Wout van Aert and his Jumbo-Visma teammates spent two nights near Imola between Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo, the Belgian perhaps channeling the positive vibes of his 2020 peak of form that included second in both the time trial and the road race when the World Championships were held on the motor racing circuit last season.
Van Aert was also second at Tirreno-Adriatico but is determined and hungry to take a repeat victory at Milan-San Remo, the week of hard racing in Italy lifting him to peak form in time for the biggest Classics of the spring.
“I have a lot of confidence and I have the right legs. I know that San Remo is a course that suits me, so I’m looking forward to it,” he told HLN.be with his usual poise and self confidence.
“Am I going to win? The race will decide that. but that is the only thing I am at the start for.”
A number of other teams travelled as far as San Remo for a final reconnaissance ride of the Cipressa and Poggio. However, Van Aert opted to focus on his recovery from Tirreno-Adriatico for Saturday and on mentally preparing for his expected battle royale with eternal rival Mathieu van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe and the other contenders.
He went deep to fight for the final podium earlier this week but insists everything is on track for Saturday.
“I think I came out of Tirreno-Adriatico feeling good. I was tired, especially on Wednesday but the body always gives in a little to the fatigue on the first day when it no longer needs to suffer. People who take a vacation recognize that feeling, too. Now I feel a bit more rested. I’m counting down to Saturday.”
After an extended training camp, Van Aert started his season at Strade Bianche where he also was defending champion but was unable to respond when Van der Poel went on the attack and finished fourth behind the Dutch champion, Alaphilippe and, surprisingly, Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers).
The outcome of the training camp was merely delayed and Van Aert went on to take five top-three finishes across seven stages in Tirreno-Adriatico including two victories and second overall to Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates).
“I wanted to be very good after the altitude training in Tenerife but also thought that I might be able to improve a bit, too. It has come faster than I thought. I was very good at Tirreno, probably close to my best level. After a few days of rest, Milan-San Remo comes at the perfect time for me.”
Everyone is expecting a three-way battle between Van Aert, van der Poel and Alaphilippe at MIlan-San Remo, despite the difficulty in predicting the outcome of the most open Classic in the sport.
Statistically the Frenchman has a lesser chance of victory due the better sprinting ability of his rivals. But Alaphilippe won Milan-San Remo in 2019 and has twice finished on the podium. He can go with the attacks on the Poggio or even before and still win, perhaps using his inventiveness and bike skills on the descent or in the final kilometres.
Van Aert knows that Alaphilippe does not need to wait for an error or to somehow take advantage of the Van Aert- van der Poel rivalry that emerged at last year’s Gent-Wevelgem, when Mads Pedersen benefited from them watching each other.
“I wouldn’t dare say that. He chooses his moments and knows how to win,” Van Aert said of the world champion in deference.
“Julian had one real chance at Tirreno-Adriatico and he won (on stage 2 to Chiusdino beating van der poel and Van Aert). So he is certainly very dangerous. Julian is the type of rider that dares to attack. If he has something in mind, he does it. I’ve had to fight him a few times, I know he cannot be underestimated.”
Van Aert is following in the footsteps of Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck, who dominated Milan-San Remo in the 1960s and 70s, winning La Classicissima seven and three times respectively.
Riders like Tom Boonen, Peter van Petegem and Greg van Avermaet have never won the race for Belgium but Van Aert looks back happily on his success last summer when he attacked on the Poggio with Alaphilippe and then beat him in the sprint as the peloton came up behind them.
Van Aert expects a similar finale this year.
“Mentally it is an advantage that I won San Remo last year,” he said.
“I’ve ridden Milan-San Remo twice and each time we got away on the Poggio. I’ve not yet experienced a group sprint finish. But due to the aggression of a number of riders I think it’ll be a hard race again.
“That appeals to people much more than a bunch sprint on the Via Roma. A hard race is better for me and Mathieu. I have been in the final twice, so those are experiences that should all help me.”
Van Aert and Van der Poel are at the forefront of a new generation of Classics riders taking control of the biggest races like Milan-San Remo.
The peloton no longer appears a place for old men but Van Aert shows little sympathy for fellow Belgian Philippe Gilbert, who rides his 16th edition of Milan-San Remo and is chasing his fifth Monument, Van Avermaet and his AG2R teammate Oliver Naesen, Vincenzo Nibali or sprinter Alexander Kristoff.
“I think they are probably tailoring their races on us and if they can survive, they are certainly dangerous,” he said with respect but without generosity.
“It seems like we are winning a lot, but I enjoy every win. Last year I instinctively won a lot but in the end it was ‘only’ six victories. So there is no room for pity in top sport.”