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Wout van Aert takes bold step into GC racing at Tirreno-Adriatico

Van Aert is over one minute back on Tadej Pogačar but has ticked one more box in growing list of ambitions.

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Wout van Aert has mastered monuments, crushed cobbles, and come out best in bunch sprints. And now he’s taking a taste of life as a classification rider at Tirreno-Adriatico.

Van Aert is dipping a toe into GC racing in Italy this week as part of his bold ambition to test his abilities across all aspects of WorldTour racing with Jumbo-Visma. After three days in the leader’s jersey at Tirreno-Adriatico, grand tour sensation Tadej Pogačar duly booted the Belgian from the top of the tree across two scintillating stages this weekend as the pressure piled on van Aert’s broad shoulders.

Although van Aert now sits 1:15 down on the UAE-Emirates wunderkind, it’s not all bad.

“Pogačar is stronger than everyone else, but I’m not inferior to the other GC riders,” van Aert said after the foul fifth stage Sunday. “It’s nice to see that.”

This weekend exposed van Aert to GC racing at its most cutthroat.

On Saturday, he was left to pull noted GC riders toward the Prato di Tivo summit as attacks flew at him in a bid to unseat him from the race lead, and his pace-setting even dropped Colombian sensation Egan Bernal. The next day, Pogačar again pounced on van Aert, punching away on the final ascent of the Casteldiardo “wall” to nearly snatch a stage win from Mathieu van der Poel and put 39 seconds into his Belgian rival in the process.

Also read: Wout van Aert sits second overall after defiant defense of classification lead

“I started with the idea that I could at least stay with Pogačar and possibly take some time back,” van Aert said Sunday. “But, when you see how everything falls apart on the last lap, it was just the law of the fittest. It’s no shame to lose to Pogačar. I have to accept that.”

At the start of this season, van Aert had scoped out his ambitious plan to sample a little of the whole palette of pro racing, and this week in Italy served as antipasti.

“He wants to explore his limits and see where his limits are,” team sport director Merijn Zeeman told Sporza ahead of Tirreno-Adriatico last week. “We’re curious. You don’t become a classification rider overnight. He is now trying it for the first time at WorldTour level and he must be given time to develop. The result is not important to us, but the experience is.”

Also read: Team commitment and freedom to move keeps van Aert at Jumbo-Visma

The past days in Italy so far have proven that Van Aert has got the engine and the versatility to compete with the best across seven days in the WorldTour. The Belgian was squeezed from all sides on the Prato di Tivo and then simply outmuscled by the prodigious talent of Pogačar on Sunday. Van Aert arrived on the Mediterranean coast last week hoping to learn a few lessons, and he’s been taught.

A question of priorities rather than abilities?

Van Aert is one of cycling’s new do-it-all stars. But can he balance multiple ambitions? Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Van Aert has the chops to race across seven stages. Where his path lies may come down to a question of priorities rather than talent. As a thoroughbred Flandrien, his heart will always lie in the cobblestone spring, and the gravity of the pavé will pull strong.

A race program and training schedule that balances early-season stage-racing, cyclocross, cobbled classics, and a support role at the Tour de France is possible in theory, though whether the 78kg brawler will need to physiologically specialize in order to achieve that is another question.

Does van Aert prioritize one-day glory or GC fame? The door is open for him to try what he likes as he emerges as one of the cream of the crop of a new generation of swiss-army knife, do-it-all racers.

“Pogačar, together with my teammate Primož Roglič, is the best all-rounder of the moment. It is only logical that he takes over my jersey,” van Aert said Saturday.

If van Aert believes Pogačar and Roglič are the best all-rounders of the WorldTour, he’s playing down his own legend.

Pogačar and Roglič have made grand tours their raison d’etre. Van der Poel and Julian Alaphilippe focus on one-day racing. Where will Wout go?

Only he knows.