Wout van Aert triggered memories of the five-time Tour de France winner Eddy Merckx with a spectacular solo victory in the 2021 Tour’s daunting Mont Ventoux stage, as the first chinks in the armour of the defending champion Tadej Pogacar appeared on the second ascent of the Giant of 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 was unable to press home any advantage on the long and fast descent towards the finish, the impression of Pogacar as invulnerable on the Tour’s steepest gradients was dented.
As the UAE Emirates team leader gave chase on the vertiginous drop to the finish in Malaucène, he was aided by his closest remaining rivals, Richard Carapaz of Ineos Grenadiers and the EF Education Nippo leader Rigoberto Urán.
“I was following the first 200 metres, but it was just too much,” the defending champion said of Vingegaard’s surprise move. “I cracked a little bit and I dropped, but then I tried to find my pace.’
“I knew that it wasn’t long to the top, and I needed a couple more minutes before the super fast downhill. I was lucky to have Carapaz and Uran with me and we worked really well together.”
But Pogacar dismissed suggestions that he had panicked when Vingegaard left him behind. “When I dropped from Vingegaard, I tried to stay calm and pace myself to the top. He just had the bigger power. I didn’t panic and that was a good thing. If I had, then maybe I would have cracked even worse.”
The bitter truth for his rivals, was that, for all their huffing and puffing, a momentarily vulnerable Pogacar still increased his overall lead, after Ben O’Connor, second overall on the start line, slipped backwards into a distant fifth place while Uran moved into second overall and Vingegaard climbed into third.
Definitely it was a good day,” the 22‑year‑old 2020 Tour winner said. “It was super hot and a super hard day. We saw that Ineos wanted to go for the stage win – or something. They rode super strong and it was not an easy day, from the beginning to the end.”
For Van Aert, victory over the double ascent of the Ventoux, would once have been unthinkable. “I’m lost for words,” the Belgian national champion said, of his win, achieved in the style of Merckx, and in Belgian national colours. “It’s one of the most iconic climbs in world cycling. Maybe this is my best win yet.
“I know that I’m not the best climber in the peloton, but I chose my day. I first rode the Ventoux when I was ten and it was the first real climb that I did. Winning a mountain stage in the Tour is not something I would have expected a few years ago.”
Despite his team’s traumatic first week in the 2021 Tour which saw his team leader, the pre-race favourite Primoz Roglic, crash and then abandon the race, Van Aert had remained confident.
It’s just a matter of always believing and keeping motivated,” he said. “If you keep trying, then one day it will work out. As a professional athlete, you have a lot setbacks so if you give up you will end up nowhere. I’m feeling better than when we started so I think there’s still more I can do in this Tour de France.”
O’Connor’s crisis was Carapaz’s gift horse, as the Ineos Grenadiers leader moved up into fourth place overall, after his team spent the day pace-setting for the group of leaders during much of the stage. But that was small beer compared to the loss of experienced road captain, Luke Rowe, who failed to finish inside the daily time limit and is now out of the race.
With Carapaz struggling to make any significant impression on Pogacar’s lead and a long-distanced Geraint Thomas still recovering from the dislocated shoulder he suffered when crashing on the Tour’s third stage, the British team are looking short on options. Opportunities may soon be running out for the team principal, Dave Brailsford, to avoid a second consecutive Tour among the peloton’s nearly-men.