Van Aert seems destined to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen one day. The Belgian fans want it, he wants it, and his performances in the past at the pavé spring classics show he’s got the capabilities to do so.
Yet Van Aert’s fifth attempt to win the Ronde ran off the rails Sunday in dramatic fashion.
All Van Aert could do was lick his wounds, take some lessons from another bruising battle, and turn his attention to Paris-Roubaix on Sunday.
“I’ll turn that page, but I’m not going to sit in the corner,” Van Aert vowed Sunday. “This week there’s another chance and I’ll go flat out to pursue that.”
The 2023 season was built around winning a “big one,” and that means either or both Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the two northern classics that so far have eluded his grasp.
It won’t be “both” this year following Sunday’ rough and tumble ride that saw him on the ropes and finally popping on the Kruisberg after a searing attack from eternal rival Mathieu van der Poel.
Resigned to race for the podium, Van Aert was stymied at the line by Mads Pedersen to finish fourth.
A long, hard Sunday
One of the classic’s “Three Kings” was left without a crown Sunday.
“Obviously I’m disappointed. I came here to win the race,” Van Aert said. “The race went according to plan, but it wasn’t to be. I need to think about what happened later on, when it’s calmer.
“For me, the win was already gone when I wasn’t able to keep up on the Kruisberg climb. His attack surprised me a little bit. Maybe I was focusing too much on what was still to come. In a race like today the legs did the talking, and I wasn’t able to keep up with those two men.”
Van Aert will certainly have more chances to win his beloved De Ronde, but cycling history is full of riders seemingly destined to win Flanders who never do. Olympic gold medalist and Paris-Roubaix winner Greg Van Avermaet spent his entire career trying in vain to win Flanders.
Things were looking up for Van Aert. Following dominating rides to win E3 Saxo Classic and gift Gent-Wevelgem, things looked to be going to script Sunday.
He featured in a star-studded group of pre-race favorites Tadej Pogačar (UAE) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck). But two of the “Three Kings” dropped him on the relatively unknown cobbled Kruisberg climb. He fought his way back in contention for a podium spot but was beaten in the sprint for third place by Pedersen.
Hard luck on the ‘bergs’
A massively disappointed Van Aert didn’t stop at the finish line and rode straight to the Jumbo-Visma team bus a mile further up the road. He freshened up inside and once the first disappointment was gone, he stepped outside towards his wife Sarah De Bie and son Georges, receiving a big hug.
A few moments later, he shared his view on the Ronde to the awaiting media in Oudenaarde.
“It went really fast. It took a really long time before the race calmed down a bit with a breakaway up the road. The final was super long and tough. It was a grueling race but everything was going well for us,” Van Aert said. “We had Nathan Van Hooydonck in the main breakaway group which allowed us not to pull in front or at the back. That was what we were aiming for. Christophe put me in a good situation by bridging across alone.
“The team was super strong. Nathan did a super job, too. It was a very chaotic race and hard to keep an overview. It came down to a one-on-one situation earlier than we had hoped for, with me ending up riding with Pogačar and Van der Poel. They turned out to be stronger.”
Team work helped save the day, especially when Van Hooydonck dropped back from the group of favorites to help tow his leader back to the lead chasers. At the least a podium spot was still in the cards.
Van Aert admitted once he was dropped on the Kruisberg, his Flanders dreams started to unravel.
“Being dropped there on the Kruisberg, it wasn’t likely that I would be able to keep up on the Oude Kwaremont. I had to bow my head there,” he said. “Still, we tried to get the most out of it. I regret missing out on the podium for the team and the boys because that was the least they deserved.”
What a race this was.
— Team Jumbo-Visma cycling (@JumboVismaRoad) April 2, 2023
Much earlier in the race, Van Aert was one of the countless victims in the crash that was caused by Filip Maciejuk (Bahrain Victorious). He crashed into another rider and was quickly able to continue his race, but his bleeding knee showed that it might have influenced his performance.
“My knee is a bit hurt. They treated the wound but I still have to get it checked. In the race it didn’t bother me too much. It was quite chaotic. A lot of crashes and chaos along the way,” Van Aert said.
When asked how he felt about Pogačar, Van Aert applauded the Slovenian star:
“Really impressive. I can only say ‘chapeau’ about how strong he was from the second time up the Kwaremont. Most riders would hit the wall ,but he’s got such a big engine that he can slowly take everybody’s breath away.”
Next week there’s Paris-Roubaix, the cycling monument that perhaps suits Van Aert even better than the Ronde. Surprisingly enough, he hasn’t won that race either.