Nothing to be done, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept. Time is the only effective salve for disappointment, and Wout van Aert was still smarting from its sting when he entered the press room barely an hour after the World Championships road race in Imola, Italy, on Sunday.
For the second time in three days, the Belgian took his seat at the top table with a silver medal hanging from his neck. For the second time in three days, his press conference was briefly interrupted while the man in the rainbow jersey arrived to take a seat alongside him.
After losing out to Filippo Ganna (Italy) in Friday’s individual time trial, Van Aert was beaten by Julian Alaphilippe (France) in the main event. On each occasion, the winner’s superiority brooked no argument, but that was of little consolation to Van Aert barely an hour after the finish.
“I think it’s just too early for me to be proud of it. I came here with high expectations and it’s hard to accept two silver medals,” Van Aert said. “Nevertheless, I was beaten twice by guys who were stronger guys. That will make it easier to accept it, but I’m aiming for wins. It’s been an exceptional year, I think, I have really strong legs... I just need some time to be proud of it.”
Van Aert arrived in Imola with realistic aspirations of becoming the first man in history to win both the time trial and road race world titles in the same year after a remarkable sequence of displays that included victories at Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo, as well as startling and repeated feats of strength at the Tour de France.
He joins Miguel Indurain and Abraham Olano as the only riders to win medals in both disciplines at the same Worlds, but the Spaniards had the considerable consolation of taking home a rainbow jersey apiece from Colombia in 1995. Van Aert, by contrast, leaves with two silver medals. Asked which defeat was more difficult to accept, he opted for the fresher wound.
“In a time trial of 35 minutes, you can think about details, but almost 30 seconds is just a huge gap. A couple of hours later, it was easy to accept that Ganna was just stronger,” Van Aert said. “In a long race like this, it should also be easy to accept that Julian was stronger, but immediately afterwards you think about different race situations, what it would have been if I had done this or this. It’s such a long race and the gap to the winner is not big…
“On the other hand, in both races I got beaten by someone who was stronger than me. I didn’t make big mistakes, so I have nothing to regret.”
Van Aert was making his debut in the road Worlds, but his leadership of Rik Verbrugghe’s Belgian team was absolute, with Tiesj Benoot and Greg Van Avermaet among those delegated to put their shoulders to the wheel in his service. On the final lap, Van Aert came to the fore, tracking Vincenzo Nibali’s move over the top of the climb of Mazzolano, though his entire race was focused around the final haul up Cima Gallisterna.
“Nibali is a guy who’s very strong, it’s important to follow when he tries, but at that point, I was still riding defensive,” Van Aert said. “It was important not to miss out on the attacks, but I knew I had to save something for the last climb: everything would be decided there.”
So it proved. Alaphilippe powered to the front of the race as the gradient pitched up to double digits and, unlike in the latter part of the Tour, this time he had the strength to maintain his effort all the way to the summit. He had 8 seconds over a chasing group of Van Aert, Primoz Roglic (Slovenia), Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark), Marc Hirschi (Switzerland) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland) at the top, but the gap yawned out inexorably on the plateau and descent that followed.
“When Julian went, I couldn't follow,” admitted Van Aert, who found no fault with the collaboration of the chasing group. They reached the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari 25 seconds down on the new world champion, and he duly beat Hirschi to the silver medal in the sprint.
“We just did everything we could: it was five strong riders working together but Julian was the strongest rider in the race. It’s normal that in the last 2k, we started thinking about the other medals but before that we really worked well. I think everybody had to be on the wheel on the top of the climb, but that was impossible. No regrets, the strongest in the race won.”
In Van Aert’s native Belgium, attention was drawn to the sparing nature of his Jumbo-Visma companion Roglic’s turns on the front of the chasing group in the closing kilometres, with Eddy Planckaert especially indignant in the Sporza studio. “If I were Van Aert, I wouldn’t ride another metre on the front again for Roglic,” said Planckaert.
Van Aert, however, gently demurred. “I understand the question about Primoz, but he did everything he could,” he said. “Of course, we spoke. I think he was on the limit. It says a lot about the victory of Julian: we were five strong riders together and we didn’t bring back one second until the last 2k. It was just the strongest rider out in front.”