Wout van Aert defies expectations. He does amazing things on a bicycle over and over again. A climber, a puncheur, a time trialist, a cobbled Classics specialist, you name it, Van Aert fits the bill. In 2021, for example, he finished second in the week-long stage race Tirreno-Adriatico, then won the one-day Classic Gent-Wevelgem, all before reigning supreme in the hilly Ardennes Classic, Amstel Gold Race. Later that year, he won stage 11 of the Tour de France which included two ascents of Mont Ventoux. Traditionally, riders shouldn’t really be able to do this. But Wout van Aert is Wout van Aert, and his versatility is mind-boggling.
So should we really have been so shocked when reports surfaced that Van Aert might be considering targeting the general classification of the Giro d’Italia next year? In a lot of ways, it makes total sense, yet – just like Van Aert’s performances on the bike – in others, it's hard to see how it will be possible.
Firstly, there’s the matter of the route of the 2024 Giro d’Italia. For a rider like Van Aert, with such adaptability to a multitude of terrain, the course is pretty close to perfection. There are six sprint stages, six hilly stages and two time trials, all of which offer plenty of ground for Van Aert to have a shot at success. It’s still the Giro, so the climbs will still be a factor, but next year’s route has roughly 10,000 metres less altitude gain than this year’s, making the high mountains slightly less crucial to the GC contenders. While not built like a pure climber, Van Aert is certainly no slouch in the mountains, often putting in critical shifts for the likes of Jonas Vingegaard when he was targeting yellow in the Tour de France. On the stage to Hautacam at the 2022 Tour, Van Aert’s strong pull distanced even Tadej Pogačar from his back wheel.Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
It might be that Van Aert needs to approach the general classification at the Giro d’Italia in a less traditional way. When Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France in 2012, some of the biggest gains he made in time against his rivals were in the time trials. Wiggins, once known as a track and one-day specialist, wasn’t the best climber in that race when it came to the high mountains, but the favourable course design allowed him to make a difference elsewhere in the race – this year’s Giro could give the same option to Van Aert. If the Belgian can stay in contention on the climbs and limit his losses, there’s plenty of chances to claw back time on other stages.
Course design aside, it also makes sense for Jumbo-Visma to give Van Aert the opportunity and freedom to go for his own chance at a Grand Tour, if he wishes. The Belgian rider has been instrumental to Jumbo-Visma’s success in the Tour de France and regularly has had to sacrifice his own chances in that race for the team’s overall goal of winning yellow. His own shot at the Giro would be a refreshing release for him – something that may be crucial to keeping Van Aert happy at Jumbo-Visma in the long run.
Where the Van Aert and Giro d’Italia dream becomes unstuck, however, is when looking at where the race fits more widely into his 2024 race calendar. The 29-year-old has long been vocal about his dreams to win both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix during his career – he’s narrowly missed out on multiple occasions – which means he will need to be in flying form in April. There is a little over a month in between the cobbles of Roubaix and the Grande Partenza of the Giro next year, which doesn’t give Van Aert much time to transition from the heavier weight needed to be robust enough for the Classics and the lighter weight that will be required of him in the mountains. Pogačar might have managed to secure victory in De Ronde and finish second in the Tour de France this year, but three months to change a rider’s physical attributes seems a lot more doable than three weeks.
Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
Perhaps the Giro d’Italia is worth enough to Van Aert that he will set aside his ambitions in the spring Classics, but even that wouldn’t put an end to the scheduling problems that competing in the race would throw up. If he targets the Giro, it means that he is unlikely to be in his best shape for the Tour de France a few months later, which could be detrimental to Vingegaard’s title defence. Even for a rider with the endurance and engine of Van Aert, a full Classics season, the Giro d’Italia and then the Tour de France is a tall order. It's true that Chris Froome did the Tour and Vuelta double in 2017, and before him Pantani did the Giro and the Tour combination in 1998, but neither of them were looking to win Paris-Roubaix as well.
The problem might be that while Van Aert could have the physical capabilities to win the Giro d’Italia, it will be too detrimental to his other aims in the season. Targeting the Classics, the Giro and the Tour (not to mention the upcoming Paris 2024 Olympics) might mean that the Belgian is spreading himself too thin, unable to fully reach his potential in any of his goals. Jumbo-Visma themselves are yet to comment on Van Aert’s race calendar, but more is expected to be revealed at the team presentation on December 22. In the meantime, Van Aert will be dabbling in a bit of cyclo-cross (yes, that too.) There’s no debating his talent, but is he at risk of becoming a jack of all trades, yet a master of none?
Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix