There is rarely a moment when Wout van Aert loses his composure. While the Belgian rider has personality, he’s reserved, often answering interviews with dry humour, sarcasm and blunt, matter-of-fact statements. Although he always celebrates his victories, he usually does so in a measured manner – okay, the flapping bird wings at the Tour de France were a bit of an exception here, but the Tour’s the Tour. Normally, when Van Aert is struggling on the bike he refuses to let his body rock and roll or crumple over the handlebars, instead bowing his head and sitting up gracefully with an impressive air of dignity.
At E3 Saxo Classic today, a different side of Van Aert came to the fore. It was visible when he lost contact with the leading duo of Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogačar on the Oude Kwaremont and he clawed his way back to the front of the race. In those moments, Van Aert was grimacing, his mouth opening and closing as he sucked for air, his body conveying the supreme effort and fight he was producing to remain in contention for victory.
When the Jumbo-Visma rider eventually latched himself back on to the wheels of Van der Poel and Pogačar, he rode smartly and with intuition in the final throes of the race. just doing enough to close down the attacks of the UAE Team Emirates rider – who was trying to do everything to not have to sprint against his bigger and faster rivals – but remaining confident in his own ability to sprint. Van Aert didn’t roll the dice or gamble, but stayed glued to Van der Poel’s wheel for the closing two kilometres, focused on the task in hand.
And when the time came, Van Aert’s sprint itself was an example of his maturity as a rider. Aware of the tailwind blowing down the finishing straight, the Belgian went early. “I think I went 250 metres to go. I've ridden shorter sprints in the past, I know that they are not in my favour,” he said in his post-race interview. The victory celebration when Van Aert crossed the line first was another example of an unusual show of raw emotion: he thumped his chest, shouting in elation, storming fast through the swarm of photographers waiting beyond the line, you could almost see the adrenaline pulsing through his veins.
“Ik moet juist niks!” he said passionately to the TV camera with a wry smile as it zoomed close to his weathered and dusty face. “I don’t need anything,” is what the statement translates to in English.
With this, Van Aert was responding to the criticism he’s faced about being yet to win a big one-day race. Despite being the most famous male cyclist in his country, Van Aert’s victory tally on the road is smaller than some might expect from a rider of his fame and calibre. “It's been a long while since I’ve won a race on the road bike,” the Jumbo-Visma rider responded when asked about the gravity and meaning of his win today.
Longer still has it been since he has beaten Van der Poel in a sprint on the road, mano a mano between the two riders. Normally in head-to-head battles on the tarmac, the Alpecin-Deceuninck rider has been the faster of the pairing – a look back through the results sheets tells us that Van Aert hasn’t beaten Van der Poel in this way since they sprinted against each other for victory in Elfstedenronde in 2017.
So, when Van Aert won today, it almost felt like you could feel the tension being released on a visceral level, like you could watch the weight being lifted from his shoulders and the relief wash over him. His animalistic chest punches as he crossed the finish line visually represented the power that this victory has given him, whether that’s in his own, personal confidence or because he has proven to those who doubted that he can come out on top when he is faced with a battle against two of the biggest talents in modern cycling.
And what does this mean for the Ronde van Vlaanderen in just over a weeks time? Will this victory at E3 Saxo Classic give Van Aert the confidence he needs that he can finally win arguably the most important one-day race on the calendar, and one that is certainly the most important to the Belgian fans? His race today wasn’t perfect and those cracks began to show when he was distanced on the Kwaremont, but cycling can be as much about a rider’s physical state as it can mental condition. Van Aert proved that today when he gave every ounce of thought and energy he possessed to take victory.
E3 Saxo Classic may not be the biggest race on the calendar and it may not be classed as a Monument or legendary one-day event, but this might not matter to Jumbo-Visma and Wout van Aert. The 28-year-old’s determination, ardour and reaction to his victory was proof of how much he needed to win at this level again and against the company that he found himself with. It’s eight days until De Ronde when cycling's ‘Big Three’ will face-off once more and a lot can change in that time, but there is a feeling that, after today, Wout van Aert might just have the edge.