However, the final five kilometers of the Géant of Provence saw him give away around two minutes to the GC group.
Van Aert definitely has the potential to be up there with the best climbers in the world, but does he want to? If he were to switch it up, as Geraint Thomas did, he would likely lose some of the power that makes him so good in cyclocross and at the classics.
It’s a tough choice.