A couple of centimetres – that was all that separated Wout van Aert from a victory at the Tour of Flanders and another addition to one of the most impressive seasons in recent memory.
In the end, it wasn’t to be for the Jumbo-Visma phenomenon. In Oudenaarde, he was outsprinted by long-time rival Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), pipped on the line after the pair had proved the strongest – with a pinch of luck – of the race.
After a truncated 243 kilometres of racing where he had done everything right, Van Aert had Van der Poel right where he wanted him – on the front in the final kilometre – and was primed to out-sprint the Dutch road race champion for another Monument victory after his Milan-San Remo triumph back in August. It wasn’t to be on the Minderbroedersstraat, however.
“It’s simple,” Van Aert told reporters after the finish. “He was just that little bit stronger. I wanted to be the first to go in the sprint, from the wheel, but I waited a little too long. I would have benefitted from a longer sprint, but I didn’t use it.
“Of course, I would have liked to have won, but this is a nice second place. I’ll replay that sprint again a few times before I go to sleep, but I don’t think I made any big mistakes.”
The pair had, in the aftermath of Gent-Wevelgem, been engulfed in a polemic over them racing for the win versus denying the other victory. Van der Poel has already called the ‘spat’ a “media exaggeration”, while Van Aert also made fun of the situation.
“We had a lot of chat during the race,” he joked. “We went through all the newspaper articles this week.
“No, seriously – we kept each other informed about the time difference, but otherwise the focus was on the race. Mathieu and I both did our turns and worked well together.”
The pair should have been accompanied by Elegant-QuickStep’s Julian Alaphilippe in the final – a three-way battle over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. That mouthwatering match-up wasn’t to be, though, with the Frenchman caught in a motorbike crash with 35 kilometres to race, just a couple of kilometres after the trio had broken away over the Steenbeekdries and Taaienberg.
With Alaphilippe at the rear of the trio, he hit the back of a slow-moving race jury motorbike, seemingly unsighted as his two companions swerved to avoid it. Van Aert said he felt bad for Alaphilippe, but added that he felt the Frenchman wasn’t paying enough attention at the time.
“I rode past the moto, but it’s logical that I tried to stay in that slipstream as long as possible,” he said. “If Julian fell as a result, I want to apologise, but I think he was just a little bit inattentive.
“It’s too bad for him, as otherwise there would have been three of us. It would have been a different final – a bit more tactical. After that, Mathieu and I soon realised that we wouldn’t be able to drop each other and that we’d go to Oudenaarde together. We both had confidence in our sprint.”
Van Aert had bad luck of his own, too, crashing earlier in the race after the first passage of the Oude Kwaremont at the halfway mark. He fell softly down a grass verge and quickly got going again, but said that the effort of chasing back on – and the later effort of bridging to Van der Poel and Alaphilippe on the Taaienberg – saw him expend some vital energy.
“Of course, that was not ideal,” Van Aert said of his spill. “I rode alone to get back for a little too long. Someone braked in front of me and I couldn’t brake fast enough, so I had to hit a rider from Ineos. After that, I lost the good feeling a bit, and had to regain my place. But in the end, there was nothing left for me to do, and I was able to ride the final.”
Despite the end result – the narrowest of losses – Van Aert said that he was pleased with his 2020 season, a year that has seen him win Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo, two stages at the Tour de France and two silver medals at the World Championships, among other top results.
The cancellation of Paris-Roubaix – where he finished 13th and 22nd the past two seasons – hit him hard, though, he admitted, adding that now his season is over he’s going to enjoy time with his pregnant wife, Sarah De Bie.
“Yes, that feeling [that I had a good season] should quickly take over. After the Tour de France and the World Championships, I worked hard to keep in shape, and that’s great. I am proud to be as good as I was at Strade Bianche and at the start of the restart of the season.
“However, it is a pity that Paris-Roubaix will not go ahead. I had a mentally difficult time when the cancellation became official. That is, together with the Ronde, the most beautiful race there is; this is what I had trained for.
“Now, I’m not going to ride for a fortnight, and I also want to enjoy Sarah’s pregnancy. They say that it’s the most beautiful thing in the world, don’t they? I will need November to prepare for the cyclo-cross season. We’ll see exactly when I’ll return.”