Wout van Aert is putting his monument near misses at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix behind him in true cyclocross fashion this week – by getting cold and muddy on a bike with knobbly tyres.
Instead of winding down after a tough spring classics campaign by vegetating on the sofa and bingeing on reality television, or booking a flight straight to the beach, the Jumbo-Visma star has opted to dust off the gravel bike and head off with some friends for a mammoth bikepacking trip across all the gravel roads and, naturally, muddy lanes Belgium and France have to offer.
Over the last two days, Van Aert and three friends have logged consecutive seven-hour-plus rides over all sorts of off-road terrain, taking them from his hometown of Herentals to France’s Champagne region.
On Wednesday, during the first leg of what the 28-year-old is calling the ‘Champagne Chase’ on Strava, the group covered almost 170km on the way south to the Walloon city of Durbuy. And then yesterday, they clocked another seven and a half hours in the saddle, over the French border to Signy-l'Abbaye.
That tough 157 kilometres across the Ardennes saw Van Aert rack up an impressive 2,686m in elevation gain.
While the pace doesn’t appear to be too ferocious – no Strava KOMs have been threatened as of yet – the relentless terrain has appeared to put a few of his travelling companions into the red, as evidenced by one Instagram post from friend Vincent van Rooy which featured the ever-increasing elevation gain and the somewhat sarcastic caption, “Just follow, said the master”.
The fun doesn’t appear to be over, however, with Van Rooy posting a photo today of an especially muddy section of their route which even forced the three-time world cyclocross champion Van Aert to get off and push. “Just another day in paradise”, posits the accompanying caption.
The challenging off-road route has certainly vindicated Van Aert’s choice to ride Cervelo’s racy Aspero-5 gravel bike, which the Belgian star has kitted out in full bikepacking attire, complete with fully stocked saddle, top tube, and handlebar bags.
However, it appears that Van Aert hasn’t quite gone the full Lachlan Morton and packed crocs, you’ll be disappointed to learn.
Finally, on to some serious matters, as some of you may be aghast at the group’s decision to feed one of cycling’s most enduring debates by attending to a mechanical… by placing the bike upside down:
Van Aert’s well and truly nailed his colours to the flipper mast, there. And he thought the Gent-Wevelgem gifting controversy was bad…
Bike flipping arguments aside, the post-classics holiday is certainly a return to his roots and something of a reset for Van Aert, who won’t return to racing until the Tour de Suisse in the middle of June.
After yet another podium at Milan-Sanremo, the 28-year-old looked in imperious form at the cobbled classics, outsprinting his big rivals Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogačar for the win at the E3 Saxo Classic, before (controversially) gifting his Jumbo-Visma colleague Christophe Laporte the victory at Gent-Wevelgem in what was an ominously dominant team display.
However, once again Van Aert fell short at the two races which arguably matter most to him, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
At the Ronde, he proved just shy of the staggeringly high level imposed by the rampant Pogačar, while an untimely puncture while clear with Van der Poel at Paris-Roubaix cost him the opportunity to sprint for what would be, astonishingly, only the second monument win of his otherwise brilliant career.
Perhaps a few days of freezing temperatures, muddy lanes, good food, and fixing his own punctures will set Van Aert up perfectly for this summer’s Tour de France…
Ryan joined road.cc as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.