If you can beat the world champion in a pan-flat, 10-kilometer time trial test, you can do anything, right?
That’s what Wout van Aert is hoping.
Van Aert may have seen the GC-winner’s trident handed to Tadej Pogačar at the closing ceremony Tuesday, but the Belgian star has come out of Tirreno-Adriatico and its final TT with fire in his boots.
After questions over his fitness having missed out on the podium at Strade Bianche at the start of this month, van Aert has hit his stride when it matters most – for a defense of his Milano-Sanremo title this weekend.
“I think I recovered well after the tough stages of the past few days,” van Aert said after blazing to stage victory on Tuesday. “I have tested myself everywhere and when you have such a time trial in your legs, it says something about your condition.”
— Velon CC (@VelonCC) March 16, 2021
Van Aert roared to victory in San Benedetto Del Tronto 11-seconds faster than time trial world champ Filippo Ganna, ending the young Italian’s eight-race reign at the top of the test against the clock. In the past week, van Aert has also won a bunch sprint and put the hurt on a group of GC contenders on a 15-kilometer mountaintop finish.
The rich run of form firmly buries any doubts over van Aert’s racing legs and speculation that Mathieu van der Poel is poised to rule the classics. It’s also a testament to the boffins at Jumbo-Visma and their master-plan for their do-it-all ace.
Van Aert opted to bypass the opening weekend of the classics last month in favor of tapping out the base miles up on Mount Teide. Rather than Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, van Aert had his scopes set to the middle distance, opting to peak for Sanremo and the cobbled classics. Meanwhile, van der Poel was gobbling up racing kilometers in 80-kilometer breakaways at Kuurne and nearly winning a bunch sprint with a broken handlebar at Le Samyn.
Van Aert parachuted off of the Tenerife volcano and landed straight into the mayhem of Strade Bianche, and his team had forecast he may be blowing off the altitude cobwebs while an on-form van der Poel was busy throwing wattbombs around Tuscany.
“Wout has to recover from this training camp,” sport director Merijn Zeeman had warned Het Laatste Nieuws ahead of the race. “In Strade Bianche he will not be top yet, also because he needs some competitions and race rhythm to add those last percentages. It will be different at Milano-Sanremo, and he will be completely ready against the Flemish classics.”
One week of full-gas racing in Italy in the past week has given van Aert the racing miles he needed and the confidence that comes with two stage wins and second-place overall. Van Aert said Tuesday he’s now ready to go toe-to-toe with archrival van der Poel in the decisive final hour of Sanremo this Saturday.
“We are both suited to that course,” he said. “The Cipressa and Poggio – they are five to 10-minute efforts and that suits us both. And we can sprint too.”
Van Aert braced against the idea that the explosive unpredictability van der Poel has shown from winning with devastating short-range attacks at Strade Bianche or long-range maneuvers like his gritty win on stage 5 of Tirreno this weekend made the Dutchman the bookies’ favorite for Sanremo glory.
“You can’t assume that he will attack at an unexpected moment every race,” van Aert said. “If I’m good enough, it doesn’t matter what tactics he uses. If I follow, I always have my chance.”
If you thought the classics may become a one-man “MvdP” show, think again. Wout is back.
— Team Jumbo-Visma cycling (@JumboVismaRoad) March 16, 2021