Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) was one of the pre-race favourites in the rain-soaked 2021 edition of Paris-Roubaix. The triple cyclo-cross world champion was expected to deal well with the slippery conditions on the cobbles, but he kept his guns quiet and was never in contention for the victory.
The 27-year-old Belgian champion finished seventh, 1:16 down on winner Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious). Van Aert’s struggle to live up to the high expectations at the 2021 World Championships in Leuven last week might have been an indicator of his form: good, but not good enough to win. Van Aert struggled with his eyesight and explained after the race that the win wasn’t possible this year.
“My eyes are hurting a lot,” a red-eyed Van Aert said in the mixed zone in the middle of the Roubaix velodrome, clearly suffering from his vision problems. “When riding with glasses, there’s the risk that you suddenly don’t see anything at all. That’s why I opted to take them off. At first, that went well but after a while, your vision is no longer good either.
“Once you take off the glasses there’s no way back. That might have been the wrong choice. These are poor excuses. It was a really hard race, but it’s really dangerous. It’s not possible to ride in front all day, so you have to trust the guys who’re riding in front of you and that has much to do with luck. It was nice to ride a wet edition but it’s not more fun than a dry edition.”
Meanwhile, his wife Sarah and son Georges joined him while freshening up on the velodrome. “You always have to be focused in Paris-Roubaix but in this edition that was even more so the case. With the mud, every sector was potentially dangerous. From the first sector on it was really hard. I was always feeling good but the biggest mistake I made was being too far back when Mathieu [van der Poel] accelerated. It was still far away so I knew the race wasn’t lost yet but by the time the race exploded the gap had become too big to overcome. I was too far back because I was dealing with other things. On a given day you’re always well positioned,” Van Aert told Sporza.
“This was a really hard race, for everybody obviously. I was feeling quite good and we were in a good situation with the team. We had a few strong guys up front. When Mathieu accelerated I was too far back in the group. That was my own fault. On the wet cobbles, I wasn’t enjoying the feeling that I wanted to have, partly because of the vision problems I had. When I was on the wheels I was riding really poorly over the cobbles. I lost a lot of energy by doing that. I’m not 100 per cent happy with how it went but I don’t think the win was possible today.
“I was well positioned but a few guys punctured. By doing a manoeuvre to avoid a rider I dropped my chain. By the time I shifted the chain back on I had lost all speed and was gapped. I don’t think the race was lost at that point, but I had to use a bullet there that I could no longer use later.”
There are no more road races on the schedule for Van Aert and after taking a break, the cyclo-cross season will be next up for the Belgian rider. “I’ll be gone for a while. It’s been an extremely demanding season. It’s been a few years since I took a long break and I’m planning to take that break now,” Van Aert told Sporza. He will spend some time at home with his wife Sarah De Bie and 9-month-old son Georges before going on a holiday to Puglia, Italy.