Wout van Aert is arguably the best rider in the world. He can sprint (winner of the Paris Champs-Élysées stage at the 2021 Tour de France), he can climb (his Mont Ventoux stage win that same year), he can conquer cyclo-cross (three-time 'cross World Champion). Cobbles, gravel, mud, asphalt, you name it, Van Aert can do it. But for a rider who possesses an almost unfathomable amount of natural talent and such a gift on the bike, Van Aert, this season especially, has narrowly missed out on victory a noteworthy number of times.
It’s not that he doesn’t have the physical strength to get in the position to fight for the win – the Belgian rider is almost always in the right place at the at the right time – it seems that Van Aert’s failure to convert podiums into victories comes from a different place entirely. We saw it earlier this season when the Jumbo-Visma rider failed to win a big Monument and we’ve seen it at this year’s Tour, too. Van Aert can get himself there, but it all seems to come unstuck for the Belgian at crunch time. What’s going wrong?
One of the reasons for Van Aert’s near misses could be his position in his Jumbo-Visma team. Van Aert, unlike most riders of his stature, has been brought to the Tour de France mostly as a domestique for Jonas Vingegaard. The yellow jersey is his team’s prime focus and that has been clear on multiple occasions throughout the race so far. For example, on stage two, where Van Aert finished second after Victor Lafay escaped up the road, Jumbo opted not to send Vingegaard to help pull back the Cofidis rider even if it meant getting Van Aert the stage win, purely as their main focus is on the overall victory. When he crossed the line in second, the Belgian rider threw his water bottle to the ground in understandable frustration.
Since that close call in San Sébastián, Van Aert has finished fifth, ninth and third on stages three, four and eight respectively. In between that, he has been acting as a super-domestique for Vingegaard, going in the breakaways of the day to act as a satellite rider and pulling huge turns on the earlier stages of climbs to aid his leader. Unlike most riders who he is sprinting against when he has the chance to go for stage wins himself, there are no ‘easy’ days for Van Aert in the Tour de France. When Mads Pedersen, winner of stage eight, can sit up in the mountains and save himself for the following day, Van Aert has a job to do. What’s more, when Van Aert does get the chance to sprint for himself, he doesn’t have a fully dedicated lead-out train around him like a lot of the teams he is competing against. It begs the question: how many of Van Aert’s close calls this Tour could have been victories if he didn’t carry extra fatigue from the work he does in the mountains, and if he had a team around him solely focused on helping him win stages?
But if the reasons for Van Aert repeatedly losing out on the top spot aren’t just physical, perhaps they could be a reflection of his mental state, too. The Jumbo-Visma rider is heavily reported on in the Belgian press, often criticised for making mistakes in the biggest races when he has everyone's eyes on him (like at the Tour of Flanders this year, for example). Van Aert made it clear that the constant rhetoric around his form can have a profound impact on him when he won E3 Harelbeke earlier this year (his only win on the road of this season so far). “Ik moet juist niks!” he said passionately to the TV camera after he crossed the finish line. “I don’t need anything,” is what the statement translates to in English. Van Aert said this in response to media commenting about what he needed to do to improve his win rate.
If the fame and attention on Van Aert at home isn’t enough, the recent Tour de France: Unchained Netflix series catapulted him into the spotlight once more when he was portrayed as not being a team player in last year’s Tour, going for his own chances instead of Vingegaard’s. Van Aert has been vocal surrounding his disappointment and discontentment with his portrayal, arguing that the show had made drama out of nothing. Regardless of his own feelings, however, the Netflix saga has undoubtedly made everyone watch Van Aert’s actions at this Tour a little more closely, which could be having an impact on the decisions he makes as the race goes on.
Finally, the fact that Van Aert does have so few chances in the Tour de France to go for his own results means that the pressure is really on when the opportunities arise. It’s been this way for a lot of Van Aert’s career with Jumbo-Visma: the days for the full team to be dedicated to him do come up, but more rarely than they would if he was the biggest star at a team without ambitions to win Grand Tours. At Paris-Roubaix earlier this year, Philippe Gilbert criticised the way Van Aert was riding on the cobbles, saying to L’Equipe after the race: “Wout van Aert’s mistake was due to taking too many risks, wanting to win too much and not controlling that desire to win.”
It’s true that the Belgian rider’s hunger to add to his win tally this year has been clear during the Tour de France, too. His bottle throw and frustration after stage two showef how much he wanted to get a stage win after a season of so many close calls. Van Aert perhaps wants to win so much as he knows that each Tour stage is a precious chance where he won’t be called into a team role and has teammates to support him in his ambitions.
There have been many occasions where the bond and collective team strength at Jumbo-Visma has worked in the favour of Van Aert, but it seems at this year’s Tour de France, things just aren’t coming together when it matters. Perhaps it’s because of Van Aert having to work hard during the mountains which impacts his physical state, perhaps it is a mental battle of having so much pressure on so few chances, perhaps it's the lack of team support or perhaps it is just back luck. Either way, Van Aert is clearly extremely hungry for that taste of success so he can add to his one victory on the road so far this season, but Jumbo-Visma may need to go back to the drawing board to help him get there.