With a little over 10km to go in Saturday’s Strade Bianche, Wout van Aert (Verandas Willems-Crelan) made a statement on the wet, white gravel roads of Tuscany. Van Aert followed an earlier attack by Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and found himself in a group of three late in the race after Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) joined the lead duo.

Van Aert’s chance at winning faded when Benoot made his winning move on a steep climb with 12km to go, but as the last kilometers passed, he still had a shot at beating Bardet for second. As the duo neared the last climb up the steep grade of Via Santa Caterina, he was also battling leg cramps after nearly 184km of racing.

The grade on the narrow stone street reaches 16%, and at the end of the race, it proved too much for Van Aert.

Undeterred, Van Aert overcame the cramps—and his awkward remount—and held his position to finish third. (Fortunately for him, the finishing stretch was downhill!)

I think I also wrote history right away by walking the last slope on foot,” Van Aert told Het Niewusblad about the race’s last kilometer.  “The last five meters I was cramped and had to go up on foot. I was completely broken.” (translated)

An Epic Day in Tuscany

After a Spring Classics début at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad where he held his own, Wout van Aert demurred at his chances for the rest of the Classics season. “What follows is going to be the hardest, and I may look back after this spring and that this course has ultimately been my best,” he said (translated).

On Saturday, Van Aert faced a tougher challenge at the Strade Bianche in Tuscany, Italy. Named for its white gravel roads, the Strade Bianche has grown in prestige during its 12 years and now holds World Tour designation. Van Aert’s Verandas Verandas Willems-Crelan Continental team received a wild card spot to join the 18 WorldTeams in the peloton, giving Van Aert formidable competition as well as an opportunity to make a statement. 2015 winner Zdenek Stybar also joined Van Aert at the start line.

The conditions in Tuscany and the course itself worked in Van Aert’s favor. The route features over 60km of gravel roads and includes several punchy climbs in the hills of Tuscany surrounding the start and finish in the city of Siena. With all the gravel, it is little surprise a gran fondo occurs the day after the race on many of the same roads.

The week before Saturday’s race, the roads were rather cyclocross-like, with snow covering parts of the course.

The snow melted by race day, but that was because of the rain. The resulting conditions were challenging and one can only assume Van Aert felt at home.

Van Aert survived the early selections, and when Romain Bardet attacked about 50km from the finish of the 184km race, Van Aert followed him and formed a two-man selection at the front of the World Tour race. For fans watching, Van Aert answered questions about his ability to compete on the road in real-time.

Fellow 23-year old Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) chased Van Aert and Bardet down and made his winning move on one of the punchy climbs with 12km left. Van Aert battled Bardet to the last climb into Siena while also battling leg cramps from the tough five-hour race.

The last kilometer of the route includes a steep climb up Via Santa Caterina, which is a narrow stone street that tops out at a maximum grade of 16%. Van Aert gave everything he had up the climb before succumbing to cramps on the steep climb.

Van Aert recovered from his cramps on the last climb—and the subsequent awkward remount—to make it the last few hundred meters to the finish line and grab the third podium spot. Van Aert talked about his race at the post-race press conference.

“This is a great start to my spring classics career. I didn’t expect to achieve such good performances on the road and I first have to enjoy this podium at the highest level of cycling. My goal is already achieved with this third place. It’s already super. Anything else in the coming classics this year will be something extra and I’ll come back to the Strade Bianche for more in the future.”

After finishing third in just his third career World Tour race, Van Aert, not surprisingly, continues to face the inevitable questions about his future. In an interview with Het Nieuwsblad, he continued his humility despite his impressive first two months of 2018.

“This is something else than cyclocross. Here is more respect and radiance. But after my third place, I do not want to blow too high of the tower here and have too big ambitions on the road. Perform first. I prefer to speak with the pedals.”(translated)

Van Aert also offered some comments about the race in English.

Van Aert put on a memorable show at a memorable running of the Strade Bianche. He will continue his efforts speak with his pedals while garnering the attention of his competitors in the peloton and the rest of us wondering about his future.