Raucous crowds cheered Wout van Aert to a frantic stage 11 win on the Tour de France on Wednesday after a double ascent of Mont Ventoux.
UAE Emirates leader Tadej Pogacar retained the overall lead by more than five minutes over his pursuers after a long, dare-devil descent to the finish line with EF Education Nippo’s Colombian Rigoberto Uran and Ineos Grenadiers’ Ecuadorian Richard Carapaz.
Jumbo-Visma’s Van Aert crossed the summit of ‘the Giant of Provence’ alone in his Belgian champion’s shirt on a baking day, and was greeted after his expert descent by a partisan pack at the finish line.
“There’s loads of Belgians here,” said an exultant Van Aert, who played to the crowds bending his ear to their acclamation.
On this iconic climb, where Tom Simpson died in 1967 and where Eddy Merckx, Marco Pantani and Chris Froome climbed to memorable wins, Van Aert’s effort was magnificent, and he rode with a free spirit now his team leader Primoz Roglic is out injured.
“It’s my best victory ever,” said Van Aert, who finally reaped his reward, after his attacking riding helped light the Tour fuse on the opening stages.
Behind him his teammate Jonas Vingegaard climbed into the top three, crossing the line in the small group that included Pogacar, 1min 38sec after Van Aert.
Pogacar leads Uran of EF Education-Nippo by 5min 18sec, Dane Vingegaard is third 14 seconds further back and a second ahead of Carapaz, while Australian Ben O’Connor is fifth.
Colombian Nairo Quintana kept the polka-dot climber’s points jersey while Mark Cavendish came home seven minutes inside the time cut to hold on to the green sprinter’s jersey.
‘Anything is possible’
Vingegaard dropped Pogacar after a struggle over the final 3km of the last ascent, only for the Slovenian’s group to catch up on the 25km descent.
“I couldn’t follow him, the heat, Ineos, there was a lot going on,” said a cool and relaxed looking Pogacar at the finish line where he immediately went to see the stage winner.
“We had some nice words for each other, I just wanted to say ‘great ride mate’,” said Pogacar.
With a vehicle ban on Ventoux, police searched the vast crowds ascending on foot for alcohol and handed out bin bags after 40 tonnes of rubbish were left behind last time the Tour climbed the mountain
The peloton pulled out of pretty Provence town of Sorgues to the summer sound of chirruping cicadas with the mercury rising to over 30 celsius and the multicoloured peloton shimmering in the southern French sunshine.
By the time the lead group emerged above the clouds on bleak Ventoux the peloton was scattered all the way down the 21km one-hour climb. The leaders cut stark figures as they struggled for dominance across the lunar landscape.
Pogacar resisted concerted pressure from Ineos to lead an elite quartet across the line, but only after a wobble on the upper reaches of the second Ventoux slog.
After his dash to the finish, Van Aert celebrated with sheer joy, his arms raised straight up in the air and standing high on his pedals.
“If you believe in it, anything is possible. Now I’ll be helping Jonas in the overall and hopefully trying to win more stages,” said Van Aert, who has promised to go shoulder-to-shoulder with Cavendish.
Thursday’s stage 12 is a flat run to Nimes, where Cavendish will equal Merckx’s all-time Tour de France stage win tally of 34 if he claims a fourth victory on the 2021 edition of the world’s greatest bike race.