Wout van Aert would not let victory slip through his fingers once again. Three times this week at the Critérium du Dauphiné the Belgian, who is clearly in electric form, has been denied by seconds.
Considering this is his second stage win of the race, it has not been a bad week for the Jumbo-Visma rider. But in a different world, he could have won five out of five stages, a clean sweep so far.
There was the miscalculation with the break on stage two, which saw Alexis Vuillermoz (TotalEnergies) triumph, with Van Aert leading the peloton in five seconds behind. The next day, he celebrated too early and was beaten on the line by David Gaudu - "Today I am the loser". Then stage four saw Filippo Ganna beat the Belgian by just two and a half seconds.
It simply would not be allowed to happen on Thursday. Every member of the Jumbo-Visma team, even three-time Vuelta a España champion Primož Roglič, was press-ganged into chasing down the break, and it paid off.
While Jordi Meeus (Bora-Hansgrohe) came close - and one does not even want to imagine the expletives used if Van Aert did not succeed - the Jumbo-Visma man sprinted to victory.
"It was a nervous final," he explained after the race. "In the beginning it looked like it was finally going to be the first controlled stage. I thought we had the breakaway in check but then they started to speed up and we started to lose ground. In the final kilometres, I was stressed that it was too short to catch them but in the end I think I passed them a few metres before the line and I could win."
It was inside the final 200 metres, but they all count. No opportunity to victory is slipping through Van Aert's fingers now. He has had enough disappointment.
"I have to thank all my teammates," he continued. "I know everybody says it, but in the end if you watch today, all six others were there for me and that makes today’s victory more special.
"I think until the last kilometre I was focused on catching the break and then I shifted to trying to do a good sprint. Luckily we had Christophe [Laporte] with a master pull in the end, and before that, I had asked the boys to do everything they could. And if even your GC guys who weigh 60 kilos are pulling, you have to finish it off."
The Belgian champion is having a remarkable season. We all knew he was one of the leading riders of his generation, winner of a unique hat-trick at the Tour de France last summer - wins on Mont Ventoux, in a time trial, and on the Champs-Élysées - but he is seemingly getting better.
In just 19 race days in 2022 he has had five victories. He has only finished outside of the top-ten on a stage or in a one-day race three times, and one of those was twelfth at Gent-Wevelgem. His record since recovering from Covid reads: second at Paris-Roubaix, third at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, then first, sixth, second, second, and first at the Dauphiné.
"It’s huge to win again here at the Dauphiné," Van Aert said. "Today was again very difficult to catch the front group, so I needed my teammates to close the gap. I’m very proud of all my teammates."
It is hard to see him slowing. The next three stages of this race will prove if he has the ability to hang with some of the best in the mountains, but that is not out of the question, is it? Anyone who saw his work for Roglič on the final stage of Paris-Nice this year, or his exploits on Ventoux last July, would say he can climb.
He is in yellow, and leads by over a minute. Even if he drops off in the Alps, one would expect Van Aert to bounce back, to continue to win, one of the most consistent riders in cycling. There will be no more disappointments.
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