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Wout van Aert can add two world championship silver medals to his brimming trophy case Monday morning, but the new metalwork will leave only the bitter taste of disappointment in the mouth of the Belgian star.
Having finished second-best to an unstoppable ride by Filippo Ganna in Friday’s world championships time trial, expectations were high for van Aert and his all-star Belgian team at Sunday’s road race. However, the 26-year-old was again beaten by a man simply much better on the day.
Julian Alaphilippe ripped away from a stellar lead group on the steep slopes of the Gallisterna climb Sunday to dash his way toward a much-needed rainbow jersey for the French on the Imola race circuit. The Frenchman’s massive move over the steep climb was unstoppable, but that makes things no better for van Aert as he faces down two near-misses in three days.
“We had a fantastic ride, but when Julian Alaphilippe went I couldn’t respond,” van Aert said Sunday. “I am obviously disappointed. Second place is painful. I had the legs I wanted, but just like Friday, one was better. Two silver medals: that hits hard.
“I came with high expectations and it’s tough to accept two silver medals,” he continued. “Nevertheless, I was beaten twice by guys who were stronger guys. That will make it easier to accept it, but I’m aiming for wins. It’s been an exceptional year, I think, I have really strong legs. I need time to be proud of it … no regrets, the strongest in the race won.”
To come away disappointed with two world championship silver medals is the sign of a rider shouldering the heavy burden of Belgian hopes and harboring huge expectations of himself.
Having torn through the restarted summer season with wins at Milano-Sanremo, Strade Bianche, and in two Tour de France bunch sprints, van Aert seemed capable of anything coming into last week’s worlds. He was duly rewarded by the full commitment of a Belgian team boasting an all-star cast and the clout of Greg Van Avermaet, Jasper Stuyven, and Tiesj Benoot. The men in light blue jerseys controlled the race for much of the day, but when he moved, Alaphilippe proved a class of his own.
“I think everybody had to be on the wheel on the top of the climb, but that was impossible,” van Aert said. “But those last hundreds of meters were too much. Alaphilippe attacked on his outer chainring … He was gone … I have nothing to blame myself for and the team cannot blame itself. We did what we wanted to do today.”
Van Aert could well have been a victim of his own success in Imola.
The Belgian was bettered by 26 seconds in a 36-minute time trial course by an Italian opponent van Aert said was a “lot stronger,” and one that entirely focused on racing against the clock rather than balancing ambitions across one-day races, grand tours, and time trials.
Van Aert’s multi-dimensional prowess may have also shut down his chance for gold when he found himself in the group chasing Alaphilippe in the final 12km of the road race Sunday.
Having struggled to contain Alaphilippe’s attack, van Aert found himself in a chase group with Marc Hirschi (Switzerland), Michał Kwiatkowski (Poland), Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark) and Primož Roglič (Slovenia). As the opposition eyed van Aert’s big sprinting legs with caution, the chase stuttered and malfunctioned while the Frenchman romped away to forge a 24-second lead.
The Belgian proved why his chase companions didn’t want to bring him to the line by leading out the sprint and easily distancing Hirschi for second-place. For van Aert, a silver medal is a mark of fastest loser, rather second best.
“I must be satisfied with this medal, but I would have liked to give the team back a little more than that silver medal,” he said.