Wout van Aert off the podium and off the pace at Strade Bianche

Defending champion misses final split to finish fourth in Siena.

Photo: Getty Images

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Wout van Aert rolled home fourth in what was his worst-ever finish at Strade Bianche on Saturday. Once a winner and twice third, van Aert was still among the leaders even when he might not be at his personal best.

The Belgian ace lacked the top-end kick to make it into the final selection of the race, but was able to draw some positives from his 2021 season debut on the road.

“I have to be satisfied with this,” van Aert said from Siena. “I was at the right place, but I just wasn’t good enough in the final. That gear was not there yet.”

Van Aert went into the race as defending champion and red-hot favorite alongside Mathieu van der Poel for the win. When the duo went clear as part of a stellar group of seven, it looked like the two cross-discipline stars could take the race to the wire.

However, the Jumbo-Visma star was distanced by a move from Julian Alaphilippe on the final gravel sector with 12km to go and looked in difficulty. Soon after he had caught back to the group, he was one of a quartet of riders that was blown out of contention by the first of two of van der Poel’s enormous race-winning accelerations.

“I was the very first to have a hard time in that leading group, but in the end I still finish fourth,” van Aert said. “So the content is there, but the sharpness is missing. On the long gravel sections I was good and I could make a difference. But on the steep sections, I fell a bit short. The top end has yet to recover.”

Van Aert had chosen to skip the opening weekend of the classics last week in favor of training at altitude on Tenerife. Meanwhile, all the other major contenders for Strade Bianche had chosen to race into fitness, with van der Poel putting in a bullish performance at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne last weekend.

It could have been the lack of race conditioning that cost van Aert in the decisive late-race moments at Strade Bianche.

Speaking earlier this week, Jumbo-Visma coach Marc Lamberts had said that the Belgian was still a half-watt away from peak competition form, and it showed Saturday, with van Aert unable to match the strongest accelerations from his rivals.

“That my coach Marc Lamberts predicted this? That’s right. Marc is a smart person, hey,” van Aert joked after the race.

Though van Aert lost out Saturday, recording his worst result in four appearances, he took confidence for the season to come after his Jumbo-Visma teammates had controlled the opening 120km of the day.

“We rode a fantastic race as a team,” van Aert said. “A number of guys have even gone further than originally planned. That is a very pleasant observation. If I can get a little better now, we will have a nice classic season. ”

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