Wout van Aert and second place co-exist like strawberries and cream or pizza and pineapple (if you’re MVDP). There’s seemingly no end to the ways in which van Aert can narrowly swerve victory, and it’s become a running joke on cycling social media, with memes dedicated to the phenomenon and a collective eye-roll issued by his army of fans whenever the inevitable happens, once again.
At the 2022 Tour de France, within the space of three short stages, Wout van Aert has hit two significant milestones. He becomes the first man in over 90 years to achieve three second place finishes in the opening three stages of the Tour, after Italian legend Alfredo Binda notched up the same record in 1930.
I initially -erroneously – assumed he was the second man to achieve this unlikely feat, and the irony was almost painful, but it turns out two other men had done it prior to 1930. – both went on to win the yellow jersey).
The second milestone for van Aert – one he may, or may not, have been happy about, was that he surpassed 100 second place finishes in his career (road and cyclocross combined).
The man himself gave a wry laugh and a shake of the head in his interview following yesterday’s stage, in which he lost out on stage 3 of this year’s Tour de France to former team mate Dylan Groenewegen in a last gasp lunge for the line.
‘It’s not funny anymore,’ he said. Even retaining both yellow and green jerseys seemed scant consolation at the time.
On stage one he finished five seconds outside the time of eventual winner Yves Lampaert. His face – bottom lip pushed out in resigned acceptance of a truth he hadn’t expected to have to confront – reflected the shock felt by the majority, watching on.
On Stage 2, van Aert once again came agonisingly close, as Fabio Jakobsen took his first win on his first attempt at his first Tour, following the epic ride across the Great Belt Bridge.
While fans of the rider from Herentals bite back their disappointment and wait for the next opportunity to celebrate, there is a buoyant resilience among them, as they appreciate a good thing when they see it.
The number two was also positive for Van Aert, as he climbed onto the podium twice to once again be awarded both yellow and green jerseys. His team have made no secret of the fact they are targeting both prizes, in an audacious bid to do something which hasn’t been achieved since the 1980s. It’s testament to his all-around abilities that he’s in this position in the first place (pun absolutely not intended).
The run of second place finishes in his career has been quite something, and warrants closer inspection. Just this year he racked up two at Paris-Nice, two at the Dauphiné, and second place at Paris-Roubaix.
Let’s consider these in a little more detail.
At Paris-Nice, Van Aert was second to Jakobsen (a pure sprinter, as we all well know) in a sprint finish into Orléans, and second on the final day mountain stage around Nice, ahead of his team leader Primož Roglič, who he towed most of the way there as the Slovenian sealed the overall win. Simon Yates (a strong climber,)won that day.
At Paris-Roubaix, van Aert rode to a creditable second, winning from the group of three that came to the line together, behind breakaway winner and classics specialist Dylan van Baarle. Oh wait – don’t forget – Wout had just recovered from covid, the virus having prevented him from attempting one of his two main goals of the Spring – his beloved Tour of Flanders.
At the Dauphiné there were two more second place finishes: a painful loss on the line to climber David Gaudu following a hilly challenge and summit finish into Chastreix-Sancy, on stage 3, before the very next day he just missed out on the top step in the individual time trial – to World Champion and time trial specialist, Filippo Ganna, the man who also beat him into second place in the past two World Championship elite time trial events.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Versatility is what has made van Aert so competitive, but with diversification comes a wider spread of adversaries – he takes on the best in the mountains and the hills, on the cobbles and on the flat, in punchy finishes, bunch sprints and against the clock. He really can ‘do it all’. Can he do it all best? Sometimes. But always? That’s a big ask.
That’s before we even come to cyclocross. Off-road, the rivalry between the two greatest ‘crossers of the modern era is a familiar story, with van Aert trading blows with van der Poel for the best part of a decade. Both riders are amazing in their own right, and nobody else comes close to them, consistently, either off-road or on it.
Beyond versatility, that’s the other key string to van Aert’s bow. What it all comes down to: consistency. Wout van Aert is one of the most consistent performers in the current peloton. Probably the most consistent. And before you make a joke about ‘consistently second’ let’s remember one more fact – outside of the X second place finishes, he’s also won 5 times this season. Five wins in 25 appearances – a fifth of all participations ending in victory – not including the two green jerseys he won in Paris-Nice and at the Dauphine.
The simple fact of the matter is this: Wout van Aert achieves so many second places because he’s right up there challenging for wins. The frustration belies the facts: he will win more bike races than most others in the current peloton, and will go down as one of the most talented riders of his time. Hopefully the ‘silver’ fallacy will be buried as his record speaks for itself: 35 road wins and 73 cyclocross wins in his elite career so far. Right now, van der Poel by comparison just about outstrips him on wins. Second places though? With a paltry 34, MVDP has nothing on Wout.
Wout has finished in the top two of 70 out of 290 races in his professional career on the road. 24% of the time, when he rides, he’s up there. As far as records go? He’s pretty much second to none.