Wout van Aert and the weight of Tour of Flanders expectation

'On Sunday everyone will start from scratch again': Why anything less than victory for Van Aert at De Ronde may be deemed a failure.

Photo: Gruber Images

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GHENT, Belgium (VN) – After steamrollering the spring, anything less than a Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix victory will be deemed a failure for Jumbo-Visma and Wout van Aert.

And for Belgium-born Van Aert, the “Holy Day” of Belgian cycling that is De Ronde van Vlaanderen is the race to win.

“There’s always pressure on a mythical race like Flanders,” Van Aert told the media at his pre-race conference Thursday. “But after our achievements this spring, there’s a lot of confidence in the team.”

A sweep of five victories on Belgian soil puts Jumbo-Visma in pole position as it heads toward Sunday’s date with Tadej Pogačar and Mathieu van der Poel at De Ronde.

It’s got the team to swarm the climbs and trample the cobbles, and in Van Aert, it’s got the rider to deliver the final piledriver.

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But Jumbo-Visma’s victories from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad through Gent-Wevegem will be overshadowed by any disappointment in Flanders of Roubaix.

They’re the races that are remembered, the monuments that make-or-break seasons.

“It is good for confidence that we were able to take a few victories with the team, but on Sunday everyone will start from scratch again,” Van Aert said.

Now aged 28, Van Aert has been on a cobblestone quest for longer than he would have liked.

With career-best finishes of second in Flanders and third in Roubaix, there still remains a cobbled-shape hole in Van Aert’s huge palmarès.

For many in Belgian cycling, Van Aert’s “missing northern monument” overshadows his triumphs from the Tour de France and Milan-San Remo through Strade Bianche and Amstel Gold. But Van Aert is confident he’s timed his training peak to perfection, and he’s poised to set that record right Sunday in his first Flanders since 2021.

“Winning one of the next two monuments is our goal as a team. That is certainly important, how important is difficult to say. They are the main goal of my spring,” Van Aert said Thursday.

Van Aert is confident. Jumbo-Visma is crushing. And so Belgian expectations are skyrocketing.

Van Aert the savior on Belgian cycling’s ‘holy day’?

Gent Wevelgem and the gift Belgian cycling dons beleive Wout shouldn’t have given. (Photo: Jasper Jacobs / Getty)

De Ronde is a Sunday of Belgian worship at the church of cycling. The nation shuts down the nonessentials so it can line the bergs, fill the beer tents, and cheer its riders.

After not seeing a home rider win the Tour of Flanders since Philippe Gilbert blazed to an incredible solo in 2017, Belgium expects big from Van Aert on Sunday.

“You notice with everything that the high point is approaching,” Van Aert said Thursday, fresh from a recon ride over Flanders’ fiercest climbs.

“We were followed by cameramen during the reconnaissance and there were even supporters along the roads. All those things make it special.”

Van Aert roars into De Ronde buoyed by scintillating victory over Pogačar and Van der Poel at E3 Saxo Classic and the confidence of towing his teammate Christophe Laporte to the win at Gent-Wevelgem.

But for many, Van Aert’s show of force last weekend on the roads into Wevelgem wasn’t quite right.

A chorus of criticism from Belgian legends Eddy Merckx, Tom Boonen, and Johan Museeuw after Van Aert’s Gent-Wevelgem “gifting” further tightens the lens on Van Aert’s date with cobbled destiny Sunday at the Tour of Flanders.

“It’s Van Aert’s choice to let a teammate win, but I wouldn’t have done it,” Merckx told Sporza. “He could have written history by winning Harelbeke [E3 Saxo Classic], Wevelgem, and the Tour of Flanders.”

‘Man to man’ with Pogačar and Van der Poel

Vam Aert was stuck on the sidelines when Van der Poel and Pogačar dominated De Ronde last year. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Van Aert faces two big problems in his quest to claim his long-awaited Flanders victory and end his nation’s six-year drought.

Van Aert’s decades-long rival Van der Poel and the “modern Merckx” that is Pogačar are two untamable and explosive super-talents that not even Jumbo-Visma can keep a leash on.

“They were super strong, probably a bit stronger than me, but luckily I could hang on,” Van Aert said of the big three’s showdown at E3.

“It was a good lesson that I can win the race if I’m not the strongest, but if I’m able to stay with those guys. On Sunday they will be the two guys I will be looking at the most.”

Even in the absence of cobble-crushing teammate Dylan van Baarle, Van Aert will look to a fleet of purebred cobblestone workhorses to exert some control on Van der Poel and Pogačar on Sunday.

“I expect they [Van der Poel and Pogačar] want to create a man-to-man situation as soon as possible,” Van Aert said. “We would of course prefer to stay in the front with several teammates as long as possible, but that is not necessarily necessary for me.”

Van Aert is confident his form improved since some signs of struggle in Harelbeke. Now he’s got to convert that potential and shrug off the pressure on his nation’s “Holy Day.”

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