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Opinion: Wout van Aert still has to prove himself in the Classics

In-depth
25 Feb 2022
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As the hype train choo-choos again, it’s time to remind ourselves that Van Aert has yet to show up as a true Classics specialist

Words Will Strickson

Wout van Aert is unequivocally one of the best cyclists in the world. His rise from cyclocross specialist – and a very successful one – to a hybrid sprinter/climber/time-triallist who can beat anyone, on any day, on any terrain, has been incredible.

However, his treatment as already this all-time great Classics rider is wrong. Looking purely at his results, he’s been ‘good’ so far at best, and has to step up in 2022 to justify his billing.

As the number two ranked rider in the world and the man who we all saw impressively produce three wildly different stage wins in the Tour de France last year, he’s obviously set high standards for us to expect and is absolutely a victim of his own success in how people race against him.

But Van Aert is spoken of as though he has already placed himself among history’s top Classics men, and that’s just not the case. Not yet.

Success breeds failure

Let’s start with what he has actually achieved because it’s worth acknowledging that he clearly should be dominating.

He developed well from his first season competing in Classics races in 2018 – his last season with former team Vérandas Willems-Crelan – with a famous podium at Strade Bianche, which saw him come off the bike on the final brutal climb into Siena, and impressive debuts at Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, coming home in 13th and 9th respectively.

In 2019, before his season-ending crash at the Tour de France, he bagged another third place at Strade Bianche as well as second place at E3 and another impressive debut, this time in Milan-San Remo, where he finished sixth. His 14th and 22nd at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix were slightly disappointing but not the end of the world.

The following year he set the standard. His only race day before Covid shut the seasond down was only an 11th at Omloop but when racing resumed in August, Van Aert came out firing.

He took an emphatic win at Strade Bianche – finally – followed by his first Monument win at Milan-San Remo, where he pipped Julian Alaphilippe to cement himself as one of the world’s best.

He could’ve made it two Monuments in one season in Flanders in October – and probably prevented this piece from being written – but he was outsprinted by arch-rival Mathieu van der Poel in a finish their eerily similar careers had inevitably been leading to.

By those standards, however, last season was a big disappointment. He was a non-factor in the final of Strade Bianche, where he finished fourth.

He was beaten into third at Milan-San Remo – which is a course practically built for him and a race he could be winning every year – by absolutely-not-a-sprinter Jasper Stuyven and famous ‘climber’ Caleb Ewan.

He didn’t make the final selection at the Tour of Flanders either, finishing sixth, and was left behind at Paris-Roubaix, his seventh place seeing him cross the line over a minute down on the winning group and alongside such noted greats as Jonas Rutsch, Guillaume Boivin and Tom Van Asbroeck.

His only Classics wins came at Gent-Wevelgem, in a sprint he was in no danger of ever losing against Giacomo Nizzolo, Matteo Trentin, Sonny Colbrelli and Michael Matthews, and Amstel Gold Race, where a dodgy photo finish awarded him the victory over Tom Pidcock.

For a Belgian superstar to have his only Monument win come at Milan-San Remo would be a disaster for his legacy.

It may be a historic race and one of the biggest in the sport but on its own it doesn’t cement your place in the annals of cycling.

If you disagree, then take a look at the list of winners. Yes, greats are there but they’re not all great. Unless we need to have a larger debate about Arnaud Démare’s career.

Man, myth or legend?

Certainly some of those results were impacted by teams working together against him, but that’s a position he’s put himself in and must fight through. Van der Poel’s 2019 Amstel Gold Race win is the standard he must follow.

Van Aert’s Dutch rival has made his name on completely emptying the tank on his way to victory, something that is absolutely the right approach in a one-day race.

What he does from here will decide whether he’s just another solid ‘Classics guy’ like a Sep Vanmarcke – someone who never quite reached their potential – or a true great worthy of a place beside esteemed compatriots Philippe Gilbert and Tom Boonen.

It wouldn’t be outlandish to suggest Van Aert should be aiming to win all five Monuments in his career. That’s how good he is and how suited his skillset is to these races.

He’s already got Milan-San Remo and should win it again. He’s demonstrated his capability of winning the Tour of Flanders with that second place. He’s yet to try Liège-Bastogne-Liège or Il Lombardia and any hope of winning those probably rests on Tadej Pogačar giving them a miss if he does go for it.

That is a real possibility given the Slovenian – the undisputed best rider in the world – has already won both, in 2021. Van Aert should be able to get the job done at Paris-Roubaix given his cyclo-cross ability, but has struggled to make his mark so far.

Still aged just 27, the world is truly still at his feet. He can – and I think he will – become a Boonen, Merckx, Museeuw, Van Looy or De Vlaeminck, but 2022 is when he has to show it.