A grim reality came to Wout van Aert when he was sitting in the ambulance being transported to the hospital following his crash on Friday.
He would not finish his debut Tour de France.
“When I crashed I thought, ‘I was not that fast anyway’ because I felt that I didn’t have the best legs,” van Aert said. “I thought, ‘Let’s go to the hospital for a check0up and maybe I can just continue.’ But in the ambulance I realized that I had not even crossed the finish line. There was no chance to continue.”
Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) replayed the confusing moments following his traumatic crash during the Tour’s 13th stage in a video published by Velon on Tuesday. The crash occurred during Friday’s stage 13 individual time trial in Pau, and knocked the Belgian out of the Tour just three days after he won a stage. He underwent surgery after the crash at a hospital in Pau to clean and repair a deep gash in his right leg.
According to a team release, van Aert’s operation was successful, and he was transferred out of the hospital in Pau on Tuesday afternoon.
The crash occurred just 1 kilometer from the finish line when van Aert steered aggressively through a tight right-hand corner. Van Aert said he was trying to make up time along the 27.5-kilometer course’s flat back half after he suffered through the hilly opening. He saw the right-hand turn as a place to make up time on his rivals.
“[Director] Mathieu [Heijboer] told me that the riders behind me were faster. He told me to go faster to take some time back,” van Aert said. “So I pushed myself to the limit. There was a corner just before the last kilometer. I knew that was a difficult one. A good corner to win some time back. So I went fast, but I moved too close.”
Van Aert’s bike or body became entangled in a cloth sign covering one of the metal barriers, and the force pulled him into the barriers and then onto the tarmac. At some point in the jostling of body, bike, and barrier, van Aert’s right leg was torn open, and his skinsuit was ripped from his body.
Television cameras caught images of Van Aert lying on the tarmac as his team director, Mathieu Heijboer, ran from the team car to his rider, and covered his leg with the cloth signage to obscure the wound.
In those chaotic first few moments, van Aert said that he panicked under the stress of the crash and the sight of his wounded leg.
“After my crash I wanted to jump on my bike, but then I saw the wound and I panicked from that moment,” he said. “They asked if I could move my legs. If I could still feel my toes. Then, you realize it is over.”
Van Aert said that as he lay on the ground, his focus shifted to his naked body, and away from the actual wound.
“I was complaining that it was so hot in the burning sun,” van Aert said. “Even the pain of the injuries was not that important to me. My cycling suit was completely torn and I lay on the road with my bare skin. That may sound silly but that was where my focus went.”
When a scan at the hospital showed that van Aert did not suffer any broken bones, he was sent to surgery where his wounds were cleaned and stitched. A statement from the team said that van Aert’s condition is ‘stabilized.’
Van Aert will now be forced to spend two months off of the bicycle to recover from his wounds—not the post-Tour break the young Belgian was hoping for after an already successful Tour. Van Aert’s stage win marked the fourth stage victory of Jumbo-Visma at this year’s Tour de France. And the team’s climber Steven Kruijswijk is aiming for the final podium in Paris.
“I think I can look back with pride on the past two weeks. I think the team and I did some great work,” van Aert said. “But the great goal was to finish in Paris, and that won’t happen. So, that’s a big disappointment.”