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Five months and ten days ago, Wout van Aert lay on the baking tarmac in Pau, fresh blood oozing thickly out of a deep gash in his right thigh as his team car screeched to a halt behind him.
It was the nightmare end to a dream debut Tour de France for van Aert, who’d helped Jumbo-Visma defend an early yellow jersey, assisted in a couple of stage wins, tasted success in the team time trial and won the tenth stage himself in a sprint finish.
And now, a kilometre from the end of a stage 13 time trial that he was one of the favourites for, the 24-year-old found himself lying curled and foetal, wrapped in supermarket logos next to a barrier that he’d ridden too close to, with his agony broadcast to the world via hovering helicopter.
He didn’t know it then, but his career had arrived at a crossroads.
Two days ago – five months and eight days after that crash – in his first race back after a lengthy absence and agonising rehabilitation, Wout van Aert closed one chapter and began to write another on the technical and treacherous Loenhout cyclocross circuit.
The three-time cyclocross world champion didn’t win. He wasn’t on the podium. But in his fifth place finish, 1.14 behind his long-time rival Mathieu van der Poel, there seemed to be one clear message from Wout van Aert.
He wasn’t done yet.
Over the past five months, there have been times that outcome was far from assured. Immediately after the crash, his leg sliced and pulsing, van Aert lay in a state of confusion, then some pain. The crowds massed along the barriers saw a young prodigy, immobile in the mid-afternoon sun, then paid witness to his medical assessment.
Ten minutes or so later, with an ambulance dispatched, the race doctor drove off. Left behind, in three dark patches on the Pau asphalt, were the bloody reminders of van Aert’s audacity and frailty.
A month after that infamous crash, following one botched surgery and then another to make up for it, van Aert watched a replay of his crash for the first time, the moment recorded for the Flemish documentary Het Huis. “It felt like I was lying there forever. I didn’t feel much of the wound, but I was lying on really hot asphalt and it was just as if I was burning alive,” van Aert said. “I can still perfectly remember that feeling. It seemed to last forever.”
For followers of the sport, van Aert’s absence from the peloton has seemed to stretch over a similar span of time. The young Belgian, in his first season on a WorldTour team following a protracted and messy split with Vérandas Willems-Crelan, left an impression larger than himself.
His potential as a road cyclist was foreshadowed in the gripping finale of the 2018 Strade Bianche, and whilst he wasn’t able to improve on that result in 2019, his sixth place at Milan-San Remo and gutsy ride at Paris-Roubaix showed the depth of both his talent, and grit.
Then, his first Grand Tour call up. Then, the stuffed lions and bouquets. Then, what came next.
By September, two months after his crash, having learned to walk again and then built up to riding on an indoor trainer, van Aert was grappling with the potential toll of the crash he’d endured, telling Het Laatste Nieuws that “that fall could have been the end of my career”.
On the first day of November, Wout van Aert rode outside for the first time since July 19, clocking up 69km on an ebike.
In December, it was tentatively announced that he would make his return to racing at Loenhout. “I don’t expect much from it,” van Aert said beforehand. “Specific cyclocross training hasn’t been on the programme this winter.”
Two days after Christmas, in the same week that Jumbo-Visma announced a team for the 2020 Tour de France that included Wout van Aert, the young Belgian took to the start line. In the opening seconds, he took the hole shot at his first race in months, powering up the ramp, willed on by a local crowd to return to his peak. By the end of the race, he had lost just over a minute to his old foe, Mathieu van der Poel, one of the most dominant riders in the sport in 2019.
To return post-injury – especially after one as visceral and violent as van Aert’s – is a long and arduous process, marked by the milestones that the public hears about and the ones it doesn’t.
For Wout van Aert, there have been five months and ten days of milestones pointing to a sporting future that didn’t exist at the start of that timeframe. From the scorching sun of Pau to the sloppy sludge of Loenhout. From baking tarmac to hospital bed to rehabilitation to the front of a race again. From prodigy to powerless, and enough of the way back to believe again.