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The pair went into Gent-Wevelgem as the out-and-out favorites after van Aert has dominated in whatever he’s turned his eye toward all season, and van der Poel has returned to his rampant best in the past months. The two titans appeared more concerned with each other than the rest of the peloton on the windy, gritty roads of Belgium yesterday, marking each other to a stalemate as Mads Pedersen romped to a scintillating victory.
For Van Aert, it was a missed opportunity for them both.
“Unfortunately there was no prize this time because someone looked at me all the time; he apparently wanted me to lose rather than win himself,” Van Aert told Sporza, referring to his Dutch rival.
“I think [van der Poel] forgot that I’ve already won quite a few times, so I had the option to play a bit of poker,” he said after finishing disappointed in eighth place. “Now we both have nothing.”
The pair make it into the nine-man lead group that did battle in the frenetic final through the streets of Wevelgem on Sunday.
Van Aert moved repeatedly in the final run-in to the line, each time making a gap, only to see van der Poel towing the bunch back to his wheel. As the pair continued to eye each other, Alberto Bettiol, Matteo Trentin, and Florian Sénéchal jumped clear before Pedersen dashed up to them and sprinted to victory.
While Wan Aert’s wheel was stalked at every revolution in the final 10 kilometers of the race, the Belgian highlighted his long-time Dutch foe as the main culprit.
“I rode to win, but I didn’t get any freedom,” Van Aert said. “I had a chance in the sprint, but knew attacks would keep coming and I couldn’t keep reacting. There was always the same person on my wheel. That’s his tactic, but he’s not slow himself, so I’m disappointed.”
Van Aert has twice been the victim of his own success in the past month, finding himself in a malfunctioning chase group at the world championships as Julian Alaphilippe romped away toward the rainbow jersey. With the four riders in his group fearing the Belgian’s sprint prowess, the chase fizzled and the Frenchman rode clear.
Van der Poel said his supposed negative riding at Gent-Wevelgem was inevitable.
“For me, he was one of the best rider in that leading group, so when he goes I have to respond of course,” van der Poel told Sporza in a later interview. “If I didn’t, he’d get away and the team will ask why I didn’t respond.”
“I think it’s a bit low to say I’m riding to make him lose, while always driving to win a race,” he continued. “But I don’t blame him either. I also understand him because I did chase him a few times, but I also want to win, and I know that he is one of the best in the world and so if I don’t get him I certainly won’t win.”
With Paris-Roubaix shuttered due to new coronavirus regulations in northern France, tension builds for the Tour of Flanders, the last monument of the season. Both Van Aert and van der Poel will be racing, and neither of them will be letting victory slip away from them again as they empty the tanks on their road season.
“It was a missed opportunity,” Van Aert said Sunday. “I am ready for De Ronde, although Gent-Wevelgem would have been nice on the palmarès.”