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It was so close to being perfect. Wout van Aert had briefly dropped to the back of the bunch on the final climb of stage three of the Critérium du Dauphiné, but was paced back to the front by Jonas Vingegaard, as Primož Roglič slowed things up in front. Perfect teamwork.
With the Belgian back at the front of the race with a kilometre to go, it would surely be his victory, clearly the fastest man in the lead group. However, the Jumbo-Visma rider took his hands off his bars to celebrate, convinced that in passing Victory Lafay (Cofidis) he had completed his mission. He did not see David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ).
The young Frenchman came from nowhere to round Van Aert, pip him on the line and take victory. The bike throw won it, and Van Aert was crushed.
"In the end, I raised my arms a bit too early," he told the media post-stage. "I am actually really ashamed to lose it like that. A big disappointment to not finish off our work today. I had it in my own hands. If I threw the wheel rather than celebrating I think I would have had it."
As such a serial winner, it was bound to happen to Van Aert at some point. He has 34 career victories, four this year. In fact, in 17 race days he has only been out of the top ten on three occasions, which is frankly mind-boggling. If he hadn't have contracted Covid, those stats might be even better.
However, Van Aert will not think about this.
"It was just a rookie mistake," he said. "I’m ashamed, because we worked really hard all day to go for the stage win, and to give it away like this it’s painful. I have to thank my teammates a lot, they were super strong and after we missed out on the stage win yesterday we were really committed to go for it today. I saw it so many times with colleagues of mine, and sometimes laughed at it, but today I am the loser. [I have] no words actually."
It was the first time he had committed such a sin, although it isn't the first time it has been seen in bike racing. It's as great a heartbreak as a batsman dismissed on 99, or that last minute equaliser that turns ecstasy into stone.
Julian Alaphilippe did something similar at Liège-Bastogne-Liège two years ago, although he was later disqualified anyway. Erik Zabel infamously did it at Milan-San Remo in 2004, handing victory to Óscar Freire.
"Hopefully it won’t happen again," he said. "I felt someone from Cofidis on my left and when I passed him I thought I had it, but on an uphill finish like this when you raise yourself you lose so much speed in a fraction of a second and Gaudu came from the other side. [It’s] painful."
"When you see someone else do it you always question how it is possible. Now I understand the feeling better," he continued.
"I saw the finish line, I was about half a wheel behind. I had it in my own hands, but I gave it away. I’m quite angry with myself, for sure I want to make up for it in the next couple of days."
Tomorrow he will try and make up for the mistake in the sole time trial of the Dauphiné, a 32km route. He won his previous time trial in a stage race this year, at Paris-Nice, so is among the favourites. One feels he needs the cleansing redemption of victory.
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