Van Aert will eventually have to give up the yellow but the chances are very good that he will wear the Škoda Green Jersey all the way to Paris. He currently has 178 points, which is more than half of the 337 points last year’s green jersey winner, Mark Cavendish, had at the end of the race and 52 points more than his nearest competitor, Fabio Jakobsen of Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, now claims.
Suspense isn’t everything. Sometimes, watching a master like van Aert at work is more entertaining than a tight head-to-head competition. Not that van Aert – who also races cyclo-cross and has won every one of the nine races in that discipline in which he took part in the 2021-22 season – has had it all his way so far. He finished second in each of the first three stages, and though he came out of it wearing both yellow and green jerseys, he wasn’t pleased, shouting “Verdomd’ (Dutch for ‘damn’) after crossing the line at stage 3. Has anyone ever finished second three stages in a row at the Tour? Van Aert thinks he is the first. “Three times in a row second in the Tour, that must be a record,” he said, adding: “Another second place is not so much fun anymore.”
Still, finishing second in the opening ITT, 5 seconds behind Quick-Step’s Yves Lampaert, and in the stage 2 and 3 mass sprints is quite impressive. In the ITT, he came ahead of time-trial superstar Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) and two-time Tour winner Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) who is also a superb ITT racer; and he lost the sprints to Jakobsen and Team BikeExchange’s Dylan Groenewegen by a whisker. Which means that, after his astonishing runaway victory in stage 4, van Aert came within 5 seconds and two whiskers of winning the first four stages of the Tour!
His stage 4 victory, by 8 seconds, simply underscored his dominance. Van Aert took off on his own on the final category 4 climb of the stage, leaving such accomplished climbers as Simon Yates in his wake, and turned the final 10 km of the stage into an ITT against the entire peloton, which he won easily. The performance not only had top riders such as Peter Sagan (Team TotalEnergies) and Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) eating his dust but left commentators almost speechless with admiration. And van Aert was so far ahead over the final stretch that Philipsen, who won the sprint for second place, had apparently forgotten all about him and celebrated as if he’d won the stage. “I thought we were sprinting for the win,” Philipsen admitted. Oops!
If that wasn’t impressive enough, on the gruelling, crash-strewn stage 5, which included 11 stretches of dusty cobblestones, van Aert recovered from a crash and helped Jumbo-Visma teammate Jonas Vingegaard (and, incidentally, Ineos Grenadiers’ Geraint Thomas) remain in the GC race. Vingegaard had suffered a mechanical failure and had nearly 2 lost minutes to Pogačar who was taking advantage of the road carnage to put himself in the driver’s seat for the yellow jersey. But van Aert had other ideas. Almost singlehandedly, he led the group of trailing riders in a remarkable 30-km dash to claw back time from Pogačar, a ride that was almost as impressive as his solo effort in stage 4. In the end, van Aert managed to hold onto his yellow jersey and Vingegaard and Thomas lost only 13 seconds to the Slovenian.
Even van Aert’s rivals at Ineos Grenadiers were grateful for his efforts. “I think we owe Wout a beer,” Ineos road captain Luke Rowe told journalists.