The 2023 edition of Gent-Wevelgem is already a few days old, but the discursive aftershocks have continued to linger well into Flemish Holy Week.
While it was all a bit too easy for Jumbo-Visma on a grisly days in Flanders’ Fields on Sunday, Wout van Aert’s decision to gift the win to loyal teammate Christophe Laporte has prompted a much stronger level of opposition than the dynamic duo faced on the Kemmelberg.
> Gent-Wevelgem leader takes wrong turn and strays off-course – but holds on to win
On the one hand, former cobbled classics titan Fabian Cancellara praised Van Aert’s generosity, which the retired Swiss rider claimed “elevated” his standing as a true champion. And, as others online pointed out, one victory at Gent-Wevelgem will mean a lot more to Christophe Laporte – who will, we presume, be even more driven to sacrifice himself for his team leader at this week’s Ronde – than a second win in the race would mean to Van Aert’s career.
“With that gesture he showed humility, generosity, chivalry... he showed humanity,” Cancellara said in his column for Cyclingnews. “For me, a champion is not only defined by races they win; it’s also the way they win, their personality, the human touches. All these things together add up to make a champion, and if you are willing to raise someone else up, then you are extra special.
“Of course, this was not an entirely selfless deed. I'm not sure winning Gent-Wevelgem changes Wout van Aert’s life. He has won it before, and he won another major Classic just two days ago. What matters most is the Tour of Flanders. That’s the one he wants to win above all else. It’s his one big goal for the entire season – everything else comes afterwards.
“He can afford to give Gent-Wevelgem away as it serves a higher purpose. This was a team victory and it makes the team stronger. He now gets more respect from Christophe Laporte and from his teammates – not to mention the fans.”
Some onlookers, however, such as Belgian cycling luminaries Eddy Merckx and Tom Boonen, were more critical of Van Aert, and argued that a major one-day classic should never be decided on a whim.
“It’s his choice to let a teammate win, but I wouldn’t have done it,” the famously relentless Merckx – who was criticised for not letting a teammate win in a similar manner at the 1969 Liège–Bastogne–Liège – told Sporza after the race.
“Of course I don’t know what’s going on within the team. Wout van Aert was by far the best, you saw that on the Kemmelberg. He could write history by winning [E3] Harelbeke, Wevelgem, and the Tour of Flanders.”
Cheers, Wout (Zac Williams/SWpix.com)
Meanwhile, Boonen dismissed the gesture as a nice PR move by Jumbo-Visma, and expressed his concerns that Van Aert could “regret it” by Sunday afternoon.
“I have also helped teammates to the win, but never in such a situation,” the three-time Tour of Flanders winner said.
“You help teammates to let them fight for the win. This again looked good for the team’s marketing, but I don’t know if I would have done it.
“Jumbo scores, but Gent-Wevelgem is Gent-Wevelgem. That race is a nice addition to your list of honors. It is more than a ride in Paris-Nice. Do you want to win like this? I would have sprinted for it. Such a sprint would have looked strange, but it was the fairest.
“Wout is going to regret it. Riders come and go. Christophe Laporte will probably become the key figure for Wout in Flanders and Roubaix, but that is not a guarantee.
“Suppose you have a hard fall after 5km on Sunday [at Flanders], then you will regret it very much.”
Cycling writer Herbie Sykes, meanwhile, offered an interesting, and nuanced, take on the subject on Twitter this morning.
Sykes argued that Merckx’s opinion on the matter stems from his own experience as a pro, when – through his ruthless desire to win and prove himself as the strongest rider in the bunch – he single-handedly dragged the sport out of its former corrupt shell, where riders like his former domineering teammate Rik Van Looy could gift, buy, and sell races at their leisure, such was their dictatorial grip on their teammates and the peloton.
Sykes wrote: “You might argue that it was fine for WVA to ‘gift’ the race to Laporte, and that’s fine. Laporte is great, he alone was able to stay on, and he was good enough to do a turn. In isolation it’s cuddly and heart-warming and nice, and of course he’ll work for WVA at the business end.
“However we shouldn’t delude ourselves that he was the deserving rider on Sunday because he wasn’t… The point is that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and a cycling paradigm in which races are ‘gifted’, bought, and sold risks becoming institutionally corrupt.”
What do you think? Was Van Aert right to ‘gift’ his teammate the win on Sunday? Or should the strongest, fastest, and smartest rider always triumph at the biggest races?
Or, and I assume this is what you’re thinking, should we just stop talking about this and look forward to Sunday’s Tour of Flanders – where, I’m sure, there won’t be any gifts.