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Reigning world champion Alaphilippe, and the pretender to his throne, van Aert, went toe to toe on the mighty Great Orme on stage 4 of the Tour of Britain on Wednesday.
And what a show it was.
The short but painfully steep climb, with its gradients up to over 20 percent, tested the riders to their limits and delivered a titanic battle between the two, providing a major window into their pre-worlds form.
Van Aert didn’t panic on the toughest parts of the climb, grinding away at his own pace to keep in touch with Alaphilippe and Michael Woods. In the end, he dealt the biggest blow by outkicking Alaphilippe to the line for the win, but the huge effort it took to claim victory showed as he collapsed into a heap on the floor soon after crossing the line.
“It was painful for two kilometers,” van Aert said. “At the bottom of the final climb, it was very steep. I set myself the goal to survive that tricky part. We knew Alaphilippe and [Michael] Woods would be the biggest competitors today.
“When Julian attacked, I put in a good sprint. This was a very nice finish. I put this victory high on my list. It may not be the biggest race I have won, but I will be happy with the way I did it for a long time. I am very happy with this victory.”
— Team Jumbo-Visma cycling (@JumboVismaRoad) September 8, 2021
While Alaphilippe lost the battle on Great Orme, the road to rainbow still has time to play out and the war rages on. The Frenchman looked in sprightly form with his multiple needling attacks on Great Orme, a very promising sign ahead of the Flanders worlds.
Van Aert ultimately had the legs on Alaphilippe in the sprint, which could weigh on the Frenchman’s mind in the latter stages of the worlds road race, but the additional 50k and many more climbs will make the uphill sprint [if there is one] for the rainbow jersey an entirely different prospect.
“A classics feel today on the Tour of Britain. A big thank you to the whole Deceuninck-Quick-Step for the tremendous work. Not much is missing but it’s encouraging for the future. Fire in the legs for the end of the season, it will pay off,” Alaphilippe wrote on Instagram after the stage.
The road to Flanders
Both Alaphilippe and van Aert, and any of their rivals, will need some fire in the legs to come out with the rainbow jersey in due time.
The 263.3km route from Antwerp to Leuven is a Flanders-style course with difficulty amped up to 10. The climbing starts with about 200k to go and doesn’t stop until the riders have completed 41 challenging Belgian hellingen.
Overall, the riders will amass 2,562m of ascending, similar to a challenging medium mountain day at the Tour de France.
Van Aert is heading into his home-road worlds off the back of an incredible season that saw him claim sprint, mountain, and time trial wins at the Tour de France. He also claimed a silver medal at the Olympic Games behind Richard Carapaz and got his return to racing off with a bang by taking the opening stage of the Tour of Britain.
The pressure on van Aert will be immense in Flanders and Remco Evenepoel has already pledged his allegiance to work for the 26-year-old in the road race. It has been almost a decade since Philippe Gilbert gave Belgium a worlds win, and the fans will be crying for one in Flanders.
Van Aert will face a stern test in Leuven on September 26, but the difficulty he faced on Great Orme will give him enough knowledge of his form. It also proved to him that a little bit of belief in yourself can be enough to get you over the line in first place.
“For me, this was the most important stage of this tour. This has been a good test for me. On paper today’s course seemed to be just a bit too difficult for me,” van Aert said. “However, it turns out that with confidence a lot is possible. I tried to motivate the team all day long. They worked hard all day to put me in the best possible position at the foot of the final climb. I was able to go just over the limit to get this win. I had to dig really deep.”
Alaphilippe won’t have the pressure of an expectant home crowd, but he still carries the burden of the defending champion on a course that suits him very well. His season hasn’t been quite as flashy as his Belgian rival’s but there has been no sign of the rainbow jersey curse in 2021.
A stage win, and a stint in yellow at the Tour de France, a convincing victory at La Flèche Wallonne, and a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, plus a podium at Strade Bianche and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, all make for a solid season for Alaphilippe.
Unlike many of his potential worlds rivals, Alaphilippe chose to skip the Olympics, and he enjoyed a monthlong break following the Clásica San Sebastián in August before returning to racing at Druivenkoers-Overijse.
Alaphilippe has been hugely consistent since then and his Tour of Britain ride shows he’s in the right place. Finishing second to van Aert shouldn’t worry him ahead of the worlds.