The Tour de France has been happy hunting ground for Wout van Aert since his first appearance in 2019. Saturday’s stage 20 is the fifth individual Tour stage victory of his career, but perhaps more significantly, it is his first individual time trial win.
“Winning a Tour de France time trial has been one of my biggest objectives in my career,” Van Aert said from the hot seat immediately after the stage. “I really focussed on this day the last couple of days and I’m so happy that I could finish it off.”
Van Aert has a turbulent history in time trials at Tour de France. He was part of the lineup that won the stage 2 team time trial in 2019, but his individual ambitions came to an abrupt and painful end on a high-speed corner in Pau, the then Belgian national champion sustaining season-ending injuries. Then came the 2020 edition and the penultimate stage to La Planche des Belles Filles that he and his Jumbo-Visma teammates will never forget.
The first chance for time trial success in the 2021 Tour came on stage 5, and though Van Aert was a favourite to light things up in the first week, his hopes were dimmed by an untimely bout of appendicitis a few weeks before the race. Even so, he managed fourth on a course he says didn’t really suit him, and with the benefit of hindsight, it was the first sign that he was riding into some pretty stellar form.
“Compared wit the first time trial, [stage 20] was more rolling and faster,” said Van Aert. “With my weight it was more to my advantage than the first one which was more punchy, so I think it was a perfect day.”
It’s the second time Van Aert has celebrated for himself at the 2021 Tour de France, this one coming ten days after his spectacular and unexpected stage 11 victory on a day that featured two ascents of Mont Ventoux. The finale of stage 20 was rather different however, with the Belgian watching the minutes and seconds tick by from the provisional leader’s hot seat.
“It was definitely a hot seat the first couple of minutes because I was completely overheated after that effort,” Van Aert joked. “Afterwards it’s always stressful to [watch] but I guess I had a nice margin on the specialists like Asgreen and Küng, and when I saw the intermediates of the GC guys, my hopes were racing.”
With one stage left, Jumbo-Visma can be happy with their Tour de France despite a run of bad luck that started with Tony Martin’s infamous crash on stage 1. The Dutch outfit heads to Paris down to just four riders, but with three stage victories thanks to Van Aert and Sepp Kuss, and second overall with Jonas Vingegaard.
“It’s been a real hard Tour de France for our team, but we always fought through,” Van Aert said. “In the end we have three stage wins, we have Jonas in the second place on GC, which is an amazing result for only four guys left, so I’m really proud of how we fight.”