Wout Van Aert rekindled the memories of five-time Tour de France winner Eddy Merckx with a spectacular solo victory in the dreaded Mont Ventoux stage of the Tour 2021, as the first cracks in the armor of defending champion Tadej Pogacar appeared , during the second ascent of the Géant de Provence.
Pogacar was unable to respond to a late attack from Van Aert’s Jumbo-Visma teammate Jonas Vingegaard. Although the 24-year-old Dane failed to gain the advantage on the long, swift descent to the finish, Pogacar’s impression of invulnerability on the Tour’s steepest slopes was shaken.
As the UAE team leader continued the dizzying descent to the finish in Malaucène, he was helped by his closest remaining rivals, Richard Carapaz from Ineos Grenadiers and EF Education leader Nippo Rigoberto Uran.
“I was following the first 200 meters, but it was just too much,” said the defending champion of Vingegaard’s surprise gesture. “I broke up a bit and fell, but then I tried to find my rhythm.
“I knew it wasn’t long to the top, and I needed a few more minutes before the super fast descent. I was lucky to have Carapaz and Uran with me and we worked really well together.
But Pogacar dismissed suggestions he panicked when Vingegaard left him behind. “When I fell from Vingegaard I tried to stay calm and head for the top. He just had the greatest power. I didn’t panic and that was a good thing. If I had, I might have cracked even worse.
The bitter truth for his rivals was that, for all their breaths and breaths, a momentarily vulnerable Pogacar further increased his overall lead, after Ben O’Connor, second overall at the start line, slipped back in a distant fifth place while Uran moved to second overall and Vingegaard climbed to third.
“It was a really good day,” said the 22-year-old 2020 Tour winner. “It was super hot and a super tough day. We saw that Ineos wanted to take the stage victory – or something like that. They rode super hard and it was not an easy day from start to finish.
For Van Aert, victory on the double ascent of Ventoux would have been unthinkable in the past. “I’m at a loss for words,” said the Belgian national champion of his victory, carried out in Merckx style and under the Belgian national colors. “This is one of the most iconic climbs in world cycling. It may have been my best win to date.
“I know I’m not the best climber in the pack, but I chose my day. I rode the Ventoux for the first time at the age of ten and it was the first real climb I have done. Winning a mountain stage of the Tour is not something I expected a few years ago.
Despite his team’s traumatic first week on the 2021 Tour which saw his team manager, pre-race favorite Primoz Roglic, crash and then abandon the race, Van Aert remained confident.
“It’s just a matter of always believing and staying motivated,” he said. “If you keep trying, one day it will work. As a professional athlete you have a lot of setbacks so if you give up you won’t end up anywhere. I feel better than when we started, so I think there is still more I can do in this Tour de France.
The O’Connor crisis was Carapaz’s hobbyhorse, as the leader of the Ineos Grenadiers climbed to fourth place overall, after his team spent the day setting the pace for the group of leaders for much of the stage. But that was a little beer compared to the loss of experienced road captain Luke Rowe, who failed to finish in the allotted time and is now out of the race.
While Carapaz struggles to make a meaningful impression on Pogacar’s lead and a long-distance Geraint Thomas is still recovering from the shoulder dislocation he suffered during his fall on stage three du Tour, the British team are running out of options. Opportunities may soon be lacking for team manager Dave Brailsford to avoid a second consecutive round among the near-men of the peloton.