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When does a name become a superlative? When that name is Wout van Aert

Amidst Jumbo-Visma’s highs and lows at this year’s Tour, Wout van Aert brings calm, consistency and above all success

Robyn Davidson
8 Jul 2022

When is a name not just a name? When it doubles as a superlative too.

If ‘Wout van Aert’ was in the dictionary, you would probably find the entry accompanied by a photo of the man himself resplendent in yellow at the 2022 Tour de France alongside a description containing enough superlatives to inflate even the humblest of egos.

It is not a question of if Van Aert will go down in history, but merely a matter of how.

Ever since his arrival on the Jumbo-Visma team in early 2019 – a year earlier than planned after terminating his contract with Vérandas Willems-Crelan – he has been setting ever higher benchmarks for his own success, and then smashing them one by one.

Green jersey success and stage victories arrived as early as the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2019.

Then in his debut appearance at the Tour de France, a race whose presence in the calendar has consistently brought the very best out of Van Aert, he wore the white jersey to signify best placed young rider in the opening week.

His first win at the Grand Tour arrived in the form of a sprint against Caleb Ewan and Elia Viviani on Stage 10.

But just four days later he would find his career itself under threat. A crash into the barriers during the 27.2km Stage 13 time-trial ended his race, and his season, made worse by a mistake during surgery on his injuries that could easily have prematurely ending his cycling exploits for good.

Yet on his return the following year, Van Aert had the audacity to act like he had never been away, sweeping up victories once the Covid-affected season finally got back up and running again in August.

Wout van Aert wins Milan-San Remo ahead of Julian Alaphilippe in 2020. Photo: Marco Bertorello via Getty Images

Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo. The man collected coronavirus-postponed Classics as if they were infinity stones and he was embarking on a murderous galactic campaign.

Fast-forward two years and it felt only natural that, when his team announced Van Aert’s participation at the French Grand Tour for 2022, he would likely be decorated in yellow at one point or another.

It nearly happened at the very first opportunity too. After setting the fastest time in the opening day’s time-trial, Van Aert was only pushed out of the leader’s hotseat by a single rider, fellow Belgian Yves Lampaert of QuickStep Alpha Vinyl, who went five seconds faster around the course to take the first maillot jaune.

On day two, a fierce bunch sprint into Nyborg saw Van Aert denied again, this time by Lampaert’s teammate Fabio Jakobsen, who narrowly won in the charge for the line. The yellow jersey proved a more than ample consolation prize.

Stage 3, and incredibly it was third time unlucky for Van Aert with yet another second place, as Dylan Groenewegen (Team Bike-Exchange) sprinted to victory and Van Aert was left filing a decent claim for being always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

It took the Tour returning to its home ground from Denmark for the Belgian to finally taste the sweet delights of stage success, and he did so in style.

Photo: Pete Goding

Jumbo-Visma set a fierce pace on the final climb of Stage 4, and Van Aert shot off the front like a yellow rocket. No-one, not even the fast-charging sprinters’ teams, could catch him.

You’d think the yellow jersey attacking so spectacularly would be blindingly obvious to those behind, but Alpecin-Deceuninck’s Jasper Philipsen celebrated his second place believing he’d won the stage.

He should’ve asked Van Aert for advice on how to deal with finishing second.

Then perfection transformed into perplexity.

It’s never a good day if someone edits your team to the Benny Hill theme tune. Jumbo-Visma experienced just that and a whole lot more on the cobbles of Stage 5.

After crashing early on, Van Aert managed to avoid the shenanigans of teammates strewn across the road and running in front of an impending chase group in a panicked search for a spare bike. Professionalism might have gone out the window in the chaos of the cobbles, and Van Aert himself wasn’t immune, his reaction skills tested to their limit when he narrowly avoided crashing into the Team DSM car he was drafting when it slowed suddenly in front of him.

The team limited the damage as best they could, with Van Aert and Jonas Vingegaard arriving at the finish just 13 seconds down on stage winner Tadej Pogačar. Co-leader Primož Roglič, however, lost over two minutes.

So how would the yellow jersey approach Stage 6, the longest of this year’s Tour de France? Would he save himself for the following day’s journey up La Super Planche des Belles Filles? Stick with Roglič, who is licking his wounds after a crash sent him tumbling down the general classification? Stay safe and protected, hoping for another stage win?

Photo: Pete Goding

None of the above. Instead, Van Aert broke away with more than 100km still to ride together with Quinn Simmons and Jakob Fuglsang.

Unsurprisingly, the yellow jersey would be the last man standing too, rocking, rolling and pushing his body onwards with every turn of the pedals to honour the yellow jersey. 

It was a treat for the eyes, a delight to the race, and a total display of Van Aerting. Yes, he would end up losing the jersey to the peerless Pogačar after dropping more than 7 minutes late on, but there was no shame in that.

The Tour de France has so far served as a springboard to see everything Wout van Aert brings to cycling. An ability to light up the race from all angles no matter the situation. Sprints, climbs, time-trials, breakaways. Yellow jersey, green jersey, white jersey.

When does a name become a superlative? When Thomas De Gendt goes DeGendting and now when Wout van Aert is Van Aerting.

Main image: Pete Goding