Bodmin, Paris and Tokyo have shared at least one experience this summer: the Wout van Aert juggernaut has rolled into town and made a lasting impression. Six weeks after taking the Olympic silver medal in the Olympic road race in Tokyo, and seven after taking the final stage of the Tour de France on the Champs-Élysées, the Belgian national champion made straightforward work of winning stage one of the Tour of Britain to take the initial race lead. His post-Olympic break has clearly not affected his appetite or dulled his finishing speed.
Van Aert’s last five races have produced three wins – he also took the Tour’s penultimate stage, a time trial – that Olympic medal, and sixth place in the Olympic time trial. He currently sits on nine victories for the year, but few would bet against him adding at least one or two more before the British Tour hits Aberdeen next Sunday. And with a fair wind, he will start as favourite to win the world championship in his native Belgium towards the end of the month.
With one of the strongest teams in the race to back him, victory in Cornwall sets up the Jumbo-Visma leader perfectly for an attempt to emulate his rival on the cyclo-cross circuit, Mathieu van der Poel, the winner of the last, pre-pandemic Tour of Britain in 2019. In Bodmin, Van Aert said that Jumbo-Visma would target Tuesday’s team time trial in South Wales, after which comes the toughest climbing stage of the race to the Great Orme. “It’s super hard at the finish, so we will definitely focus on that and see what the position is afterwards.”
After a day spent travelling through Poldark country tailing a five-rider escape including the Britons Jake Scott, Oliver Stockwell and Max Walker, plus the US champion Joey Rosskopf and South Africa’s Nic Dlamini, the peloton sprang into life on the hilly run-in to the finish. The break were swept up 13 kilometres out – not helped by a late puncture to Rosskopf – and as the jostling for position began, Mark Cavendish played a prominent role as the Deceuninck-Quickstep team attempted to set up the world champion Julian Alaphilippe for the stage win.
The rollercoaster run-in was not for the fainthearted, a dizzying blur of high-speed descents and strength-sapping drags, on which the WorldTour teams – Movistar, Deceuninck-Quickstep, Jumbo-Visma and Israel Start-Up Nation – all came to the fore. A sweeping right-hand curve saw a pile-up at the back of the string, after which the drag up into town whittled the peloton down still further, with only 36 riders finishing within 20sec of Van Aert.
Cavendish peeled off the front of the bunch at 2.8km to go, after which a searing pace was set by Ineos, in the service of their 22-year-old Ethan Hayter, who eventually finished fourth. On the final pull up to the line, Alaphilippe channelled the quixotic but not always successful Ross Poldark, while Van Aert was briskly businesslike in the manner of Ross’s nemesis George Warleggan.
Alaphilippe made a characteristic attack, springing off the wheel of one of his predecessors as world champion, Michal Kwiatkowski, to gain an initial advantage. But 200m from the line, the Frenchman looked round to see Van Aert looming close behind. Alaphilippe had made the classic error of moving too early in an uphill finish and faded to eighth place, while Van Aert timed his run to perfection to take victory from Nils Eekhoff of the German Team DSM. Close behind was another possible contender for the overall win, the Canadian Michael “Rusty” Woods of Israel Start-Up Nation, who will relish the climbs that pepper the route on Monday and Wednesday.
Maandag, the race crosses Dartmoor via Princetown before a finish on Queen Street in Exeter, which looks far more suitable for Cavendish, featuring a technical section through narrow lanes followed by a slight drag in the final kilometre. There is just one issue, egter: a finish of this kind also has Van Aert written all over it, given he had the gas to win on the Champs-Élysées; Eekhoff and the Italian Giacomo Nizzolo will also have their eyes on this one, as will Hayter.