A sniff of cross winds and a moment up front in the echelons inspired Wout van Aert in the final kilometres of stage 3 of Tirreno-Adriatico, indicating he is rapidly finding his form after a disrupted and delayed start to his season.
The Belgian admitted he missed two weeks of training after falling ill at an altitude training camp following the Cyclocross World Championships. He opted not to target Strade Bianche and instead trained at altitude until the day before Tirreno-Adriatico.
Van Aert took it steady in the rain-soaked opening time trial and then rode for his Jumbo-Visma teammates for the stage 2 sprint in Follonica. On Wednesday he was a very different rider, and more the Van Aert who wins Classics, sprints and even Tour de France stages.
He made sure he was up front and drove the select front echelon that formed with 10km to go to Foligno, trying to help team leader Wilco Kelderman and Primož Roglič to gain time on their GC rivals but also to give him a chance to win the stage.
Tirreno-Adriatico: Jasper Philipsen wins stage 3 sprint
Primoz Roglic still to shave his legs but shows his form at Tirreno-Adriatico
Primoz Roglic a surprise addition for Jumbo-Visma at Tirreno-Adriatico
Two weeks of lost training leaves Wout van Aert chasing his fitness at Tirreno-Adriatico
The peloton eventually closed the gap after a change in direction into a headwind and Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) won the hectic sprint after a superb leadout from team leader Mathieu van der Poel.
Despite his effort in the echelon, Van Aert finished sixth in the sprint.
“I’m happy about today, we could race in the final. It’s always nice to give it a try in echelons. It gives me motivation,” Van Aert told Cyclingnews and other media present at Tirreno-Adriatico after a long warmdown on the rollers in the shadow of the Jumbo-Visma team bus.
Van Aert had said before the stage that he would contest the sprint but kept quiet about the plan to attack in the final exposed kilometre in the valley road to Foligno.
“We didn’t tell you our plan and so we surprised some guys,” Van Aert said with a smile. “We saw this section in the final 15km and we made a plan to attack there. Unfortunately the big GC guys weren’t dropped in the end but it was worth a try.”
When the peloton came back together and the sprint seemed certain, Van Aert made a second effort to stay up front. He couldn’t match the Van der Poel-Philipsen sprint train but was again in the thick of the action.
“The first goal for us was to put time in our rivals for our GC guys. When the bunch came back I’d used up a lot of energy. I still wanted to try in the sprint but because you never know how it will go. For once I got on Jakobsen’s wheel but he was too far back,” Van Aert explained.
A good day on the road to Foligno and adaptation to sea-level riding after his long spell at altitude has left Van Aert more upbeat than he was before Tirreno-Adriatico.
He is in Italy to build his race form for the Spring Classics but now fancies his chances for a stage win. Stage 4 from Greccio in central Italy to Tortoreto on the Adriatic coast seems ideal for him. The final 51 km over on a circuit around Tortoreto, with the climb to the line covered four times. The climb is three kilometres long at 7% on testing hillside roads.
“Stage 4 is a nice stage,” Van Aert said, his natural confidence showing again. “Hopefully I’ll have good legs. I definitely think there are possibilities for me.”