Wout van Aert claims thrilling solo stage win to extend Tour de France lead

Wout van Aert, wearing the leader’s yellow jersey, took a spectacular win in stage four of the Tour de France in Calais, after attacking from the peloton alone in the closing stages of the 171.5km stage from Dunkirk.

In a collective show of strength from his Jumbo-Visma team, the Belgian broke clear on the final climb, the Cote du Cap Blanc-Nez, after his teammates, Tiesj Benoot and Jonas Vingegaard, set a fierce pace on the steepest sections of the headland.

Van Aert, 27, second in all three of the Tour’s Grand Départ stages last weekend, feared another disappointment in a bunch sprint. “I didn’t want to take the risk,” he said. “We were in a perfect position. The goal was to go full to the top and see what happened.”

What happened was that Van Aert and his team blew the race apart, albeit momentarily. Only Adam Yates of Ineos Grenadiers and Vingegaard were able to follow, with even the defending champion, Tadej Pogacar (UAE Emirates), and Van Aert’s teammate, Primoz Roglic, among those left chasing. But on the rolling approach to Calais Van Aert dropped all his pursuers and triumphantly took his first stage win in this year’s race.

“They did the same thing at Paris-Nice,” Yates said of Van Aert’s team. “We had a suspicion they might do it, sprinting full gas from the bottom to the top. I ran out of legs just over the top.”

After the long transfer from Denmark, it seemed that Magnus Cort Neilson (EF Education EasyPost) had travelled best of all, after spending another day racing in the breakaway. The Dane traversed the 400km threshold of breakaway riding in this Tour after only four stages, one of which was a time trial. Swept up with 40km remaining, the Dane increased his lead in the King of the Mountains, his final points haul coming on the fourth category Côte du Ventus.

Now all eyes turn towards Wednesday’s fifth stage, from Lille Métropole to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, which includes 11 cobbled sectors, of infamous and loathed pavé, made famous by the spring Classic, Paris-Roubaix.

Tom Southam, sports director to Education EF EasyPost, played down the significance of the cobbled stage. “We’ve had them before,” he said. “It’s not totally novel. But it takes a lot more work from the equipment side. In the spring Classics we have spare wheels everywhere, all across northern France.

“We have to get through as best as possible. It’s like having a Classics race in the middle of the Tour. There’s going to be someone who’s unfortunate and who loses time.”

Matt White, sports director at the BikeExchange-Jayco team, said that his staff were treating the stage like a “mini Paris-Roubaix”. “The big difference is in the actual Paris-Roubaix about 85% of the riders want to be there, whereas in the Tour stage about 20% of the riders want to be there. This stage will have 55 kilos little fellas boxing on with 90 kilos bigger guys. It multiplies the chances of crashes. Nobody wants a rider to lose the Tour due to bad luck.”

Much will depend on the weather. In 2014’s stage, held in a downpour, Vincenzo Nibali of Italy used his off-road skills to stay clear on a stage that proved the foundation of his overall win and forced the defending champion, Chris Froome, to abandon. On the other hand, in the dry and dusty conditions of 2018 Froome’s teammate Geraint Thomas exited the pavé in second place overall and went on to win in Paris. The Welshman will be hoping for a similar outcome this year.