Nearly man? Wout van Aert's growing list of near misses

From the classics to world championships, the Belgian superstar has a remarkable amount of high placings, even if his big wins are lacking

Clock17:30, Wednesday 27th September 2023
Wout van Aert on the third step of the podium at the 2023 Paris-Roubaix

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

Wout van Aert on the third step of the podium at the 2023 Paris-Roubaix

It might seem absurd to label Wout van Aert as a nearly-man, such is the Belgian’s palmarès and stature in the sport. However, when you look beyond his impressive tally of 43 victories, there’s an even broader layer of podium placings that leave you - and surely him - with a sense of what might have been.

Van Aert’s body of near misses was bolstered at the weekend with a runner-up finish in the European Championships road race. Remarkably, it was his 10th silver medal at a major international championship, and his eighth in the past four years alone.

The run began at the 2015 Cyclocross World Championships, where he finished second to his eternal rival Mathieu van der Poel. He went on to win that rainbow jersey three times on the spin, but the 2018 ‘Cross Worlds were the last time he claimed a gold medal when representing Belgium at the top level

In 2019, he was runner-up to Van der Poel again at 'Cross Worlds, and he’d suffer the exact same fate in 2021 and 2023. During that time, he was also accruing an agonising string of near misses on the road.

He won the silver medal in both the road race and time trial at the 2020 Road Worlds, and in 2021 it was the Worlds time trial and the Olympic Games road race. This year, the silver at the European Championships - where he also took bronze in the time trial - followed his runner-up finish - also behind Van der Poel - at the Worlds road race in Glasgow last month.

"Of course that's on my mind," Van Aert said of this run of results following the medal ceremony at the European Championships on Sunday.

"I try to win every race. That's how I rode today. I don't worry about it during the race, but it’s an observation that I cannot deny."

A podium powerhouse

The nearly-man status extends beyond the sphere of international competition, although in a less pronounced way.

Van Aert has won 43 races on the road as a professional, but has racked up no fewer than 52 visits to either of the ‘wrong’ steps of the podium. If you contrast that with Van der Poel, the Dutchman has won 41 times but been on the lower steps only 17 times.

It points to a less clinical hit rate for Van Aert when he is in a winning position, although he is putting himself in those winning positions far more frequently. It’s a sign of his breathtaking versatility and all-action approach, but it does also raise the question of whether he’s spreading himself too thin.

"That gives me mixed feelings. On the one hand, it's nice that I'm always there, but this year I'm not quite there,” he said with a hint of regret.

Of course, there are mitigating factors that paint the statistics in a kinder light, the most significant being Van Aert’s own generosity. The standout example here is the 2023 Gent-Wevelgem, which he effectively gifted to Christophe Laporte, a similar scenario to the opening stage of the 2022 Paris-Nice.

In addition, two of Van Aert’s recent podiums from the Tour of Britain came when leading out teammate Olav Kooij in sprint finishes. Remarkably, he also has a third-place from a mountain-top finish at the 2022 Tour de France, when handing Jonas Vingegaard the final sword to drive into Tadej Pogačar.

These are examples of times Van Aert hasn’t really been hunting the victory, but has ended up close anyway. In this respect, he is a victim of his own strength when it comes to statistics like this. There’s also the odd bit of bad luck, such as his puncture when attacking on the final cobblestone sector of this year’s Paris-Roubaix, won by Van der Poel.

But even so, there are enough true near misses for this to have become an issue, if not yet a complex.

Van Aert, for all his class, has only won one of cycling’s five one-day Monument Classics, the 2020 Milan-San Remo. In a remarkable sequence, he hasn’t finished lower than eighth in a Monument since, with runner-up finishes at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, and further third places at San Remo, Flanders, Roubaix, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Wout's prospective legacy

It is these races that, for many, Van Aert will ultimately be judged upon. That’s certainly how Tom Boonen, Belgium’s last great Classics star, sees it.

“The time has come for him to win the Tour of Flanders,” Boonen said ahead of this Spring Classics campaign. “You can win 15 races a year, but if none is a Classic, it’s not enough.”

Boonen, who enjoyed what was the sport’s previous blockbuster rivalry, with Fabian Cancellara, went on to comment on the Van der Poel rivalry, suggesting Van Aert lacks the Dutchman’s killer instinct.

“When he races against Van der Poel, something seems to happen to him. In a certain way, Van der Poel can make Wout seem like the kid he was 10 years ago. In the sprints, Van der Poel is a bête noir for him.

“Mathieu is special. He doesn’t need to be the best in order to win a race. Wout does.”

Van Aert turned 29 a couple of weeks ago, and while he has only been going at the Monuments for five years, there’s a growing itch in Belgium with every passing spring that goes by without that first victory at Flanders or Roubaix. Belgium, of course, places expectation on its stars like no other. Ahead of this year’s Road Worlds the chief cycling writer for Het Laatste Nieuws questioned Van Aert’s killer instinct and even implored him to “put things right” in Glasgow.

As for Van Aert himself, who has seemingly stuck to his guns rather than getting swayed by the Belgian commentariat, there is clearly a sense of regret and perhaps an inclination to explore some changes that might help him land those big wins. But there’s no call for panic at this point.

"I am confident that things will be different in the future,” he declared at the weekend.

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