Given their shared age of 25 and their stellar cyclocross backgrounds, the comparisons between Van Aert and Van der Poel are inevitable.
If, after his enthralling victory in last season's Amstel Gold Race, Van der Poel rightly took much of the limelight, then Van Aert's brace of wins in last summer's Criterium du Dauphine, followed by a stage win in his maiden Tour de France, saw the Belgian redress the balance somewhat.
Van Aert's horrific injury in that Tour, just days after his win, put the brakes on the Jumbo-Visma rider's stratospheric rise. There were fears that he may struggle to hit the heights everyone expected of him, replicate the same form on the road that saw him to three world cyclocross titles.
In that respect, the coronavirus crisis couldn't have come at a better time for Van Aert. The recent announcement that he and his wife, Sarah de Bie, are expecting their first child showed that, on a personal level at least, Van Aert certainly found a silver lining in the lockdown. Professionally, he clearly used the enforced layoff to get back to full fitness, too.
Van Aert did race once before the season was curtailed – finishing a solid 11th place on his return from injury at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in late February. The suspension of the season, however, clearly took the pressure off Van Aert to rush his return – and it, apparently, allowed him enough time to train hard and hit top form in time for this first segment of Italian classics.
Victories in Strade Bianche last weekend and, seven days later, following a third-place finish in Milano-Torino, the first Monument of the season, Milano-Sanremo, caps an astonishing comeback from an injury which doctors initially feared could have ended his career.
Watch Wout van Aert pip Julian Alaphilippe in thrilling Milan-San Remo finish
Tellingly, it was his old cyclocross rival Van der Poel who led the chase on Van Aert and Alaphilippe on the descent of the Poggio – opening up, at one point, the possibility of an Amstel-style comeback that would have seen the Dutchman, not the Belgian, become the first of this fantastic duo to win one of cycling's fabled five Monuments.
The manner of Van Aert's victory on the via Roma may not have been as emphatic as Van der Poel's stirring Valkenburg comeback. But it happened on a far greater stage; not only that, it happened against the defending champion, from an unfavourable position of leading out the sprint having already closed down the gap on the Poggio, and with the returning peloton breathing down his neck.
It was, quite simply, an astoundingly mature and accomplished triumph – the sign of a rider entering his pomp and taking on a special kind of aura usually reserved for the likes of his countryman, Eddy Merckx.
Milan-San Remo highlights - Wout van Aert triumphs in pulsating finish
Having dominated these Italian classics in the return to WorldTour racing, Van Aert now heads back to France to continue his Tour preparation with the Dauphine. His rivals – most notably Van der Poel – will be pleased to see the back of him ahead of next weekend's Il Lombardia. Usually the fifth and final Monument, the Race of the Falling Leaves had been brought forward a couple of months, before the leaves have even contemplated falling.
As for Van Aert, far from wilting under the pressure of riding for a top tier team in Jumbo-Visma, he had risen to the challenge. Unlike Van der Poel, who is biding his time with the Pro Continental outfit Alpecin-Fenix, he will head to September's Tour as one of the peloton's entertainers. But he may also find himself muzzled, given his team's three-pronged attack for yellow in Primoz Roglic, Tom Dumoulin and Steven Kruijswijk.
Wout Van Aert of Belgium and Team Team Jumbo - Visma / Celebration / during the 111st Milano - Sanremo 2020 a 305km race from Milano to Sanremo
Image credit: Getty Images
In any case, fans won't have to wait long to see Van Aert and Van der Poel renew their rivalry: if the Belgian is giving the Ardennes a skip, they will go head to head in late October in the cobbled classics. Who knows, by then Van Aert may not be the only winner of a Monument, for Van der Poel is down to ride both Lombardia and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
It's going to be a thrilling duel to watch over the years.
Meanwhile, over 1,500km from the Ligurian coast, another tyro from the Lowlands – this one a whole five years younger – was laying down his latest masterpiece in Poland. In the queen stage of the Tour de Pologne, Remco Evenepoel rode clear of all the favourites with 50km remaining to win by almost two minutes over his nearest challenger.
Wout van Aert delighted with 'incredible' victory at Milan-San Remo
That's why it's Evenepoel more than anyone else who is really seen as the next Merckx.
The 20-year-old Deceuninck-QuickStep rider has yet to be unleashed on any of the Monuments or Grand Tours – but he's pencilled in for Lombardia next week and the Giro later this year.
Van der Poel and Van Aert better not hang around. A far greater talent could soon be pushing them both at the very top. These are the riders we are going to have to get used to watching over the next decade. And aren't we lucky for it.
By Felix Lowe - @saddleblaze