Rome (AFP)

Twice third in his first two participations, the Belgian Wout van Aert perfectly mastered the so particular Strade Bianche on Saturday and obtained a superb success in Siena, for the resumption of the World Tour after almost five months of interruption due to the coronavirus.

In 2018, exhausted and seized with cramps, van Aert zigzagged and ended up falling down the terrible slope of Via Santa Caterina, a few dozen meters from the finish in Piazza del Campo.

“I thought about it for a second. I remember that feeling and you remember the pictures. But it's just getting better, soon I'll be flying all the way up,” he joked after the race.

The following year, the rider of the Jumbo-Visma team had, in the same climb, to recognize the superiority of Jakob Fuglsang and especially of the future winner Julian Alaphilippe, never in the game this year.

On Saturday, van Aert took his revenge. He was the strongest and showed it by setting off alone less than 15 kilometers from the finish, on one of the last "sterrati", the Tuscan gravel paths that give the race their name.

In Piazza del Campo, for once almost empty due to the health protocols in place, the three-time cyclo-cross world champion won with 30 seconds ahead of the Italian Davide Formolo (UAE Emirates) and 32 on the German Maximilian Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe).

"The last two editions had given me a lot of confidence. I trained a lot to win this race," said the young Belgian (25)

"Last year, I had a big setback in my career. But it's the proof that you should never give up and today I felt better than ever", he said added, in reference to his fall and serious injury during the Pau time trial on the 2019 Tour.

- Hard on the eyes -

His victory on Saturday also marks the resumption of the World Tour, which stopped in mid-March in Paris-Nice in the face of the progression of the Covid and therefore resumed nearly five months later in the Tuscan heatwave of August.

The heat (over 35 degrees) did damage, a lot, like the dry dust of the paths which rose up as the runners passed, sometimes giving the impression that they were throwing themselves into the fog.

"It was very hard. I needed time to regain the sensations of the peloton, the concentration. With the dust, my eyes will need a few days to recover. It's a race of survivors," explained van Aert.

Throughout the 184 kilometers of the event (including 63 of paths), the runners splashed water and slipped packs of ice under the jersey, to fight against the heat.

This was not enough for Alaphilippe, who we saw very annoyed with his sports director and who, 50 kilometers from Siena, lost contact with the best. Vincenzo Nibali fell and Mathieu van der Poel, who was expected, finished more than 10 minutes from the winner.

In this World Tour 2020 calendar, compressed into 100 days, the big races will follow one another. From next Saturday, the peloton will set off to attack the 300 kilometers from Milan-Sanremo.

Those who shone around Siena, like Fuglsang, Alberto Bettiol and of course the three men on the podium, could be at the top of the field again. Last year, when Alaphilippe won in the Primavera, van Aert took 6th place.

© 2020 AFP