Can Van Aert climb with the best in Tokyo?

Wout van Aert has conquered Mont Ventoux before

Before the 2019 Tour de France, Van Aert rode all three sides of Mont Ventoux in a day, notching KOMs along the way.

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Wout van Aert was not a rider that many would have picked to win one of the Tour de France’s most challenging mountain stages.

His ascendancy in road cycling has been years in the making, with remarkable rides at the 2019 and 2020 Tour de France showing that his strengths are greater than just the classics and the cyclocross course. He’s clearly a prodigious talent, with monstrous power and exceptional ability to suffer. 

But stage 11 of the 2021 Tour de France – a route that included two ascents of the fearsome Mont Ventoux  – was probably not one the pundits had pencilled Van Aert’s name onto. One for the pure climbers, surely. And Van Aert, well – a week ago, he’d finished fourth in the time trial. A day ago, he’d finished second in a sprint finish behind Mark Cavendish.  

Mark Cavendish wins stage 10 of the Tour de France, with Wout Van Aert on the right of picture.

Today, though, the Belgian jumped in the breakaway and stuck with the pace on the first ascent of the infamous climb. Second time round – the tougher way – he attacked. He went, and there was no answer – not from the far-smaller Kenny Elissonde, not from World Champion Julian Alaphilippe. Van Aert was there and then he was not, off the front and away, a 78 kg slab of Belgian national champion. 

On the bleached white slopes of the infamous climb, he maintained a monstrous pace, extending his lead over what would eventually be a Trek-Segafredo duo of Elissonde and Bauke Mollema. On the descent, he nudged 100 km/h, and by day’s end, he was a surprising victor on one of the Tour’s toughest days. 

But how much of a surprise was it, really?

A glance back to 2019 shows that Van Aert today knew Mont Ventoux better than many might have given him credit for. In fact, you can draw a line even further back to when he was a little miniVan Aert, riding Ventoux for the first time at age 10.

On June 22, the Belgian was in the final days of his tune-up for his debut Tour de France start. In the 2019 Tour de France, remember, he won a stage in a sprint, won a stage in a team time trial, and was on his way to a big result in an individual time trial before he had a terrible crash in Pau

Two years ago, before all of that, Van Aert rode all three sides of Mont Ventoux in one day – averaging 27.2 km/h over a 205 km day with 5,674 m of climbing. 

Now it’s 2021 and that’s in the past. After two years of crashes and rehabilitation and wins and appendicitis and first-time fatherhood, Wout van Aert rode his way through a brutal day of climbing and executed a remarkable stage win.

“Maybe it’s my best victory ever,” he said afterward, a little dazed. The world of cycling was a little dazed too – but we can’t say the writing wasn’t on the wall.

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