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Commentary: Wout van Aert joining Ineos Grenadiers would ruin all the fun

Transfer to Ineos Grenadiers? Wout, say it ain't so.

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Except for the hardest of hardcore Ineos Grenadiers fans, Saturday’s juicy rumor that Wout van Aert is considering a possible move to the UK super team — reported by the Dutch website Wielerflits — sent shivers down everyone’s else spine.

With van Aert’s current contract up at the end of the 2021 season, the “will he stay, will he go” hype train just left the station faster than a French TGV thanks to the Wielerflits weekend bombshell. Neither team would officially comment Saturday, but even the suggestion that Ineos Grenadiers was gauging Van Aert’s availability hit the peloton’s trip-wire.

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After watching van Aert single-handedly crush Egan Bernal on the Grand Colombier in this summer’s Tour de France, one can imagine Dave Brailsford quickly running the numbers through his calculator mind. With Chris Froome off the books, and Geraint Thomas also off-contract at the end of 2021, and with a war chest worth an estimated $45 million annually, Brailsford will have the cash to splash around.

That Ineos Grenadiers would be interested in signing van Aert is no surprise.

Van Aert is cycling’s latest all-terrain vehicle, capable of scaling mountains and bashing through muddy cobbles with equal aplomb. And since Ineos Grenadiers is the richest and deepest team in the WorldTour — not to mention its link to the team owner’s 4×4 Grenadier new off-road project — van Aert would be a natural fit for Brailsford, and his ongoing effort to recast his team in the post-Froome era.

2020 Tour de France Stage 5 Wout van Aert
Van Aert’s climbing exploits at the Tour took everyone by surprise. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The 26-year-old Belgian cobble-basher would slip nicely into the Ineos Grenadiers playbook.

He’d automatically bring classics heft to Brailsford’s relatively bare monument’s trophy shelf. The team has never won Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, two races that van Aert seems destined to dominate in the coming decade. And even more frightening, at least for the competition, is that van Aert would shift gears into crush-mode during the Tour.

With Bernal and Richard Carapaz riding his wheel, Van Aert, along with the likes of Rohan Dennis and Filippo Ganna, could tow the Latin American climbing pair all over the grand tours for the next five years. If “Fortress Froome” seemed impenetrable, a limitless Ineos Grenadiers train with Van Aert as the conductor could sledge-hammer the bunch into a pulp for another decade.

No matter where van Aert signs next season, he will likely become one of cycling’s highest-paid riders, possibly eclipsing the likes of Peter Sagan and Froome.

Managers are willing to pay big money for future results, not just for glittering palmarès. And though he’s already at the top of pyramid, Van Aert’s road potential remains largely untapped. In fact, he’s never really raced a full WorldTour road season.

When Van Aert joined Jumbo-Visma in the spring of 2019, he only posted 31 race days. This year, with the coronavirus pandemic putting the brakes mid-season on the calendar, he only clocked 35 race days. Just a generation ago, pros would race 100 days or more in one season. Van Aert hasn’t raced that much in three seasons. Of course, cyclocross and a heavy crash in the 2019 Tour are part of that evolution, but he’s fresh, ambitious, and poised to dominate the peloton.

The prospect of losing their diamond in the rough will put pressure on Jumbo-Visma to come up with enough money to keep Van Aert on board.

Of course, there is nothing stopping Van Aert from cashing in on his maximum market value. And without any sort of budget restrictions or salary caps, there is nothing stopping Ineos Grenadiers — or another other highest bidder — from tempting him away.

Wout Van Aert's 2020 Strade Bianche power analysis.
Classics, bunch sprints, support in the mountains, cyclocross: What can’t Wout do? Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

But for the good of racing, let’s hope he doesn’t take the big-money contract.

Why was the 2020 Tour de France the most interesting in years? One big reason was that Jumbo-Visma came with a team ready to take it directly to Ineos Grenadiers. The British team had won seven of the previous eight yellow jerseys, but in 2020, they finally found ran into a rival team that could equal and even outmatch them. Of course, Primož Roglič didn’t win, but Jumbo-Visma left Paris already plotting for next year’s Tour.

It might take more than money to lure Van Aert away from Jumbo-Visma, however. Jumbo-Visma management has patiently rebuilt the franchise during the past five years or so, and van Aert is right at the center of the team’s future.

By all accounts, he’s quite happy on the team. Jumbo-Visma made a big bet on him in 2019, and management is giving him plenty of flexibility to keep racing cyclocross, have a free hand in the classics, and even chase the occasional sprint stage. Can you imagine Ineos Grenadiers giving van Aert freedom to sprint during a Tour de France?

No matter what happens, Jumbo-Visma will have its hands full next season when it comes to renewing contracts. The team’s budget is roughly half of Ineos Grenadiers’, and though the likes of Roglič and Tom Dumoulin are under contract through 2023 and 2022, respectively, Steven Kruijswijk and Sepp Kuss are also off-contract.

Van Aert won’t be the only Jumbo-Visma rider attracting attention from other teams.

Kuss, too, will be fielding offers going into 2022. Following two superb seasons, when the Durango-based rider emerged as one of the most lethal climbers in the peloton, many believe Kuss could develop into a grand tour contender. And with fans in the under-served U.S. market keen to have someone to cheer for, his market value will increase accordingly.

Jumbo-Visma has done a commendable job recruiting and building its base from the ground up into one of the top teams in the WorldTour. Let’s hope they have the numbers to keep the band together to keep challenging for the yellow jersey. To finally win yellow, they need to keep Van Aert dishing the pain on the opposition.

Seeing Van Aert racing in an Ineos Grenadiers jersey might be too much for some fans.

Wout, say it ain’t so. For the good of cycling, don’t go.