MALAUCENE, France (AP) — Belgian champion Wout van Aert twice conquered the daunting and grueling Mont Ventoux to win the prestigious Stage 11 of the Tour de France on Wednesday.
Van Aert was part of a breakaway that formed in the early stages of the nearly 200-kilometers trek in southern France featuring an unprecedented double climb of the iconic mountain known as the “Giant of Provence.”
“I know I’m not the best climber, but when I pick my day I know I have my chances,” said Van Aert.
Race leader Tadej Pogacar was fourth, one minute and 38 seconds behind, and kept the yellow jersey. The defending champion was briefly dropped by Jonas Vingegaard near the summit in the second ascent of the iconic mountain but erased the 38-second deficit in the downhill.
Pogacar has an overall lead of five minutes and 18 seconds over Rigoberto Uran, with Vingegaard in third place, 5:32 off the pace.
At 26, Van Aert is a jack of all trades. He can sprint, climb and time trial, but did not fight for the general classification, working in support of Jumbo-Visma leader Primoz Roglic.
The former cyclo-cross world champion was given more leeway by his team after Roglic retired from the Tour last week, setting his sights on a stage win.
Van Aert went solo during the second ascent of the Ventoux, about 11 kilometers from the summit, opening a big gap with his breakaway companions.
He kept his lead intact in the long downhill to the finish line, smiling to TV cameras and clenching his fist as he approached the town of Malaucene. He then raised on his pedals and yelled in triumph with his arms stretched.
It was van Aert’s fourth career stage win at the Tour.
The Ventoux is part of the Tour’s lore. It was the site of an incredible scene back in 2016 when four-time champion Chris Froome had to briefly run toward the summit after he damaged his bike in a crash.
An epic contest between Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani in 2000 also took place on the slopes of the “Bald Giant,” where British rider Tom Simpson died in 1967 from a combination of amphetamines and alcohol.
The stage got off to a lively start as world champion Julian Alaphilippe broke away with Nairo Quintana, but the Colombian climber could not follow his pace and got dropped.
Alaphilippe was joined by a group of three riders and created a three-minute lead over the main pack across the vineyards and rolling landscape of the Luberon region. Behind the quartet, a group of counter-attackers chased hard in the first big climb of the day, the Col de la Liguière, but could not fill the gap.
In sizzling hot weather, Pogacar rode in the main pack with his yellow jersey wide open. Others tried to cool down with small bags of ice cubes applied to their necks.
The downhill from La Liguière led the breakaway to the town of Sault and the start of the first ascent of the Ventoux via a 22-kilometer climb. They were joined at the front by the chasing group as the real suffering began.
The leading pack split with Alaphilippe and six others, including Van Aert, moving away 12 kilometers from the summit surrounded by hordes of excited fans. Riding in rarefied air, Alaphilippe was first to reach the barren summit, where swirling cloud added to the ominous lunar-looking landscape.
Paced by 2018 champion Geraint Thomas and his Ineos Grenadiers teammates, the peloton struggled to cut the gap. Alaphilippe was clocked at a top speed of 99 km/h (61.5 mph) on the descent. Julian Bernard took over the lead as the group went back for its second ascent of Mont Ventoux, a shorter but steeper climb compared to the first. Kenny Elissonde attacked alone but his move was countered by Van Aert.