MALAUCENE, France (AP) — Winning the Ventoux stage at cycling’s biggest race is a rare and celebrated feat.
No wonder a champion like Wout Van Aert, with multiple titles across the sport’s most prestigious events, felt like he posted his best victory ever after mastering the daunting and grueling mountain twice in the same day at the Tour de France on Wednesday.
Near the site where his fellow Belgian Eddy Merckx — a cycling legend with five Tour wins — had to be given oxygen soon after winning the stage to Ventoux back in 1970, Van Aert triumphed following an unprecedented double ascent of the iconic mountain.
The lively stage also gave a glimmer of hope to the rivals of race leader Tadej Pogacar that he can be taken off his perch, after the defending champion briefly got dropped on the second ascent but erased the deficit on the downhill to keep his yellow jersey.
Van Aert was part of a breakaway that formed in the early stages of the nearly 200-kilometers Stage 11 in southern France. The one-day classic specialist and multiple cyclo-cross world champion made his decisive move on the final ascent to drop his breakaway companions, then kept his advantage on the descent leading to the town of Malaucene.
“I know I’m not the best climber, but when I pick my day I know I have my chances,” said van Aert. “The first time I climbed the Ventoux I was 10. It was my first big one. I was very motivated to try something today, this region is really famous in Belgium, and it’s a mythical Tour climb.”
Pogacar was fourth, one minute and 38 seconds behind. He did not lose ground on his main rivals, even increasing his overall lead after his closest opponent at the start of the stage, Ben O’Connor, suffered a hard day and dropped to fifth overall.
But for the first time since the start of the race, Pogacar showed weaknesses when he lost ground to Jonas Vingegaard near the summit.
“I could not follow all the way up, it was just a little bit too much,” he said. “It was a super-hard, hot day.”
In the end it was just a scare and Pogacar holds a comfortable overall lead of five minutes and 18 seconds over Rigoberto Uran, with Vingegaard in third place, 5:32 off the pace.
“I had to stay calm and find a new rhythm,” Pogacar added. “I did not panic and that was a good thing.”
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. He 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. As he approached the finish line, he smiled to TV cameras and clenched his fist, then raised on his pedals and yelled in triumph with his arms outstretched.
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 Liguiere, 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 Liguiere 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.