From the chalky heights of the Cap Blanc-Nez on the Côte d’Opale, west of Calais, you can see clear across the Channel to south east England. The white cliffs across the water seem close enough to reach out and touch; the distance between the two countries looks like nothing at all.
Unlike the rapidly-widening gap that was separating a stunned and broken peloton from the rear wheel of Wout van Aert as the yellow jersey made a shattering attack on stage four of the 2022 Tour de France, over the top of the Côte du Cap Blanc-Nez.
Nobody could match Van Aert’s attack, which was the result of an infernal Olympic sprint-style effort from a succession of Jumbo-Visma riders on the climb. Nathan Van Hooydonck’s effort reduced the survivors to just seven riders: in order, Tiesj Benoot, Van Aert, Adam Yates, Jonas Vingegaard, Christophe Laporte, Geraint Thomas and Dani Martínez - Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers all. Benoot’s turn at the front shed everybody except Van Aert, Yates and Vingegaard; when Van Aert surged over the top, nobody could live with him. He had dropped the entire Tour de France peloton on a 900-metre climb.
By the time the peloton got themselves organised, Van Aert, one of the best time triallists in the world, had a 25-second lead, with six kilometres left to ride. His subsequent solo victory came off the back of three second places in the first three days of the race, and those with longer memories recalled that he’d won the last two stages of the 2021 Tour as well, giving him a record of 1-1-2-2-2-1 in his last six Tour stages. Even Eddy Merckx never managed six top-two finishes in a row - his best was five, spread between the end of the 1974 and 1975 Tours. The Belgian rider Philippe Thys did achieve six top-two finishes in a row, but that was in 1920 - riders in the early years of the Tour tended to achieve more consecutive high finishes than these days. Van Aert is peerless in the modern era, and the immediate conclusion, beyond the stage win, was that Van Aert is not going to be beaten in the green jersey competition this year. It’s already a one-man show.
But there’s a further conclusion: Wout van Aert is the best cyclist in the world.
Today’s stage win alone gives him a good case. He did, after all, just drop the entire Tour de France peloton, on a climb, and win the stage. Even the strongest climbers in the world - Jonas Vingegaard, Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar - could not match him, and Roglič may find himself to have been significant collateral damage in Van Aert’s attack, since he was distanced by Van Hooydonck’s surge while his team-mate Vingegaard was not. If the sole criterion for being the best cyclist in the world is to win a bike race, then Van Aert already qualifies.
However, the best cyclist doesn’t always win the bike race. Paradoxically it’s the run of second places that reinforces his claim to be the best in the world. He was second in the Copenhagen time trial, to the surprise winner Yves Lampaert. He followed that result with second places in the two subsequent bunch sprints. Time trialling and sprinting offer sufficiently different physiological challenges that to be able to compete in both is already vanishingly rare. Wout van Aert not only came within a whisker of winning both, but has now just won on a puncheur’s finish. (In case his all-round credentials weren’t already now fully established, remember that he also won a mountain stage of last year’s Tour.) Van Aert can win bunch sprints, TTs, on hilly courses and occasionally in the mountains. There’s nobody else in cycling who can do that - even Pogačar doesn’t figure in bunch sprints.
Being the best cyclist in the world means different things as different riders’ careers ebb and flow. Road cycling has such a broad range of challenges and events that points systems or even races alone rarely tell the full story. Sometimes the best cyclist in the world is the rider who is winning the Tour de France, the sport’s biggest race; sometimes it’s the rider who is dominating the Classics. Sometimes they are male, sometimes they are female. Sometimes it’s impossible to even tell: in 2012, Bradley Wiggins won the Tour and several other stage races while Tom Boonen won all four major Belgian spring Classics, and comparing was a matter of personal taste. Through spring and early summer last season, Mathieu van der Poel was the best cyclist in the world; then Pogačar took over, with wins in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour de France and Il Lombardia. Now it’s Wout van Aert.
But even beyond the results and run of high placings, it’s clear that Van Aert is illuminating this Tour de France with his riding style and presence. It’s Wout van Aert’s Tour - everybody else is just riding in it.