Road

Van Aert dreams of monument victory with Tour injury a distant nightmare

Belgian cross-discipline star focused on conquering the cobbles, recalls mental battle of comeback from time trial crash.

After two years of being in the mix but not quite at the pointy end of both Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) believes that it could be a case of third time lucky in 2020.

For many riders, the rescheduled 2020 season has caused soul-searching and head-scratching due to races clashing or being canceled altogether. However, for van Aert, it’s all come together nicely, with his early-season targets of the Italian classics, Tour de France, and Flandrien monuments all following in a neat sequence from August through October.

“I now believe that I can win a monument,” van Aert said with confidence.

With three weeks of grand tour racing in the legs, van Aert should head to the cobbles of Belgium in peak form this fall. And with that, van Aert feels he may be one step closer to achieving a long-time goal.

“A few years ago I set the goal for myself to see how far I can get in those classics, and I think I can now believe that I can win a monument,” he told Het Laatste Nieuws this weekend. “That is the goal for the coming years. And it would be very stupid to miss an opportunity because it [the calendar] is a bit different this year. It’s not that easy to win the Ronde or Paris-Roubaix, so you should try every chance.”

Van Aert is willing to compromise his cyclocross calendar in his bloody-minded pursuit of victory on the stones, saying, “I am sure that I will be able to ride nice crosses afterward. But up to and including Roubaix, the focus will definitely be on the road.”

Victory at Paris-Roubaix or Flanders this October would be all-the-more special for the 25-year-old given his nightmare crash at the Tour de France last July, where he hit a barrier at full time trial speed, tearing open his leg in the process. He didn’t return to racing until December, and the mental scars took some time to heal.

“I was a bit scared at my first races,” van Aert said. “You can’t escape it, especially in a cross. You always hit a post or a fence somewhere. During the World Cup in Switzerland I hit a pole with my hip and I could not kick out of panic. But nothing was wrong. Those are the phases that you have to go through in the recovery process.”

It wasn’t only in the slippery mud and treacherous conditions of the cross course that van Aert struggled with mental demons. Facing up to the time trial bike for the first time also proved a challenge.

“After six months I ventured onto the time trial bike again,” he recalled. “But when I saw the bicycle, the saddle was tilted. At that moment, the fear came over me, because I thought it was the bicycle I had fallen with. But that turned out not to be the case. The people of the team soon told me that it was a technical problem. All saddles were tilted. It is something stupid, but you experience it.”