The win on stage 4 – his second of the race – catapulted him into the leader’s jersey with a two-second lead over Ethan Hayter (Ineos Grenadiers) but, with four demanding stages to come, the overall victory is far from certain for the Belgian all-rounder.
On the brutally tough Great Orme climb on stage 4, Van Aert was led out by his teammate George Bennett before Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) both attacked. Van Aert followed the wheels and set the pace before edging out the current world champion at the line.
Victory over a rider like Alaphilippe on such a difficult ascent does not change the dynamic or pecking order between two of the main favourites for the World Championships later this month but Van Aert admitted that he did take a degree of confidence in beating one of his expected rivals.
“I went all the way over the limit. It was a super hard finish, especially the first kilometre of the climb. It was steep, and probably a bit too steep for a guy like me. If I could hang on then I had my chance but it was all the way over the limit,” he told Cyclingnews in a short one-on-one interview at the finish.
“Obviously I’m feeling good. Taking two stage wins here at the Tour of Britain is a big success and with the team that we have now, and my legs, it’s possible to take the overall. For sure that suits perfectly for the preparation for the World Championships.
“It’s just nice to take a victory, not only because you beat Julian in a tight finish like that but as a bike racer it’s really nice. It’s also a special finish here and it really makes me proud.”
Van Aert also praised his team after they set him up for his second victory of the race. He will undoubtedly need their full support in the coming days if he is to claim the overall title at the Tour of Britain but on stage 4 the Dutch squad were imperious, stretching the peloton for much of the stage before positioning their leader at the base of the final climb.
“The team was amazing,” Van Aert said.
“We’re down to five but we were still able to control the race. Our plan was clear, we just wanted to go for the stage win and everyone was committed to that. We have a young guy Gijs Leemreize who is just coming over to the pros. I guess that he’s learning a lot and suffering a lot because we’ve given him a lot of work. Then we have someone like Tony [Martin] who can pull for two people. We have Pascal [Eenkhoorn] and George who then guided me through the final perfectly.
“Every victory in cycling is a team victory. Journalists sometimes think that it’s a bit silly that we say that but it would be a shame not to mention these guys.”
With Hayter at two seconds, and in the form of his life, and Alaphilippe at 11 seconds, the overall standings are still too close to call. Van Aert would not rule out an attempt to defend the leader’s jersey but, with a sprint expected on stage 5 and two more hilly days before the final sprint in Scotland, the landscape is set for a dramatic finale to this year’s race.
“We need to see. Of course with just the stage wins there are still 40 seconds available [in bonuses]. That’s way more than the gap that I have now,” he said.
“We need to be ready at every moment of the race. There are a few sprints and Hayter and Alaphilippe are my main opponents on GC. My focus was on the stage win today and tonight we’ll have a better view in terms of what’s coming.”