Something had to give eventually. After three Tour de France stages where he finished second, Wout van Aert finally won. Not that he isn’t accustomed to winning, this was his sixth victory this year, but this is also a season where he has finished second eight times, and third a further four.
Not that the pressure shows on the Jumbo-Visma rider, who consistently churns out stunning performances, race day after race day. For a lesser athlete, there might be frustration that the win was not coming, but Van Aert was simply ready to go again, to be in the best possible position for another day.
If the first two days of this Tour were the Quick-Step show, the overall first four stages must go down as the Wout extravaganza. Everywhere you have looked the Belgian has been there, standing out in his yellow jersey. This made it all the more remarkable that Jasper Philipsen of Alpecin-Deceuninck did not realise his rival was up the road, and celebrated second place.
Speaking in his press conference after the stage, as both stage winner and yellow jersey wearer, the 27-year-old calmly talked about his 10km solo breakaway effort, in the leader’s jersey, as if it was just another day out on the bike.
“I think maybe in the whole world I was the one who was the most patient and confident that the victory would come,” he explained. “Denmark was something nice to do, but to be honest ending up second in the first two bunch sprints was something I did not expect. They were two easy stages and I knew that everything this week would suit me better. It’s a special day and something I will remember for quite a long time.”
Despite him finishing off the ride on his own, it was clearly the whole team who helped him get there. This was a plan laid down in the weeks before the Tour, with the Jumbo riders ready to pounce at the key moment.
“This stage was something we marked already long before the Tour,” Van Aert said. “If you look to the course it was quite demanding, always up and down. It was the plan to try something both for general classification and for the green jersey.
“It was 50 points at the finish line, and also maybe with a bit more wind we could actually try something for Jonas [Vingegaard] and Primož [Roglič]. We knew that hitting the climb hard in the front was good for both calls.”
Jumbo’s move on the last climb of the day, the Côte du Cap Blanc-Nez, 10km from the finish, blew the race apart. It threatened to do more than just put Van Aert up the road, with Vingegaard and Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) briefly distancing those behind. While the few off the front were caught, Van Aert stayed away, proving himself once again as the best all-rounder in the bunch.
“Like in the spring, Nathan van Hooydonck was exceptional,” he continued. “He put us in the front and was still strong enough to too the first apart of the climb. He is one of the few guys in the bunch that can do this. Tiesj [Benoot] took over, and I think I was on the limit, and the whole bunch behind me was on the limit.
"They did half the work. The plan was to go full to the top and see what happens. I did not expect to finish alone, but that is what happened. Quite quickly, they were safe with the other GC guys and I could go for the stage. It was still a long way.”
It was a long way, but Van Aert happens to be one of the best time triallists in the world and well as one of the best sprinters, and best punchers. There barely is a stage that he could not target, but stage four was very much his home territory.
Everyone in the bunch knows how good he is, but this was the kind of victory that left journalists running out of superlatives. "There are only one or two bike riders in the world that could do what Wout van Aert could do," was all Ineos Grenadiers' deputy team principal Rod Ellingworth could offer.
There is no reason why Van Aert could not win tomorrow, or Thursday as well, that is the extent of his powers. Last year's trio of stage wins was remarkable enough, but on this form the 27-year-old will best even that.
"I felt like flying in the last 10km, and it was real," he said. "It was special to ride alone in the yellow jersey and to take a stage like this."
Jumbo-Visma have 'no regrets' after first four days
The Jumbo performance was reminiscent of some of their other wins this season, such as stage one of Paris-Nice, where Christophe Laporte, Primož Roglič and Van Aert powered away on the final categorised climb to deliver the former to victory.
It was a clearly defined plan, as Van Aert’s teammates and directeur sportifs pointed out later. As Van Aert did himself, in fact, this was an eight-man plus two DS victory, not just a lone one for the star rider.
The architect of the plan was Grischa Niermann, one of the Does at Jumbo, according to Van Aert’s teammate Sepp Kuss anyway.
“This was one of the stages we had on our agenda for the Tour to try something,” Niermann said post-stage. “The expectation was more that we could ride away not with three guys but with 20, 30 guys and then it’s a good chance for Wout in the sprint and maybe a GC guy would be in the sprint. In the end Wout could ride away.
“We can be really really happy and satisfied with what we showed today. There are no regrets… We wanted to go round the corner first, but there are 176 other guys who want to do that. That’s bike racing. I can only give compliments to all the boys, they did a perfect job the first four days, we’re always in the front, always out of trouble.”
The perfect job might have included three second-places for Van Aert, but it delivered the team a victory in the end. It also cemented the Belgian's lead in the general classification, which is now up to 25 seconds thanks to the gap and the bonus seconds he has accrued over the first four days.
For Kuss, the performance was "incredible". He said: "It gives us a lot of confidence, also that we can make a plan and go through with it is really satisfying, cos it doesn’t always work like that."
"I have to give a special mention to the directors," the American continued. "Grischa Niermann does such thorough, sometimes overly thorough, research into the course and the conditions. It’s easy to make a plan, but it’s another thing to go through with it. It was nice to hear all the guys motivating Wout in the last 10km, and that’s also part of the team effort."
As the cliché goes, tomorrow is another day - this is what we kept being reminded on Tuesday afternoon ahead of stage five on the cobbles - but Jumbo-Visma and Wout van Aert are ready.
"For sure tomorrow will be important to stay out of trouble for Jonas and Primož," he concluded. "We go into this stage with a lot of confidence, and try something even in the GC. Half of the team are classics guy who are used to hitting the cobbles. Like me, they’re looking forward to doing a stage like this at the Tour de France. If we can help Jonas and Primož that would be really good."
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