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The key to a van Aert victory could lie in his sprint

Wout van Aert is inching closer to a marquee win on the road. The last hurdle could be high-speed sprints.

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HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — Wout van Aert is inching toward his first marquee victory as a professional road racer. Every race seems to bring the three-time cyclocross world champion closer to the top of the podium at road races.

“I just need to do small things to improve,” van Aert told VeloNews. “To win now, everything needs to [fall] into place.”

Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) finished second place in Friday’s E3 Binck Bank Classic, losing a tight sprint to winner Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) after five hours of hard racing. The trio rumbled to the line after speeding through the streets of this industrial Belgian town — the pace was high as the final four racers held off a charging peloton.

After crossing the line, van Aert told VeloNews it was the nature of the sprint that placed him at a disadvantage. As a cyclocross racer, van Aert is used to accelerating from slow speeds.

“Today we launched the sprint from high speed, which is a bit of a disadvantage for me. It would be better if we had launched it from 20 kilometers an hour,” van Aert said. “I think my sprint is pretty good, and I have good accelerations from cyclocross.”

Indeed, van Aert did almost everything right across the 204 kilometers of wind, cobblestones, and punchy climbs. He followed Van Avermaet’s leg-cracking acceleration on the Paterberg, conserved his energy within the front group of favorites, and then followed Van Avermaet again on the Tiegemberg. As seasoned classics hardmen like Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) dropped away, van Aert rode into the final group of four riders.

Van Aert said Stybar’s tactical advantage was likely the deciding factor in the race. Stybar was able to ride in the wheels during a frantic 20km pursuit, as the front group chased down his teammate Bob Jungels. Van Aert, meanwhile, had to take hard turns on the front to bring the Luxembourg champion back.

“[Stybar] was able to sit on our wheels for the last 20km, which is a huge advantage in that last part of the race,” van Aert said. “These are the little things that make someone fresher in the sprint.”

Van Aert’s impressive finish comes one week after he turned heads at Milano-Sanremo. Van Aert rode into the front group on the Poggio and then marked the pre-race favorites on the frantic run-in to the finish. Van Aert sprinted early and finished sixth to winner Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step).

Jumbo-Visma’s veteran classics rider Mike Teunissen said these near misses will only teach van Aert how to win.

“I think you would say maybe he needs the kilometers of racing and the experience, but he’s up with the big guys,” Teunissen said. “Maybe it’s just experience in how to win a race like them, because to be there in the final is one thing, and to win is the another. We can see that he will be there for a lot of finales.”

The result on Friday bodes well for van Aert’s sophomore classics campaign. As he did in 2018, van Aert will compete in Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, before tackling the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, and the Amstel Gold Race.

In van Aert’s opinion, Friday’s result confirmed that he has the legs to challenge for the win over the next three weeks.

“I was one of the strongest in the race,” van Aert said. “The best thing is to have good legs from the beginning. Then you can ride for the win in the final.”