The 2021 UCI Road World Championships in Flanders started rolling on Sunday with a breathtaking individual time trial that turned into a thrilling mano a mano between the two favourites, Filippo Ganna of Italy and the host country’s Wout van Aert.
With the third favourite, Remco Evenepoel also of Belgium, waiting at the finish line with the best time, van Aert and Ganna were the last two riders on the flat-as-a-pancake 43.3-km course, with the Italian literally chasing the Belgian and his intermediate time splits. At the second split, Ganna trailed Van Aert by less than a second.
The 25-year-old Italian is widely considered the best ITT rider in the world and was defending the title he won in last year’s Worlds. He managed the race to perfection and beat van Aert by a mere 5.37 seconds to break Belgian hearts, with Evenepoel in third, 43.34 seconds adrift.
Those who follow We Love Cycling regularly know by now that we are big fans of the 27-year-old van Aert and consider him the best cyclist in the world. Not only is he a marvellous climber and one of the best ITT riders on the circuit but he has become a top-notch sprinter as well.
Who can forget his win in the mass sprint on the Champs-Élysées on the final stage of this year’s Tour de France, beating green-jersey winner Mark Cavendish by several bike lengths? Even more impressive, I think, was his performance in the Tour of Britain, just two weeks ago, when he won the final mass sprint to take his fourth stage win and claim the GC title of the week-long race.
The man is truly a phenomenon – but he’s not happy. “It’s not funny anymore to get second,” van Aert said after the ITT. “I feel a bit disappointed, not really about my performance because I’m actually quite happy with how everything went. I made no mistakes, my time trial was steady, I think. I was just beaten by a stronger rider, a specialist in this discipline.”
He has a point. This second-place finish followed silver medals in both the ITT (behind Ganna, of course) and the road race (behind France’s Julian Alaphilippe) in the 2020 Worlds. Since then, he’s also finished second behind Mathieu van der Poel at the CycloCross Worlds and second to Richard Carapaz in the Tokyo Olympics road race. That doesn’t mean he never wins. On the contrary, in addition to this year’s Tour of Britain, he has won a lot of races, including three cyclocross world championships, the 2020 Milan-San Remo and the 2021 Amstel Gold Race, to name just a few. But I guess he just wants to win every race he rides in.
The problem is that what makes van Aert special – that he excels in a variety of cycling disciplines – also makes him vulnerable to discipline specialists such as Ganna. It’s been suggested to van Aert that he could win the Tour de France if he set his mind to it. But he has always said that he would have to lose weight to be able to compete in every mountain stage and that he would rather continue competing as he is now.
He will again be one of the favourites in next Sunday’s Road Race World Championship where he will be facing off against Jumbo-Visma teammate Primož Roglič, fresh from his third Vuelta GC triumph, and the other Slovenian, two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar. That will be tough. It wouldn’t be a shock if van Aert finished second again.
But if that race comes down to a sprint finish and van Aert is in the mix, I’d be surprised if he did not claim a road race world championship at last. He deserves it – if only because of how he has changed elite professional cycling.