How does Jumbo-Visma fill its Wout-shaped hole at Flanders?

Tiesj Benoot and Christophe Laporte now solely carry the hopes of the Dutch squad.

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For all of their victories in the past years on their rise to the top, Jumbo-Visma seem to have a certain talent for misfortune. Wout van Aert’s horrible, season-ending crash at the 2019 Tour de France, Primož Roglič’s various, sometimes unexplained mishaps that see him toss away GC leads. Most famously, of course, at the Tour That Must Not Be Named.

Now, the crisis three days before the start of the Tour of Flanders is that Wout van Aert has COVID-19 and will not take the start in Antwerp come Sunday. And it’s all anyone is talking about.

The first six questions at the press conference with Tiesj Benoot and Christophe Laporte, the men instructed to now pick up the pieces, are aimed at the team’s press officer.

“Before we begin,” the press officer says. “There is no update on Wout yet.”

“But a decision will be made today or tomorrow?”

“It’s difficult to say but the decision will be communicated.”

“Is he still at home?”

“Yeah.”

“And who will replace Wout if he can’t race?”

“…it will be Mick van Dijke”.

“Ok.”

And now, we begin the press conference with the two riders sat in front of us who will definitely (almost definitely) be riding the race.

Benoot and Laporte at Jumbo-Visma’s pre-Flanders press conference

“Admittedly, I was speechless for a while when I received the message that Wout couldn’t do the reconnaissance,” Tiesj Benoot says, keeping a positive spin on things. “Of course, this is a downer, but there is certainly no question of a funeral mood. Everyone stays motivated. We have lived here for a long time and what is happening now is beyond our control and we must try to let go.”

The Belgian describes, both figuratively and literally, the hole left behind by his 6’2″ team-mate as “very large”, and that they now expect their rivals to change tactics and in turn Jumbo-Visma will draw up new plans of attack.

With Wout van Aert, a full-strength Jumbo-Visma would have been expected to take the reigns over the 270km. Instead, Benoot believes that responsibility will lie with Mathieu van der Poel’s Alpecin-Fenix squad. This will free up the likes of Benoot and Christophe Laporte further, who have complimented Wout van Aert well so far this season, although it would of course have been easier when you have the card of the Belgian champion to play.

With Tiesj Benoot, you have an option for a long-range raid and with Christophe Laporte a fast finisher, with Wout van Aert you can play for both. Now that Jumbo-Visma can’t hedge their bets in the same way, maybe they will actually need to race harder, and try to be more selective with who makes it to the final.

Yet on Wednesday, at Dwars door Vlaanderen, Benoot was second behind Van der Poel. Meanwhile, Laporte has showed his shape with two second places at E3 and Gent-Wevelgem. Should Benoot find himself once again facing up against the Dutchman in the final, he plans to not let it go down to a sprint 2021 Asgreen-style, and Laporte agrees.

Benoot then changes tact in the press conference and pushes back on Van der Poel being the out-and-out favourite, name-checking Asgreen and also Tom Pidock, who bounced back from illness with third at Dwars.

“He was the biggest surprise,” the Belgian says. of the Ineos rider “How he got better in three days. There are still three days between Wednesday and Sunday. If he continues to recover at the same pace, he will definitely be there in the final on Sunday.”

At this point, like Quick-Step, Jumbo-Visma will just be hoping they’re there in the final. How do you fill a Wout-sized hole? The real answer is you can’t.

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