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Only for a rider of Wout van Aert‘s caliber is a podium in one of cycling’s storied monuments construed somehow as a disappointment.
Yet there he was Saturday, taking question after question if he was disappointed by kicking to third at Milan-San Remo.
Van Aert races to win every day he lines up, so anything less than victory is a missed chance.
Disappointed? Not from the sound of it.
With his season’s most important goals at Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix looming on the horizon, Van Aert is taking positive reinforcement out of Saturday’s Milan-San Remo podium finish behind longtime rival Mathieu van der Poel.
“I can live with this result,” Van Aert said of San Remo’s third place. “I don’t blame myself or the team. Mathieu was extremely strong. He attacked at the right moment and deserved to win.
“But the legs were good. I was one of the better riders in the final. That’s a good thing for the next few weeks.”
Saturday’s duel down the Poggio tipped in favor of Van der Poel in what was the latest chapter in their long-running rivalry.
Van Aert was caught a bit out of position when Tadej Pogačar attacked with just more than 1km to go on the Poggio. He was forced to fight through traffic to get on the wheel, and didn’t have the punch to counter when Van der Poel jumped.
“On the descent, I did everything I could to catch Mathieu,” Van Aert said. “We were going for the win. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.”
Those details of positioning and tactics often tip the difference between winning and a podium for the absolute elite one percenters who thrive at the top of the WorldTour peloton.
Confirmation ahead of De Ronde, Roubaix
How did Van Aert shake off the San Remo blues? According to his Strava account, he went on a brisk 10km jog Sunday morning in a recovery day after the long, six-hour-plus effort in Italy.
The team quickly pivots to the most important races on the calendar with the northern classics. The fun kicks off Wednesday at the Classic Brugge-De Panne, and stays in high gear through Paris-Roubaix on April 9.
Jumbo-Visma brings a loaded squad to the northern classics this year, and San Remo was just a preview of the firepower the team plans to unleash on the bergs and cobbles.
Along with Van Aert, the team will pack Dylan Van Baarle, Christophe Laporte, and Tiesj Benoot all riding as a mass of yellow jackets in all the upcoming Belgian classics.
Third place wasn’t a win, but the San Remo podium also served as confirmation that Van Aert is on track for his most important targets.
If Van Aert had finished outside the main thrust of the race-winning action, then there could be alarm bells.
A podium in what’s billed as the “hardest race to win” is nothing short of confirmation he’s on track.
“We can definitely live with this performance,” sports director Grischa Niermann said. “We originally intended to make the race hard on the Cipressa, but we had to change our strategy partly due to Jan Tratnik’s crash. We decided not to waste too much energy before the start of the Poggio.”
Apparently Wout is not tired enough after yesterday’s Milan-Sanremo. pic.twitter.com/qGtPmjAXdK
— International Cycling Fraternity (@cyclingfrat) March 19, 2023
All season long, Van Aert’s been repeating that it’s the elusive targets of Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix that are the center of his spring ambitions.
Third place to a superb Van der Poel on Saturday isn’t doing anything to shake his confidence. In fact, it only steels his determination.
Van Aert will only race four times in the upcoming critical northern classics window.
He’ll defend his title at E3 Saxo Bank, and race Gent-Wevelgem, the Ronde, and Roubaix in quick succession. Victory in all four is very much the goal.
“The strongest won. That’s all there is to it,” Niermann said. “Wout showed good form. In the coming weeks, we will have a strong team with an excellent leader in the classics. That’s the conclusion we can draw after [San Remo].”
That’s a glass that’s more than half-full. Jumbo-Visma hopes it will be running over when it really counts.