Wout van Aert celebrates finishing third on Hautacam after helping his teammate Jonas Vingegaard to stage 18 victory at the 2022 Tour de France.

‘Definitely the strongest rider in this race’: What can’t Wout van Aert do?

"To have him by my side has been incredible in the last three weeks," says Jonas Vingegaard.

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As the Tour de France comes to its now customary end on the Champs-Élysées, few would argue that Wout van Aert has been the best rider at the race.

He might not be in the yellow jersey, but he has been everything from stage winner and green jersey wearer, to race-maker, workhorse and man of the match. The combativity award that was voted his unanimously is testament to the investment he’s put into the whole three weeks.

“I think Wout has been definitely the strongest rider in this race,” said Jonas Vingegaard before the stage 21 roll-out. “To have him by my side has been incredible in the last three weeks.”

Going for green

Jumbo-Visma arrived in Denmark with two massive goals and three leaders, green for Van Aert and yellow for Primož Roglič or Jonas Vingegaard, which raised plenty of eyebrows. Van Aert had never tried to go for green before. Roglič had come close, but neither GC leaders had won the Tour. Against a Tadej Pogačar with 100% backing from UAE Team Emirates, had Jumbo-Visma shot themselves in the foot?

In the end, it was anything but a weakness. It’s clear in hindsight that Van Aert and his team had identified a possibility to shore up his lead in the points classification before crunch time in the mountains, meaning the Belgian could give his teammate more time and effort where it really mattered.

The bonus seconds that came with his incredibly consistent start put him in the lead in both yellow and green, so his first stage win of the Tour will be one to remember.

His run of second places in the opening stages was an odd first chapter for the Belgian, but by stage 5, he already had a 52-point lead, thanks in part to his defiant victory the day before. Another stage win into Lausanne – very much not a pure sprint – put him comfortably in the lead, and he made use of a number of breakaways to extend his advantage.

This tactic became all the more valuable as they were struck by bad luck and teammates fell away, forcing a frantic cobbled chase in the first week and leaving them with six riders for the Pyrenees. But the green jersey was mathematically sealed by the final mountain stage, so he could return to his team role.

Mountain goat

Van Aert showed he was capable on long climbs with his win on last year’s Ventoux stage, but there was the caveat that it was a win from the breakaway. Saying that though, he was in a group with Julian Alaphilippe, who would ordinarily be expected to beat him on the toughest gradients.

So his climbing ability was known, but its longevity at this race has been staggering.

That he spent so many mountain stages in the breakaway, and came so close to taking the KOM jersey on stage 18, demonstrates his strength on all terrains, and goes to show just how prolific he’s been at the 2022 Tour.

The pinnacle though, is the unfathomable fact that it was he, not Vingegaard, who ultimately dropped Pogačar on the Hautacam, having been in the day’s breakaway after going on the attack literally from kilometre zero.

The Hautacam was one of the best moments of Van Aert’s race, dropping Pogačar and setting up Vingegaard for a race-confirming stage 18 victory.

“We wanted to take time and we succeeded. I am also surprised that it went so smoothly. In the end, I was able to pull myself completely apart for Jonas,” Van Aert said after stage 18. “It was really a crazy day for me. I know that I can be very strong on one day in the mountains when I concentrate on that.”

The Belgian couldn’t have stuck with Vingegaard on the Col du Granon, nor in the final four kilometres of the Hautacam. He’s not going to contest yellow any time soon. But Vingegaard has got a lot to thank him for.

Against the clock

The former Belgian time trial champion came close to winning the opening time trial in Copenhagen, beaten only by surprise victor Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), so went into Saturday’s stage 20 with a vengeance (and two stage wins under his belt). At 40 kilometres and with a few sizeable lumps and bumps along the way, it might have been designed for him.

It was thought that his closest rival would be world champion Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers), but it was the GC top three who came closest.

In fact, it seemed that Vingegaard decided along the way that the stage should be for Van Aert. The Dane – who has never won a time trial as a professional – was fastest at every time check, but as he climbed the final hill to the finish, his body language had changed. The stage was Van Aert’s.

“I gave it all today,” an uncharacteristically emotional Van Aert said after stage 20. “I want to win races, and today I had hoped to take the stage, and I hoped that Jonas could secure his yellow. He has such a big heart that he thought the same, so it’s special. It’s a great day.”

Vingegaard had done what he set out to do on the TT bike. He’d held onto and extended his lead over Pogačar, and he already had a stage win in the yellow jersey.

Van Aert was the first to congratulate/thank Vingegaard as the Dane crossed the line of stage 20, sealing overall victory.

The yellow jersey crossed the line 19 seconds down on Van Aert’s time. I for one believe that he had it in him to take the TT – his advantage had diminished at each time check, but there was the climb to come, and Van Aert had gained some 20 seconds in that portion of the stage. Vingegaard has been with little doubt the best climber at the Tour, so the chances are, he could very well have taken his third stage win.

But instead, he paid back a little of the debt that he owes to Van Aert, the best and most combative rider at the 2022 Tour de France.

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