BRUGES, Belgium (VN) — Wout van Aert was once again on the wrong side of the finish-line handshakes and hugs.
For the fourth time in major international competition within the past 12 months, the Belgian star ended up with runner-up spoils.
After finishing second at the time trial worlds in 2020 and the Olympic road race this summer, van Aert looked to have this one in the bag.
Then Filippo Ganna turned on the turbos in the closing 10km, and relegated van Aert into a position that he didn’t like to be in.
“I feel a bit disappointed. I think not really about my performance, because I was quite happy how everything went, and I didn’t make any mistakes,” van Aert said. “I just got beaten by a really strong guy and a specialist in this discipline.”
Also read: Filippo Ganna defends title in close battle
No rider has more heart than van Aert. And no rider is more gracious in defeat.
Van Aert was first to congratulate Ganna, who pipped him by six seconds in the 43.3km race across the flats western Flanders.
As gracious as he is, he also could not hide his growing dismay.
“It’s another silver medal in a big championships, so it’s a disappointment,” he said, “but I just have to accept it.”
— FLANDERS 2021 (@flanders2021) September 19, 2021
Remco Evenepoel: ‘This third place feels like a victory’
Huge crowds cheered van Aert and compatriot Remco Evenepoel as the pair raced on home roads.
Fans were pulling back as van Aert plowed through a sea of Flanderen flags as if he was climbing a mountain in the Tour de France.
“I really enjoyed it today,” Evenepoel said. “I never did a time trial with so many crowds on the side of the road. It reminds me a little bit of my days in cyclocross, with so many people cheering. It was extra motivation to go all the way to the finish.”
Evenepoel set an early fast time, and sat in the “hot seat” as rider after rider failed to knock him off it.
Things got nervous when van Aert and Ganna, the final two riders, punched out on the course. Behind them, Kasper Asgreen — a teammate on Deceuninck-Quick-Step — was also pushing from behind. Evenepoel’s grip on the podium came down to two seconds to the Dane.
“It was a quite stressful moment, because I was fighting for the podium,” Evenepoel said. “I was there for 40 minutes without any stress, then the last 10 minutes was very stressful. Maybe I lost some age there. I was fighting for first and then for third, too.”
Wout Van Aert in the last 12 months:
Silver at the ITT Worlds
Silver at the Road Worlds
Silver at the Road Olympics
Silver at the ITT Worlds
— CafeRoubaix (@CafeRoubaix) September 19, 2021
Evenepoel was fast enough to cling to third, giving Belgium two spots on the final podium, but not quite the one they were hoping for.
“We knew it would be hard to beat Filippo,” Evenepoel said. “It feels like we are not allowed to become a world champion. I hope one of these years we will be able to win one.
“For me today, third place for me feels like a victory,” he said. “I can be happy with what I did today. I knew I would have to ride a perfect time trial and that’s what I did. I knew at the first intermediate that Wout and Filippo were going strong, but I was stressed because it was quite close to losing the third place. We wanted to be on the podium today, but not in second and third.”
Ganna turns on the after-burners to spoil Flanders party
Spoiling the party was Ganna, who fell short of a medal in the Tokyo Olympic Games in the time trial, but came home with gold in the team pursuit on the track. Ganna said initially he was only going to focus on the track for Tokyo, but his world title in 2020 at Imola against the clock convinced him to try to target the time trial as well.
Sunday’s win was confirmation enough for Ganna, who is emerging as the new force in time trialing the very day that Tony Martin, a four-time world time trial champion, rode his last.
“For me, it was important to confirm the jersey and Wout was here to win the jersey. Everyone has stress,” Ganna said. “This morning when I wake up, I had a dream to win again. When I crossed the line, I realized my goals.”
For van Aert and the Belgians, it’s time to regroup for the road race.
Coming into Flanders 2021, van Aert stood the chance to become the first elite men’s racer to win both rainbow jerseys in road and time trialing.
That quest will have to wait another year at least. Second in both the road race and time trial in Imola in 2020, van Aert would gladly settle for just one rainbow jersey.
On Sunday, he’ll line up as the favorite again.
This time, he’s hoping it’s everyone else congratulating him on a job well done.