Excuse me,” says a woman’s voice from behind me. “Could you move so I can get a photo?” I’ve been standing idly by the start of stage two of the Tour of Britain observing the best all-round cyclist in the world, Wout van Aert, as he politely waves to the crowd from the sign-in rostrum. Even here on this half-finished Devonian housing estate the Belgian has fans. I duck out of the woman’s shot.
The fact she wants a picture is hardly surprising. In the flesh the Belgian is striking. When I interview van Aert, seasoned photographer Simon Wilkinson is so stunned by the JumboVisma rider’s anime matinee-idol looks he remarks the Belgian could easily be a model. We both wonder if the blond streak in his fringe is natural – you can see it in pictures from his junior racing days – or not but decide it’s best not to ask lest we spoil the magic.
Van Aert’s looks are, somewhat irritatingly, the least of his gifts. His exploits on the bike are what has won him fans everywhere from Flanders to Devonian building sites. Winning on mud, sand, gravel, tarmac, up mountains, in sprints and in time trials has propelled him to the top of the sport.
In Belgium he’s among the biggest names going. “He’s a big cycling star already but he’s a star outside of cycling also,” says Marc Ghyselinck, journalist at Het Laatste Nieuws. “But he doesn’t appear on other pages of the paper. He’s a bike rider before, between and after.”
He says that since his performance at the Tour de France in 2021, when he won three stages, van Aert is now regularly spoken about in the same breath as Eddy Merckx. And with that comes a certain level of popularity.
Ghyselinck points to a poll in 2005 of ‘the Greatest Belgian’ conducted by public TV broadcaster Canvas, Radio 1 and newspaper De Standaard. It was topped by ‘leper priest’ Father Damian, whose story has been told and retold for over 100 years. Third was Merckx. Only three other cyclists made the list: Briek Schotte (71st), Rik Van Looy (78th) and Rik Van Steenbergen (85th).
“Wout isn’t there [on the popularity podium] yet,” Ghyselinck says. “But in terms of popularity he’s about to pass Tom Boonen and he’s only 26; he could get there if he keeps building his career like he is now.”
Picking up speed
His popularity kicked into another gear as his road results ramped up. In 2019 there there was no doubt van Aert was a great bike rider – he’d already won the CX Worlds three times – but two stage wins at the Critérium du Dauphiné and crucially one stage win at the Tour de France significantly upped his stock. But then a horrifying crash in the time trial left him unable to ride for weeks. He’d return for the cyclo-cross season that winter and register just one win. Before Covid-19 hit in 2020 he’d only race once on the road, at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where he’d finish 11th.
As the world exited lockdown there was more than a little uncertainty around van Aert. Had he recovered well enough from his crash? How had this year-round competitor coped with minimal racing? Could he capitalise on the promise he’d shown?
One afternoon in Tuscany was all it took to answer those questions. At Strade Bianche he’d gain an advantage on the race’s penultimate steep gravel climb before time trialling to the finish in a peerless display.
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