A back wheel puncture at exactly the wrong moment in the Clásica Jaén left leading favourite Wout Van Aert stranded and – after fighting his misfortune tooth and nail – finally defeated in Spain’s top off-road event on Monday.
With around 53 kilometres to go at the start of one of the four gravel sectors, the Visma-Lease A Bike leader found himself standing on the side of the road, frantically changing tyres with teammate Per Strand Hagenes at a point where team cars were still some distance behind.
With nearly a minute lost, Van Aert then made a herculean all-out effort to regain contact with the main peloton, which still contained teammates Sepp Kuss and Jan Tratnik.
But at a point when the race was entering its critical final phase, and the bunch was already racing flat out to chase down a dangerous breakaway, the effort proved too much, and Van Aert completed the arduous, rainsoaked course as the last of the 45 finishers, 6:36 down on winner Oier Lakzano (Movistar).
“The race was opening up just as it all happened,” Van Aert told a small group of reporters, including Cyclingnews, at the finish line in Úbeda while behind him, his teammate Tratnik walked onto the winner’s podium to celebrate his third place.
“I could have waited to change my bike rather than change tyres, but that was my decision,” he said. “I tried to get back on the climb, but I saw I could not bridge across, and with Sepp as co-leader and in the front group, I decided to stop.”
The flat tyre was of a type, Van Aert said, that made getting a replacement and then trying to resolve the situation as quickly as possible the only option on the table.
“There was a large nail in my tyre,” he said, “that’s the kind of puncture you can’t do much about.”
Van Aert said that he did his utmost to regain contact, and such was his effort the gap was squeezed to less than 30 seconds at one point. Although much of the race was technical and twisting, on one brief stretch of straight highway Van Aert’s group could see the main bunch dangling tantalizingly close ahead. But the distance proved impossible to bridge.
“There wasn’t much point in keeping Sepp and Jan waiting. I tried again, but it didn’t work,” Van Aert said. “I had Tim (van Dijke) with me for a while, and on that climb, I tried to get over. But when that didn’t work, I knew it was over.”
Even though Van Aert’s debut in the Clasica Jaén did not go at all to plan, and a victory in a Spanish race still remains missing from his bulging palmares as a result, the Belgian said he did enjoy himself on the gravel roads of eastern Andalucia.
“It’s very like Strade Bianche,” he said with a smile before heading off to the team bus, a welcome shower and a long transfer to Portugal and the Volta ao Algarve race, which starts on Wednesday. “This is a nice race. I’d like to come back here in the future and see what I can do next time.”