Road

Two races, two victories: Wout van Aert targets the top at cobblestone classics

Van Aert back in top shape and ambitious as ever after physically and mentally struggling to keep momentum after worlds.

After a two-week hiatus, Wout van Aert is back and planning to pick up where he left off – at the pointy end of bike races.

After being left disappointed with “only” two silver medals at the world championships, the Belgian superstar has been resting his legs in preparation for one final push at his top-tier targets, the cobbled classics.

Gent-Wevelgem kickstarts the northern one-dayers on Sunday, with Tour of Flanders the following weekend. Van Aert is racing both, and he’s been sure to save some space in his already-brimming trophy cabinet.

“I will ride three more races and start three times with the ambition to win,” Van Aert told Belgian media Thursday, just the day before it was confirmed that his “third race,” Paris-Roubaix, was canceled.

While Gent-Wevelgem this weekend isn’t afforded monument status like its big brothers Flanders and Roubaix, that doesn’t dent Van Aert’s endless ambition for this weekend’s cobblestone crusher.

“Sunday is not a preparation for the Tour,” he said. “It will be a tough race, with a lot of wind. …. There are slightly more circuits than usual, with three times up the Kemmelberg. There is a greater chance than in previous years that we will go to the finish with a smaller group.”

With victories at Milano-Sanremo, Strade Bianche and stage wins at the Tour de France, the 26-year-old ranks right at the top of the list of favorites for both of this fall’s remaining cobbled races after crushing everything he’s turned his eye toward since racing resumed in summer. However, van Aert is wary of his long-time cyclocross foe Mathieu van der Poel and the man he has battled through Milano-Sanremo, the Tour and the worlds: Julian Alaphilippe.

“Mathieu van der Poel will be the man to beat,” Van Aert said of his opponents on the stones. “Julian Alaphilippe too, but he only rides De Ronde. And for the rest: the usual suspects. Oliver Naesen also looked good in the BinckBank Tour. It is striking that the riders who have the Tour in their legs are still good.

Van Aert left Imola at the end of last month devastated to have been bettered by the unstoppable might of Filippo Ganna in the time trial and outfoxed by Alaphilippe in the road race, and returned to Belgium to regather his forces ahead of the classics block.

Though Van Aert makes riding bikes very fast look very easy, he suffered like the rest of us when he clicked back into training after some time out of the saddle post-worlds.

“In those first training sessions after those three days without a bike I had a hard time … the feeling was disappointing,” he revealed. “It was also hard mentally. I thought, ‘If I have to keep this up for another month, it will be tough.’ After a long period of racing, I had to hurt myself again during training and that was difficult.”

“I had tough days, but then I got through and the legs started to turn better too, and that gave me the morale again to pull out all the stops for those three races. I am very ambitious. I want to win the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix someday, so I don’t want to miss a chance. I am 100 percent focused again.”

Van Aert started his post-COVID season with two major wins in a week at the Italian classics. He’s looking repeat the feat at the end of his road schedule, and you wouldn’t bet against him pulling it off..