Jumbo-Visma rider Van Aert, the reigning champion in the Italian Monument, was among an elite 17-rider group that went to the line after the Poggio on Saturday (March 20).
While pre-race favourites Van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick-Step), all made the final selection in the 2021 Milan-San Remo, it was Trek-Segafredo’s Jasper Stuyven who took the victory with a solo attack 2km from the line.
Speaking after the finish, Van Aert said he struggled to chase down Stuyven as he wanted to save himself for the sprint.
The 26-year-old said: “It was a fast descent on the Poggio and right at the bottom Jasper Stuyven went on the attack, which was a really good move.
“Afterwards it was a bit hard for me to chase because I didn’t want to waste my chances in the sprint, and a lot of guys were looking at me and we just came up short.
“It’s always a difficult final 2km and today I gambled wrong.”
Van Aert and Alaphilippe launched the decisive attack on the higher slopes of the Poggio, inside the last 10km of the 299km one-day race, but they were pursued by a sizeable group of riders who arrived at the top of the climb together.
With the likes of Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), Van der Poel and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) still in that group, Stuyven decided to go all in at the foot of the descent from the Poggio, establishing a gap and just holding on to victory ahead of Ewan.
Van Aert was forced to settle for third: “It was surprising to me we were with quite a big group at the top. We attacked, I did and Alaphilippe did, but apparently it wasn’t fast enough to make a difference, still it was a good opportunity for me.
“I always have a good sprint after a hard race, but like I said it was difficult to take the right decisions in the end, nevertheless we have a good winner and I have to be satisfied with third place.”