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Wout van Aert Has Conquered The World And Now He's Conquering The Tour de France

Photo: Thibault Camus (AP)

There’s no other rider at the Tour de France like Wout van Aert. Jumbo-Visma’s 24-year-old Tour debutante has built a multi-discipline resumé that would make anyone in the peloton blush, and this morning, he confirmed his potential as an all-around road destroyer by taking on an entire class of specialists and beating them at their own game. Look at the distance over which van Aert maintains a ridiculous pace on the way to a narrow win in Stage 10.

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Van Aert won his first senior cyclocross world championship in 2016 when he was just 21. He followed that title up with wins in 2017 and 2018, and he also added two overall cyclocross world cup titles and one Superprestige championship. He and Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel essentially rewrote the entire sport overnight, ushering the Sven Nys-Niels Albert era out and turning top-level cyclocross into a two-man rivalry between two boy geniuses.

Both men have committed to road racing this season to a degree neither has before, and both have found immediate success. Van der Poel was the revelation of spring, taking three one-day classics and finishing just off the podium at the Tour of Flanders. Van Aert, meanwhile, earned podiums and top-tens in the spring and has continued his run of form into stage-racing season. He is Belgium’s time trial national champion, and he won two stages and the points jersey at the Criterium du Dauphine, the Tour de France’s prestige tune-up race.

His Tour was already a success after the first two stages, where he helped his team win the opening road stage then played a part in their team time trial win, earning himself the white jersey for best young rider. But it got even better today during an unexpectedly grueling ride through southern France.

In the final 30 or so kilometers of today’s stage, orthogonal crosswinds blew straight into the peloton’s right flank, which presented an opportunity to split the group and leave unsuspecting general classification contenders holding the bag. Crosswinds have wreaked havoc at the Tour before, most notably in 2013 when Alejandro Valverde’s race ended and Chris Froome lost a minute, and the reason why they work so well at causing chaos is because they force riders at the back of the peloton to work as hard as riders at the front.

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When the wind comes in from the side, it shifts the geometry of drafting such that riders can’t chill behind each other without being exposed to the wind. This is how echelons form, and once the elastic snaps in the peloton, fighting through the gap is significantly harder with crosswinds to fight. Van Aert’s teammate George Bennett went back to get water bottles for the team just as two rival teams cranked up the pace, and he tumbled from fourth overall and lost 10 minutes. Today, a select group of 28 riders made the front group, with contenders like Jakob Fuglsang, Rigoberto Uran, Thibaut Pinot, and Richie Porte losing minutes in the wind.

Van Aert was among the lucky front group, but so too were the peloton’s best sprinters: Elia Viviani, Peter Sagan, Michael Matthews, and Caleb Ewan. The stage was hard, leadout trains had been bled out by the attritional damage of protecting team leaders through the brutal racing, but still, this seemed like one for the sprinters. Instead, van Aert powered through. He went hard, early, and alone, but nobody caught him in time.

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That is one impressive-as-hell way to win, against the best competition on their turf. Two stage wins is more than anyone could have expected from van Aert at his debut Tour, and you’d be wise to expect him at the pointy end of a few more finishes before this month is over.

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