The Road Book presents “The Red Line”: An alternative to a simple race report, bringing you regular impressions and musings to complement the racing calendar.

The first time I ever saw Wout van Aert in the flesh was just past the finish line of Strade Bianche in August 2020. Earlier that day I’d stumbled across our editor Mr Boulting enjoying a coffee en plein air in a Piazza del Campo cramped by coronavirus restrictions, accompanied by Steve Cummings. A more Road Book image it is difficult to conjure up.

Eight hours later on the other side of the square, and in perfect juxtaposition, Van Aert was slumped down against the barriers, his long limbs falling over one another in exhaustion, caked in dust and echo-ing the nightmarish setting he’d found himself in merely 12 months prior when he crashed out of the Tour de France.

This symbolism wasn’t deliberate, of course, Wout van Aert isn’t in the business of overworked metaphors. He’s in the business of winning bike races. Something he’s become more and more accustomed to since coming full circle from that Tour time trial and taking his debut WorldTour one-day Classic victory.

But he hadn’t won one in Belgium. Not until today, that is, with Gent-Wevelgem being Van Aert’s first WorldTour win in his homeland. A stat that’s hard to believe really, and one I’m glad is going online rather than committed print, in so much that I’m sure it must somehow be wrong.

Since his tandem Dauphiné stage wins in 2019 he’s picked up a total of six in France and four in Italy. This was a win that mattered, a roar erupting from the 26-year-old as he crossed the line, Nathan van Hooydonck having already punched the air in celebration as Van Aert was in the midst of his sprint, already knowing his team-mate was going to come up with the goods.

A lot was made in the build-up after his disappointing 11th at everyone’s favourite motorway-monikered cobbled day-out, the E3 insert-name-of-this-year’s-bank-here Classic. Van Aert had been inconvenienced by a puncture that contributed to him getting dropped from the group of favourites, rolling across the line a minute behind.

Van Aert says that E3 performance had left him with doubts, such is the intensity of the competition between those currently at the top of the sport, but is now happy to have put that blip behind him, even if he did overshoot his chance to be presented his medal by a podium robot.

The race would have maybe made for quite the spectacle had we been treated to seeing the echelon bunfight at the start of the day, rather than a fairly processional large group of favourites staving off the peloton’s chase. Who would have thought everyone moaning about Milan – San Remo being broadcast in its entirety would so quickly bite us directly in the arse?

Maybe (definitely) we’ve just been spoiled over these opening couple of the months. Not coincidentally, Deceuninck – Quick-Step had a noticeably off day too, and whatever it was had clearly got into Sam Bennett’s lunch after the up-and-down-ness of the Kemmelberg, the Irishman spewing his guts out as the road became level again, team-mates Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert marooned behind and out of contention despite their best efforts.

But it wasn’t the Belgian team missing from proceedings, it was Mathieu van der Poel. No amount of echelons or podium robots can make up for a good old-fashioned scrap between those two, not in this day and age.

Gent-Wevelgem 2021 was the frites, let’s hope the Ronde is the andalouse sauce. And if you’d be ever so kind as to categorically drown me in the stuff that would be great. Thanks.

Jonny Long

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