Jeremy Whittle

Van Aert’s win sparks leadership speculation at Tour’s top table

Wout van Aert won Stage 4 with a bold solo attack. (Getty Images)

A virtuoso success from Wout Van Aert is fuelling speculation about potential leadership battles at both Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers

Look for the signs, they say, because if you look hard enough, they are always there. Tadej Pogacar may not be quite as strong as in the past, Jonas Vingegaard will become Jumbo-Visma’s leader by the time the Tour exits the Alps, Adam Yates will usurp Geraint Thomas. And so on.

But is any of that really true?

The flaw in such speculation that it’s very hard to read the runes so early in the Tour de France. On the other hand, on the Cote du Cap Blanc-Nez on Tuesday all of those theories looked plausible. It also looked plausible that, if he really really put his mind to it, Wout Van Aert could one day win the Tour. But then it’s the first week. Reality has yet to bite and everyone is on tenterhooks, looking for weakness and maybe sometimes seeing it where there is none.

That’s because in every opening week of the Tour we look for signs of what is to come.

Remember, for example, the Cote de Mutigny in 2019? Julian Alaphilippe put in a barn-storming attack that took him both to the stage win and the maillot jaune, which he unexpectedly held until cracking in the penultimate but incomplete stage to Tignes, in which Egan Bernal took over the race lead.

In hindsight, it was all so clear.

Alaphilippe was on a mission, one that lasted throughout most of the Tour. Only Thibaut Pinot and Bernal of the major contenders were able to follow him in his accelerations on the Cote de Mutigny. Defending champion Geraint Thomas was close, but just off the pace, which really summed up his whole race. It was only stage three of the Tour, but already the storylines were developing.

This summer, even before the race began, there was speculation about how well Vingegaard and Primoz Roglic would co-exist at Jumbo-Visma. Both riders want to win, both look strong enough to come pretty close. The road will decide of course, but at the moment the Dane looks to just be edging it. Certainly on the Cap Blanc-Nez, he appeared that bit sharper than Roglic.

Over at Ineos Grenadiers, there has been a lot of talking up a resurgent Thomas. Yates, meanwhile, even more than the 2018 champion, is flying under the radar. His recovery from Covid-19 however looks complete but at the same time, there are few expectations. Now he has to add consistency in the Tour to his many attributes, which is where the experienced Thomas may, ultimately, prove more reliable.

And what of Pogacar? Crashed last Saturday, missed Van Aert’s move today: is he, surprisingly, a little bit short of where he needs to be?

It’s hard to imagine that those lapses mean very much and he remains very much at the head of the ‘virtual’ classification of the major overall contenders. When he’s not racing, he’s started to make plans for his wedding, as he explained when chatting at the start in Dunkirk this morning. The kid, it has to be said, seems very happy with life.

It is too soon to judge however. The final stage in the series of what one sports director called this Tour’s ‘wacky races’ comes on Wednesday when the peloton tackles 11 sectors of cobbles between Lille and Arenberg. After that, there will be more of an element of business as usual, at least in terms of the terrain. Only then will the picture be a little clearer.

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