Wout van Aert spent three weeks helping Primož Roglič at the Tour de France at Jumbo-Visma, so why wasn’t the Slovenian returning the favor at the sharp end of the action Sunday in the road world championships?
That was the burning question in cycling crazed Flanders in the closing kilometers of a fierce chase that came up short against eventual winner Julian Alaphilippe.
Former pro and TV commentator Eddy Planckaert led the charge, accusing Roglič of nothing short of treachery.
“Roglič should have buried himself for Wout,” Planckaert said on Sporza. “If you saw what Wout did for him at the Tour, there is some blame.”
The controversy highlighted the unique dynamics of world championship racing, when pros race for their respective national teams instead of their trade teams. Allegiances and alliances can often intersect and diverge in a few strokes of the pedals.
On Sunday, some saw it as an opportunity for Roglič — who finished second in the Tour in Paris after strong support from van Aert for three weeks at Jumbo-Visma — to help his faster and clearly stronger trade teammate who won two bunch sprints at the Tour.
The debate poured over into social media, with the knives coming out for Roglič’s perceived betrayal.
Some thought the Slovenian should have repaid the efforts Sunday by helping close down Alaphilippe after van Aert helped tow Roglič around France for three weeks at the Tour.
“If he brought [Alaphilippe] down to five seconds, Wout would have won,” Planckaert said. “If I were van Aert, I wouldn’t be leading Roglič around anymore.”
Van Aert, who finished second to the attacking French rider in Imola, was first to defend Roglič.
“I certainly think Primoz wanted my help, but he was just as devastated as the rest of the group,” van Aert told Sporza after returning to Belgium late Sunday night. “Primoz rode at the limit. He couldn’t be better. After seven hours of racing, it is not always a question of wanting, but also of being able to do it.”
Roglič and van Aert were part of the elite, six-rider group that pulled clear late Sunday to contest for the rainbow jersey in Imola. Also in there was Alaphilippe, the eventual bronze medalist Marc Hirschi (Switzerland), Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark), and 2014 world champion Michał Kwiatkowski (Poland).
Van Aert was clearly the fastest in the chase group, and Alaphilippe made a searing, race-winning attack in the big ring over the final climb to gap the group and tip the odds in his favor. Five against one usually favors the group, but only if there is cohesion, a quick reaction, and the legs.
Everyone agreed after seven hours of racing, the power simply was not there as it would be in a shorter race. There wasn’t a quick reaction to Alaphilippe’s attack, and the others were not willing to do all the work just to set up the clearly faster van Aert for the win.
So some looked to Roglič as the rider who should have stepped up to help van Aert narrow the gap to Alaphilippe.
Roglič, who rode into the front group following a long-distance attack from compatriot Tadej Pogačar on the penultimate lap, said he simply ran out of gas.
“I would rather have Wout become champion than Alaphilippe”, Roglič told VTM. “But I was at my limit. I couldn’t even sprint anymore. Those four other riders were all stronger than me. I had to close a hole after every corner. I gave everything I had.”
Roglič was running on fumes and trailed in last in the group to finish sixth. Van Aert made easy work of the chase group for silver, but Alaphilippe stayed clear to win by 24 seconds.
Unlike some arm-chair critics, van Aert did not blame Roglič, and said his view from inside the chase group confirmed that everyone was on their limit.
“I think it’s a shame that there is so much commotion about this,” van Aert said. “Primož really did his best. I saw that myself in the front row and I can therefore judge it best.”
What’s next for both? They return to their Jumbo-Visma jerseys, but won’t race again together in 2020. Van Aert will take a short break before hitting the rescheduled northern classics next month. Roglič might defend his Vuelta a España title in October.