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Wout van Aert is looking like a world champion in waiting, and noone is complaining about it.
Van Aert continued his meteoric rise through the road racing ranks to win four stages and the overall of the Tour of Britain last week. After steamrollering through the classics and the Tour de France, it’s hard to look past the Belgian baller swapping his national tricolor for the rainbow bands of road race world champion in two weeks’ time.
“This race has turned out to be more than I had dared dream of,” van Aert said after the final stage of the Tour of Britain. “I started it with the world championships and Paris-Roubaix in mind. In the past eight stages we were able to work under perfect conditions towards the races in the coming weeks.”
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The startlist for the worlds road race is deep and rich. But although there are dozens of second-tier contenders for the explosive hilly parcours, van Aert seems a pedal stroke ahead of even the five-star favorites.
Julian Alaphilippe looked a half-watt from top form at the Tour of Britain. Mathieu van der Poel has missed weeks of training and is still not guaranteed to race. Sonny Colbrelli doesn’t have the staying power of van Aert. And Remco Evenepoel – well, he’s on van Aert’s team, and committed to ride for his countryman.
“Wout can trust that I will do everything for him,” Evenepoel said after being bettered by Colbrelli at the European championships. “We will do our best to get a jersey together on Sunday (at the time trial). And the week after that I will empty myself for van Aert in the road race.”
Pre-race favorite, and fan-favorite
Unlike dominant racers of the past, van Aert has somehow evaded scorn, skepticism, or criticism from both inside and beyond the peloton.
Riders want to be him, team managers want to sign him, and fans want to have a beer with him.
If – or perhaps when – he wins the worlds next weekend in Flanders, Belgium will come to a standstill and the whole cycling world will be stifling a cheer.
How did van Aert steal a place in the world’s hearts?
Recent greats like Chris Froome, Peter Sagan, and Mark Cavendish have all found success came hand-in-hand with some degrees of scorn.
Although van Aert has picked up some of the sheen of superiority that has washed over past champions, he remains a racer’s racer.
From his boyish banter with Ethan Hayter at the Tour of Britain to his post-race collapse atop Great Orne last week, van Aert has retained humanity keeps him real.
That van Aert doesn’t always have things his own way – getting ganged up on in the Tirreno-Adriatico mountaintop finish, twice placing second at last year’s worlds TT and road race, being outsprinted by Tom Pidcock at Brabantse Pijl – keeps him honest.
Van Aert heralded Mark Cavendish and André Greipel after outsprinting to two greats at the Tour of Britain.
“Could not wish for a better end of a brilliant week,” van Aert wrote on Instagram. “Winning the bunch sprint in front of two legends.”
Such statements could sound hollow, but van Aert made them feel real.
After winning across three disciplines at the Tour de France, it could have been easy to have grown weary of van Aert.
But rather than becoming a boring chest-beating swagger, van Aert’s race through France just made for mind-boggling, popcorn-gorging television. He dominates the sport, but he also brightens it by constantly pushing the boundaries.
When van Aert took his fourth stage win at the Tour of Britain and secured his first major GC win in the process, van Aert put himself firmly in the driving seat for the worlds.
“The Tour of Britain has been a good race for us in all respects. A beautiful course that has many similarities with the course of the world championships in Flanders,” he said. “The preparation for my next big goals is going smoothly.”
He doesn’t have the panache of reigning champ Alaphilippe, the fallibility of Vuelta a España star Primož Roglič, or the boy-wonder allure of Tour de France ace Tadej Pogačar.
Wout van Aert instead brings a little bit of all three to the table, and adds a shock of fine hair to boot. His appearance on the Tour de France podium with his months-old son made for the icing on the cake. Father, husband, racer, and do-it-all ace.
If Wout becomes road world champion on September 26, the party will spread far further than just Flanders.