It was plainly evident to any cycling follower that Wout Van Aert is one of the best cyclists in the world before the Tour de France this year. This is a rider that has won multiple Cyclocross World Championships and has translated this talent to the road with flamboyance. Van Aert went on to win Milano-San Remo and looked the strongest this cobble season despite not winning Roubaix or Flanders, due to bad luck. His evolution has meant he is the best all-round cyclist in the world, capable of riding with the best in any terrain and discipline. Just have a look at his Paris-Nice performance this year to rescue Primoz Roglic’s yellow jersey in the mountainous terrain around Southern France, there is no rider that is capable of doing that and winning on the Champs-Elysees.
While Wout has been considered the best rider in the world, the last week and specifically the last 3 days has cemented his legacy as an impending all-time great. It is undoubted that he has the best legs in the world currently, but his cavalier approach in the Tour de France has electrified the race beyond comprehension, as it were in Stage 6 yesterday.
Wout began the race with 3 2nd places, this would be known as doing a “Sagan” in previous years, but Wout has reclaimed that title, for better or for worse (but seriously, it is clearly a good thing to finish 2nd all the time). He lost out to wildcard, Lampaert in the opening prologue and then was edged out in the impending sprint stages to Dutch sprinters, Jakobsen and Groenewegen. Also, a quick shoutout to Christophe Laporte who was simply incredible in setting up Wout. These first 3 days alone are a testament to his consistency and all-round riding acumen. However, the ensuing stages are what characterises Van Aert as a mythical character within the current cycling zeitgeist.
Tour de France 2022 – Stage 4
On paper, it looks like a relatively traditional sprint finish. There is a climb of 900m at steep-ish gradients towards the final 10km, however, it’s 900m long. It’s very unlikely to shape the result. But wait, enter Wout Van Aert’s undying spirit to the Tour de France. What seemed like a relatively innocuous sprint in the TDF was turned on its head when Nathan van Hooydonck and then Tiesj Benoot went bonkers on the final climb to set up Wout Van Aert. In this article, I hadn’t really mentioned his puncheur ability but here it was in full show. As Benoot fell away, Van Aert launched his acceleration twice, maybe 3 times, the final one was enough to drop Adam Yates and his team-mate Jonas Vingegaard. He soloed away in the final 10km to break his own 2nd place curse and figuratively and literally fly into his first victory of the race (Red Bull sponsorship was clearly worth it for both sides).
This was a day where Wout Van Aert re-wrote the script. This was a clear sprint stage and he could have settled, he already had come 2nd on the previous sprints. There have been numerous sprint stages like this on the Tour de France where teams put on the pressure to drop the big sprint favourites on climbs, however, Van Aert’s proactive instincts was a counter-balance to the norm, instead attacking solo away from his rivals. Clearly, it is easier to win by yourself than in a sprint, Wout must have thought. Here, Wout is truly fashioning his own way of riding previously benign parcours, and as fans, it is a sight to behold.
Tour de France 2022 – Stage 5
Wout Van Aert had his worst placing on Stage 5, 16th. But his performance was arguably his most impressive so far in the race.
This was the cobble stage. 11 sectors of pave in the final 70km set up a classics style GC survival of the fittest. And who better than Wout Van Aert to have as your lieutenant for Roglic and Vingegaard.
Van Aert crashed early in the day with Steven Kruijswijk, but this did little to ruin his day out. As it turned out, crashing and untimely mechanicals would be a running theme for Jumbo Visma. Jonas Vingegaard would have his own private circus after having a mechanical with 35km, with his team-mate Van Hooydonck’s bike being too big to ride on. Once he got back on a machine Van Aert quickly dropped back to support him and the deficit would be 40 seconds to a group containing Pogacar and the other main contenders. Pogacar would go on to attack away with Jasper Stuyven and build a 1-minute advantage over the Van Aert-led group.
Over the next 30 kilometres, Van Aert rode heart and soul to bring Vingegaard back to Pogacar at the front. Along the way, as luck would have it for Jumbo, Roglic would be involved in a crash that put him further back, but that would no longer be his task. His riding predominantly along with some support from Christophe Laporte lowered the gap to 30 seconds and his final efforts with Tom Pidcock finally reduced the gap to 13 seconds, on a day that seemed Vingegaard would lose a minute to Roglic. Van Aert’s titanic workload pacing against Stuyven, Pogacar and strong Bora domestiques (Politt, Schachmann) is symbolic of Van Aert as a rider, he leaves it all out there no matter the circumstance and is willing to fight with tenancy and bravery. It had been a breath of fresh air to see Van Aert’s spirit encapsulate these last 2 days.
Tour de France 2022 – Stage 6
Stage 6 was the most suited to Wout Van Aert out of the whole race pretty much. It featured a punchy parcours in the finale and a final climb of 1.6km at 6.1% that suited Van Aert to its core. Not too steep for the Slovenians or too shallow to favour the bigger sprinters. But it was in this context, that Wout Van Aert rode like a man possessed and most unlike his favouritism tag. Stage 6 was the annus mirabilis to Van Aert’s current M.O, and he delivered a polarising performance of a lifetime. Some say he rode brainless, I say he rode to entertain us.
Van Aert must have woken that day and chose violence. All while in the yellow jersey and being the favourite for the stage, Van Aert decided to attack like no tomorrow to get in the breakaway. Over the first flat 75km’s of the stage, yes you are seeing this right 75 kilometres, Van Aert launched salvo after salvo following all the moves and making numerous of his own. It was as if his energy was fully replenished after a minute rest all staggeringly, at the very front of the pack. It seemed never-ending, but finally with a clever lead out by Steven Kruijswijk, Van Aert leapt clear with 130 kilometres to go with Quinn Simmons and Jakob Fuglsang.
Remember, Van Aert is the favourite for this stage, favourites ride to win the final sprint to the line in the last kilometres. But Van Aert was not thinking like a favourite, he embodied some superior alpha mentality that distorts your reality. The mentality that dictates you ride hammer and tong for 200 kilometres because why the hell not, even though your best chance at winning is waiting for the final 2 kilometres and doing nothing earlier. Frankly, Van Aert lost all tactical understanding on this stage, it was realistically quite incomprehensible what he was doing. He would eventually drop his breakaway companions and was caught 10km from the line. He would also go on to lose the yellow jersey. By all accounts, it was a bad decision and he rode like a “knucklehead” as Chris Horner would say. But does it matter?
What we saw was a masterclass of cycling naivety, bravery, courage and fearlessness all in one. Van Aert didn’t ride like a normal traditional cyclist in all 3 of these previous stages and at times he made errors, but his riding style and undying passion for the sport shone through like a beacon. It was the unconventional itself, that makes his performance arguably the 3 days in cycling history, and definitely the best I have seen with my own eyes. As cycling fans, I think we are in great debt to Wout van Aert and long may this aggressive style of cycling continue to make waves in our sport.