Will Belgian cycling ever stop eating its own?

Lefevere and Boonen look Wout van Aert’s gift horse in the mouth.

At the top of the Kemmelberg, Wout van Aert waited for Christophe Laporte. Should he have? (Photo © Cor Vos)

If Wout van Aert hoped that his display of genuine joy at teammate Christophe Laporte’s Gent-Wevelgem win would buy him more than .03 seconds of equal goodwill from his countrymen, well, we have bad news.

After 53 kilometers together off the front, no sooner had Van Aert gently pushed Laporte forward to ensure he crossed the finish line first than the sniping set in. It might hurt a little more that it comes from some of Belgium’s most iconic and beloved pro racers of all time. From Sporza’s reaction roundup:

Eddy Merckx: “It’s his choice to let a teammate win, but I wouldn’t have done it.”

Tom Boonen: “I would have sprinted for it. Such a sprint would have looked strange, but it was the fairest. Wout is going to regret it.”

Not to be outshined, Monsieur Roubaix himself, Roger De Vlaeminck, weighed in as well, telling Het Nieuwsblad that van Aert rides for the wrong team. Presumably, De Vlaeminck would prefer that to be a Belgian team, which of course raises the question of how vociferous this criticism would be if Van Aert rode for Soudal – Quick-Step, or even if Laporte were Belgian rather than French. 

Some welcome balance came from Dirk De Wolf, who noted he once gifted teammate Rudy Dhaenens a win as well, “And I don’t regret it.” (Fabian Cancellara also offered his support for the gesture, but, fact check: not Belgian.)

That subtle, but unmistakable push; the smile on Laporte’s face. You think that won’t pay dividends? (Photo © Cor Vos)

To what does Wout owe these outrageous slings and arrows from his famous predecessors? Merckx is probably easiest to explain. A man named The Cannibal, after all, was never much for sharing the spoils. Boonen’s comments are a little tougher to parse. Few men know better the pressure placed on top Belgian cyclists to win, especially in the Classics. At the end of his career, Boonen notably declined to name a “successor,” partly because his own such anointment, by Johan Museeuw, contributed to as much or more grief than joy.

Regret? Allow Tommeke to explain: teammates come and go, you see, and while Van Aert certainly bought Laporte’s loyalty for the Holy Week brace of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, nothing is guaranteed. “Supposed you have a hard fall after 5km on Sunday, then you will regret it very much,” Boonen said of passing up a victory at Gent.

I mean, sure, but is that any way to go through life?

Wout could fall in the shower tomorrow. He could crash on a recon ride. He could get sick from the aerosolized LD-50 load of Belgian cow shit sprayed off the wheels last Sunday.

If he had sprinted against Laporte and – heaven forfend – Laporte managed to get the best of him, Van Aert would have been subject to even more recriminations, including an exhaustive and exhausting social media debate, replete with pixel-by-pixel deconstructions of the sprint, about whether Van Aert soft-pedaled and gifted it anyway. If he gobbles up the win at Laporte’s expense, he may win Boonen and Merckx’s approval, but will they be so loud about it as their criticism, to fend off the equal criticism Van Aert would receive from other quarters for his seeming greed?

See where I’m going with this? 

Team victory? One of these men is a lot happier than the other two. (Photo © Cor Vos)

The only thing worse than one team having multiple riders off the front together and assured of a win is one team having multiple riders off the front together and figuring out who’s going to win and how. Ask Gianluca Bortolami. It’s an impossible situation, and scenarios like SD Worx’s two-up sprint at Strade Bianche – which came about reportedly because the catch happened so late there was no time to figure it out diplomatically – are the exception, not the rule. I’m still not sure we have the full story there, anyway.

The honest weight of the Van Aert criticism, if there is some to be had, is that he is now 28 and has not yet won a cobbled Monument. “At this point in his career,” said Boonen, “Van Aert has to win races. It doesn’t matter how.”

Maybe not. But it does matter which races. Van Aert already has a G-W trophy in his cabinet, after all. A second, or fourth, won’t enshrine him in the pantheon of Belgian Classics greats. For that, only the bronze Flanders sculpture or that hallowed granite cobble from Roubaix will do, and if we’re being real, he needs at least one of each. His actions Sunday helped, not hurt, his pursuit of those goals.

At Flanders or Roubaix, no discussion will be needed about Laporte’s role. (Photo © Cor Vos)

Yes, Van Aert could crash in the neutral at Flanders. But if he has a mishap at a more important moment of the race, he will very likely have a devoted shadow at his side. A shadow who rides an identical 56cm frame and 79cm seat height, a handy thing when the team car may be many hundreds of meters behind in the chaos. A shadow who is one of the few riders on any team with the form to go with Van Aert in a long-range move. And a shadow who has now, more than once in the last 15 months, benefitted from his new team’s generosity. In the moment, when Van Aert needs a wheel or a whole bike, or needs to close a gap to a Tadej Pogačar or Mathieu van der Poel, Laporte will sacrifice everything to ensure his team leader is where he needs to be.

Far be it from me to second-guess the tactical wisdom of Merckx and Boonen. Yes, Van Aert has yet to win a cobbled Monument. But my hunch is that his actions Sunday were partly magnanimous, and partly in service of a larger goal on the near horizon. Van Aert clearly has the form, and the team, for a win at Flanders and/or Roubaix. And if he comes away victorious in one of the next two weekends, that will be all the gratification he needs.

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