In the first top-tier race since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic the former cyclocross racer drew on all his off-road expertise to attack solo on the final sector of gravel road, breaking clear of an elite selection containing last year’s runner up, Jakob Fuglsang (Astana).
Van Aert was part of a group of six who broke away from the peloton after a frenetic series of attacks with around 65 kilometres to go. He and Fuglsang were joined by Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates), Alberto Bettiol (EF Pro Cycling) and Max Schachmann (Bora Hansgrohe).
After a series of attacks and counter-attacks, Van Aert soloed away with 11km to go, and the chasing pack, at that stage reduced to Schachmann, Fuglsang, Formolo and Bettiol, couldn’t catch him.
'What a ride!' - Wout van Aert soloes to glory in Strade Bianche
In the end it was the Italian Formolo who came second behind Van Aert with Schachmann in third. Bettiol got fourth with an accomplished and aggressive performance that went further in cementing his place as a serious classics contender, while the Dane Fuglsang had to settle for fifth after being cruelly pipped into second last year.
Van Aert is the third Belgian to win Strade Bianche after Philippe Gilbert in 2011 and Tiesj Benoot two years ago in 2018. Last year's winner, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck Quick-Step) failed to make any impression on the race, with his teammate, Zdenek Stybar, left to carry the flag for their team.
Speaking immediately after the race, Van Aert said:
"If you get two third places in a row, of course you have confidence to come here. Today was one long day of suffering and nobody felt that great. The heat was exhausting but I really focussed on hydration and keeping cool and, in the end, I got something left. I knew from the previous editions that attacking is never a disadvantage here and I started attacking in a downhill and came with a little advantage on the steep part. From there, it was a man-to-man fight and it worked."
Wout van Aert had confidence after successive third-place finishes
Mathieu van der Poel, one of the most hotly-tipped riders on the start list, also struggled to leave an impact in his debut Strade Bianche. He eventually finished 15th, 10'06" down on Van Aert, with whom he had a famous and furious rivalry when both riders were racing cyclocross.