Wout van Aert (Jumbo Visma) is looking to make amends for his ultimately disappointing World Championships at Paris-Roubaix on Sunday, yet even as he studied the cobbles of northern France, the Belgian national champion could not escape the polemics of the Worlds and the recent comments of Remco Evenepoel.
The 21-year-old Deceuninck-QuickStep rider had accepted a domestique role in support of Van Aert, yet, during the Sporza chat show Extra Time Koers, he claimed he had the legs to win the world title.
Van Aert was the Belgian designated team leader but struggled on the big day. However, he was angry with Evenepoel’s public comments and lack of national team unity.
“Remco’s comments upset me,” Vans Aert told the assembled media in Orchies after his reconnaissance of the Paris-Roubaix cobbles, having already ‘liked’ criticism of Evenepoel’s comments on social media.
“I expected that there would be criticism because we didn’t win. But I think it’s not wise to add fuel to the fire from someone within the team.
“I think Remco said a lot more during Extra Time Koers than he said in the team meeting,” Van Aert pointed out.
“I think he was the one who agreed with the tactics, who agreed with the selection. He has been preaching for weeks about how he was looking forward to it. So I think it’s really weird to turn 180 degrees now. I don’t think it’s wise to throw oil on the fire afterwards.
“I was heartbroken that I couldn’t finish it off. Had I been better in the final and had won, it would have been fantastic. I also saw that everyone was genuinely disappointed. It really hasn’t been easy for me and then this is added on top. That’s too bad.”
Many observers had pointed out that Evenepoel should have been given protected leader status so he could have been there with Van Aert and Jasper Stuyven for the final laps in Leuven and the decisive attacks.
Evenepoel claimed he was told to go with the attacks and jumped on a move with 180km to go and then another mid-way through the race. Van Aert claimed that Evenepoel didn’t follow the pre-planned tactics and should not have joined an attack so early in the race.
“That was indeed not our tactic at all,” Van Aert said of Evenepoel’s early move.
“Remco was the one who had to be there late on for me and Jasper. He made the choice to take the lead so early, while our intention was to race defensively. That bothers me. We couldn’t whistle back to Remco at that time. There were no earphones and the fans were making so much noise that it was impossible to speak to someone three places ahead of you.”
A wet Paris-Roubaix
Speaking about Paris-Roubaix after his reconnaissance ride and considering the risk of rain on Sunday, Van Aert made it clear he was hoping for a dry race, despite his superb cyclo-cross bike skills giving him a clear advantage in the mud.
“It’s going to be a big mess when the cobbles are wet,” Van Aert told Cyclingnews. “I’m not really in the group of guys looking forward to a wet Roubaix actually. I think it’s really dangerous and for me, the race doesn’t need all these extra difficulties.
“But on the other hand, the weather is the weather and if it’s like that then maybe it’s an advantage for me because I probably have the good skills from cyclo-cross but for me, I still hope it’s quite okay.
“There will be a lot of crashes, I think, especially in the first sectors where the bunch is still quite big. You always need a bit of luck with mechanicals and everything but then it would be even more so. It doesn’t need to be like that for me.”
Van Aert said that he’s still feeling good ahead of his season-ender on Sunday.
He also pointed out that being a rider who others mark and follow during Paris-Roubaix won’t make much difference considering the similar scenarios he has encountered in his last several races.
“I feel good. I also felt really good coming into the Worlds. It’s not always easy to have the right feeling in the right moment and sometimes it happens,” he said of his bad day on home roads in Flanders.
“I guess I was not too far from it – I was still in the deep final and if you look closely at the race there was maybe one guy who was really better than all of us in the front group and the rest of us were quite on the same level. We’ll see on Sunday if I feel good or not.
“[Being marked] is not really a big difference with the last couple of races, I guess. Especially for me, I’m more relaxed now. I’ll take it how it comes and there’s not much to do anymore about my shape. It’s just especially mentally one last time to recharge and give my best possible but we’ll see.”
Over the years, Van Aert has won races in a variety of ways, befitting his status as an all-rounder. He can solo to wins, be the quickest man from a small group, and also take wins from mass bunch sprints.
How is he planning to win on Sunday, then? Well, he said that that is not something worth thinking about before finding yourself at the front in the final stages of the race.
“I think this is especially the race where you don’t need to think in perfect scenarios because it will always turn out differently and there’s so much that can happen,” Van Aert said.
“It’s really a race from sector to sector, trying to survive – especially in the beginning – and then later on in the final, if you’re there you can think about the right tactics.
“Also, in the sprint, we’ve seen so many examples here that faster guys on paper get beaten by the strongest guy in the race very often so it’s a very tricky final.
“Last week it was good to see who has the legs. For sure I saw Van der Poel, I saw Stybar again, Van Baarle for sure. Many more probably, especially all the Deceuninck-QuickStep guys. They’re always favourites for me in the cobbled races. So probably a lot of guys can win.”