The words on everybody’s lips after stage 6: What was Wout van Aert up to?
It's a multiple-choice question with a handful of answers.
It's a multiple-choice question with a handful of answers.
Wout van Aert started stage 6 in the yellow jersey and after spending hours on the attack, he rolled quietly into the finish four-and-a-half hours later, his bright skin suit now a relic of six punishing stages as he relinquished the race lead to stage winner Tadej Pogačar.
What happened between Binche and Longwy defied the laws of the Tour de France, Van Aert getting himself into a three-man move after an incredibly aggressive start and staying away until the last 10 kilometres, the last man standing.
The question asked by everyone, to the peloton and online, was ‘what was Van Aert up to?’
Here’s our multiple choice:
The first and most obvious conclusion is that there was a stage win up for grabs, although a breakaway was an unusual choice for the yellow jersey. By animating the first super-speedy couple of hours, Van Aert put the whole peloton on notice.
“Just going full gas, wasn’t he, trying to win! Never runs out of energy drinks, does he?” Adam Yates said with a laugh.
Does Yates agree with teammate Tom Pidcock that Van Aert is taking the mickey?
“Seems like it, yeah! To be honest I’m happy he wasn’t there in the final because he would have enjoyed that one if he did the same as he did the other day,” Yates said, referring to Van Aert’s explosive attack on stage 4. “I mean, in the end we caught him and had a little sprint between the GC guys.”
There were several escape formations on the roads outside Binche, and Van Aert was in most of them, but in the end he only had the company of Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo) and Jakob Fuglsang (Israel-Premier Tech) who bailed out after a couple of hours, expecting their effort to be fruitless.
“At this point nothing with this guy really surprises us,” Brandon McNulty said. “He’s so strong, I think he almost could have pulled it off, but I don’t think the break was quite big enough today and we were able to bring him back.”
Just as he had at the end of the stage, Pogačar expanded on his domestique’s contribution.
“I think I know what [Jumbo-Visma] wanted to do,” Pogačar told media after winning the stage. “If Van Aert wanted to win the stage today, they would need to pull from the peloton, so he decided to go in the breakaway. But in the end it was so hard to go in the breakaway and it was only three guys, so that wasn’t a perfect scenario for him. I think the perfect scenario is if there were 10 guys or something. With only three, two guys in the end, it was pretty much – we could control the bunch.”
It’s no secret that Jumbo-Visma had a very trying day on Wednesday, and with Roglič in particular nursing a stiff shoulder (surely) and a massive time loss – it’s hard to say which is more painful – it’s safe to assume they’d have welcomed a day off.
That’s where Van Aert came in.
“We wanted to try to get him in the breakaway today, and we wanted to see if we could get a big breakaway and then we wouldn’t have to pull,” Jonas Vingegaard admitted. The young Dane now sits third overall, 31 seconds down on Pogačar. “We didn’t have to pull so that was perfect, but yeah, maybe the group was a bit small. It could just as easily have been a ten-man group riding away and then we’d never see them again.
“I think Wout did an amazing job. First of all he jumped hundred times in the breakaway and after that he killed ten to fifteen helpers, so he was incredibly strong today.”
Jumbo-Visma sports director Grischa Niermann confirmed their dual goals on the stage, indicating that Van Aert’s own strength would play against him if he had any hope of a second stage victory.
“We sort of knew that if we want to go for a sprint today, for sure nobody’s going to help us with Wout in this shape,” Niermann explained. “And controlling the stage for 220 kilometres? That’s also what we didn’t want to do. So the tactic was to get Wout in a big breakaway, and unfortunately ended up with three, so that was absolutely not the plan.
“If Wout hadn’t been in the breakaway, it would have been a breakaway going to the finish. I’m 100 percent sure.”
Geraint Thomas had a less charitable but perhaps just as accurate summary of Jumbo-Visma’s tactical logic.
“I don’t know. Maybe Jumbo weren’t going to ride so he was like, ‘well, I’d better go up the road then’,” said Thomas. “It was insane, the power he had and what he was doing, he was just splitting the group on his own on the front. Too much power, I don’t know what else to say, it was impressive.”
With the yellow jersey up the road, it was up to UAE Team Emirates, EF Education-EasyPost and anyone else with a vested interest in stage or overall glory to do the work, leaving Jumbo-Visma to ride in the wheels.
One consolation is that Van Aert picked up a further 20 points at the intermediate sprint. That’s little compared to the 50 collected by Pogačar with the stage win, but it stretches his lead to 61 points ahead of second-place Fabio Jakobsen.
Van Aert’s remarkably busy first six days have served him well in his goal of taking green all the way to Paris. It’s not been perfect, but a stage win, three second places and some aggressive mid-stage action has put him in a good position as the Tour finally heads into the mountains.
There’s been a lot of talk about the wisdom of Jumbo-Visma’s plan to go for both yellow and green, particularly when – at least before the Tour – their GC approach was two-pronged up against a UAE Team Emirates all in for Pogačar. However, with one notable exception, week one was always going to be somewhere the Belgian could shine.
“I thought I’ll try it and enjoy myself,” Van Aert said, “and if it doesn’t work, then it’s a nice way to honour the jersey and my last day in it.”
No, he didn’t get the stage win – that would have been nice – but Van Aert was likely to lose the race lead on Friday anyway. Without the yellow jersey, the pressure is off just a little, and as the reigning champion tightens his grip on a third title, Jumbo-Visma and Wout van Aert can sharpen their focus.
With a decent lead in the points competition and much harder terrain to come, Van Aert is in a good place as far as his own goal is concerned, and if that lead isn’t dented in the coming weeks, he may well be able to repay the favour of freedom and help out his team if/when they need him.
A bonus in that is that on a stage like tomorrow’s first visit to the mountains, the intermediate sprint is on the long uncategorised incline to the first climb of the day, so Van Aert, one of the better climbers among the green jersey challengers, could take points as collateral while helping his teammates.
If Pogačar is to be beaten, it will need to be all hands on deck, and the chances are, Van Aert will be ready for the call to arms, the green jersey firmly on his back.