Wout van Aert

Never doubt Wout

Despite claiming surprise at taking second place, the Belgian champion sees it as confirmation of what could have been.

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With their lead Classics rider still coming back to form after testing positive for  COVID-19 just before Flanders, Jumbo-Visma spent the week leading up to Paris-Roubaix fielding questions about whether Wout van Aert would race.

Earlier in the week, team staff revealed the Belgian national champion had recovered and was training in Spain, but that if he was deemed fit enough to race on Sunday it would be in a team role. Once it was announced he would be taking to the start line in Compiègne the team stuck to the party line – a line that others, including his long-time rival Mathieu van der Poel and his team, Alpecin-Fenix, did not believe to be true.

Visibly fatigued post-race, Van Aert was asked what he thought of those who doubted the truth behind the claims of his lack of form: “I don’t care at all” came the curt response.  

Indeed, Van Aert maintained that finding the legs to ride to second place was unexpected. “It’s a big surprise to feel this good in the race and actually I’m just happy and proud to be second,” he said. 

“Of course, everything feels a bit different coming into the race, but once you feel in the race that everything feels quite normal, it was then that you really change your mind quite quickly and go to your normal habits,” he explained. “For me, my normal habits are focusing on how to win the race and how to stay out of trouble, and try to pick the right moments. So actually from the moment I felt good it was quite easy to transition to this normal thinking.” 

‘Normal thinking’ may have resumed, but Van Aert found himself in what, for him, was an abnormal race situation. Along with other pre-race favourites, including Mathieu van der Poel, he found himself off the back after a split.

“The big split in the bunch was a surprise,” he said. “I was definitely not in a good position, but four of my teammates were, and when there was a not big gap. It was a good situation as we didn’t have to work in either group.”

“I stayed calm, I felt basically for me it was a bit of a test to see how it felt. It was quite good, I could stay out of trouble, always in the front.” 

The split was not the only difficulty for the Belgian, however, who fell prey to the cobbles of the Arenberg Forest on which he sustained a puncture. “Then it was half an hour of chaos to come back,” he recalled, before reiterating his surprise at his own form: “but nothing was lost and I could still ride the final, and it was surprising for me how I felt there.” 

While Van Aert managed to mitigate the effects of bad luck and mechanical problems, Christophe Laporte, who has been his right-hand man throughout the spring, found himself out of contention.

“I definitely missed Christophe in this part of the race,” said Van Aert. “He had bad luck. That’s a shame because when we were together in the final we had more options.”

Such is the nature of the race, however. “Everybody has his own story in Roubaix,” he said. “When I go back to the bus I will hear the stories of my teammates, and some stories come together and you start to understand what happened. That’s the beauty of the race.”

‘Confirmation to myself’

With a question mark over his form going into the race, Van Aert is coming out of it with even more confidence in what has repeatedly proven to be his considerable abilities. 

“Of course, everything went really good this year until a few days before Flanders, and I would say without the sickness it would have looked a lot better also now. I really believe this,” he said.

“I was really ready for the period and even though not everyone believes me or whatever, I think I showed that even after sickness I am able to ride the podium and that makes me proud, and is confirmation to myself that it was worth it to keep believing.”

Could he have won today without his coronavirus-enforced hiatus?

“Doesn’t make sense to give quotes like this,” he chided. “I can say without sickness I win Flanders, I win Amstel, I would win this. Bike racing it’s not easy. If I was 100 per cent on the best level other riders are also on their top level.”

“For sure it would have been different because I would have done two more races, but that’s how it is and the most important part without Flanders was passed I really changed my mind…and had to fight to come back and chase new opportunities.”

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