Van Aert was part of a breakaway that formed at the start of the nearly 200 kilometer hike in the south of France with an unprecedented double ascent of the iconic mountain known as the ‘Giant of Provence’.
“I know I’m not the best climber, but when I pick my day I know I have my chances,” said Van Aert.
Race leader Tadej Pogacar finished fourth, one minute and 38 seconds behind, and retained the yellow jersey. The defending champion was briefly abandoned by Jonas Vingegaard near the summit on the iconic mountain’s second ascent, but wiped out the 38-second deficit on the descent.
Pogacar has a five-minute and 18-second lead over Rigoberto Uran, with Vingegaard in third place, 5:32 off the pace.
At 26, Van Aert is a jack of all trades. He can sprint, climb and time trial, but didn’t fight for the overall standings, working in support of Jumbo-Visma leader Primoz Roglic.
The former cyclo-cross world champion was given more leeway from his team after Roglic withdrew from the Tour last week, aiming for a stage victory.
Van Aert set off alone on the second ascent of Ventoux, about 11 kilometers from the summit, opening a big gap with his fellow breakaways.
He kept his lead intact on the long descent to the finish line, smiling at the TV cameras and clenching his fist as the town of Malaucène approached. He then stood up on his pedals and shouted in triumph with his arms outstretched.
It was van Aert’s fourth career stage victory on the Tour.
Le Ventoux is part of the Tour tradition. It was the site of an incredible scene in 2016, when four-time champion Chris Froome had to briefly run to the top after damaging his bike in an accident.
An epic competition between Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani in 2000 also took place on the slopes of the ‘Bald Giant’, where British runner Tom Simpson died in 1967 from a combination of amphetamines and alcohol.
The stage started on a level playing field when world champion Julian Alaphilippe broke with Nairo Quintana, but the Colombian climber couldn’t keep up and was abandoned.
Alaphilippe was joined by a group of three riders and created a three minute lead over the main peloton through the vineyards and rolling countryside of the Luberon region. Behind the quartet, a group of counter-attackers pursued fiercely in the first big climb of the day, the Col de la Liguière, but could not close the gap.
In scorching heat, Pogacar rode into the main field with his yellow jersey wide open. Others tried to cool off with small bags of ice cubes applied to their necks.
The descent of La Liguière led the breakaway to the town of Sault and the start of the first ascent of Ventoux via a climb of 22 kilometers. They were joined at the front by the group of pursuers as the real suffering began.
The leading pack split with Alaphilippe and six others, including Van Aert, streaking 12 kilometers from the summit surrounded by hordes of excited fans. Riding in thin air, Alaphilippe was the first to reach the barren summit, where swirling clouds added to the grim lunar landscape.
Paced by the 2018 champion Geraint Thomas and his teammates from the Ineos Grenadiers, the peloton struggled to close the gap. Alaphilippe was timed to a top speed of 99 km / h (61.5 mph) on the descent. Julian Bernard regained the lead as the group returned for their second ascent of Mont Ventoux, a shorter but steeper climb than the first. Kenny Elissonde attacks alone but his blow is countered by Van Aert.