Wout van Aert’s Pain Is Matteo Jorgenson’s Opportunity

Just before the 70-kilometer mark of Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, Wout van Aert got tangled up in a horror crash involving 20-odd riders and was left on the road in agony with his ribs, sternum, and collarbone broken. His absence will hang over the spring season and delay the next chapter of an excellent rivalry, but it also opens up a path for an unlikely candidate to take charge of the best team in cycling. Rather than watching the two best riders of their generation try to destroy each other, cycling fans will get a proper introduction to Matteo Jorgenson.

Before his crash, Van Aert had spent the early season flying, winning Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne and getting onto the podium at E3 and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. His Visma team looked like the strongest squad on the road, alternating between pure power dominance in one-day races—their smothering team win at Omloop was as good as it gets—and smart tactical racing in stage races. Meanwhile, Van Aert’s archrival Mathieu van der Poel was charging into the Tour of Flanders on fine form; he’d won that E3 by 91 seconds, the largest winning margin in 40 years.

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The thrills of the Spring Classics season are all downstream of the dynamic between these two riders: Whose team is forced to work? Who will attack first? Who else in the field will pick the right moment to force one of their hands? Both have fast enough kicks to win Tour de France mass sprint stages, yet they’re different enough on the road that they can each make the other uncomfortable. It’s the best rivalry in cycling in a long time.

And with Van Aert’s injuries, everyone will have to wait another year for more springtime hostilities. Crashes are always a part of cycling, but rarely does one single incident shift a season’s axis like this. Van Aert underwent surgery in Belgium on Wednesday, as did Trek’s monument winner Jasper Stuyven and chief domestique Alex Kirsch. Big-time contenders Mads Pedersen of Trek and Biniam Girmay of Intermarché both went down hard in the same crash, but didn’t break any bones. Trek’s losses are not as devastating as losing van Aert, though they showed themselves to be the second-strongest team in one-day races, and Pedersen is one of the few riders who can outkick both superstars. Without them or Visma to keep Van der Poel honest, will fans have to watch the Dutchman casually dominate both ends of Holy Week?

Not necessarily. Dwars door Vlaanderen did not end when Van Aert crashed out, and despite losing their leader, Visma once again demonstrated their dominance. Young American Matteo Jorgenson was right in front of Van Aert when he fell, and became part of the rugged group of favorites that reeled in the breakaway on the Mariaborrestraat cobbles and the spiky Ladeuze climb. Both EF and Visma had two riders in what was at this point obviously the winning move, and it was the self-proclaimed last romantic racer Alberto Bettiol who went first, attacking hard on the tarmac right before the Nokereberg and forcing his pursuers to chase him on the cobbles.

Bettiol lasted three kilometers before his legs cramped up and ended his challenge. At this point, Tiesj Benoot and Jorgenson took over, doing your-turn, my-turn attacks until Jorgenson dropped the hammer with seven kilometers to go. Nobody had the legs to follow, and the 24-year-old from Idaho took the biggest one-day win of his career.

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Jorgenson has been the revelation of the 2024 season. After spending his first few years in Europe with Movistar, where he collected a bunch of impressive top-10s and nearly won an all-timer of a Tour de France stage, Visma brought him over as a supporting rider. In interviews after the signing, he was realistic about the challenges and benefits of moving from a leadership role on a smaller team to a supporting role on the best team in the world. For example, Jorgenson had to spend his own money on nutrition specialists and altitude camps while on Movistar. He essentially traded a guaranteed Tour de France leadership spot for the best performance loadout in the sport.

“On a team like Jumbo-Visma you have to earn your spot,” Jorgenson said last year. “It’s always the eight best guys that go to the Tour. I’ll try my best to be there for sure.”

It’s hard to imagine that Jorgenson will miss this year’s Tour de France now, especially if Van Aert can’t go. Visma gave him team leadership at Paris-Nice, one of the biggest one-week races on the calendar, and he delivered in style, holding off Grand Tour winners like Remco Evenepoel, Primoz Roglic, and Egan Bernal (it’s so nice to see him racing well again after he nearly died in a training crash in 2022) to take the overall win. Jorgenson’s skill and confidence are impressive, but his versatility is what makes him truly special. Few riders are capable of sticking with Evenepoel at a hilly stage race like Paris-Nice and also winning a cobbled classic like Dwars door Vlaanderen. Only one other rider, Raymond Impanis, has won both races, and not in the same season.

Jorgenseon is such a smart rider—his race notes are must-reads—and he never seems to lose his cool in big moments. With Van Aert out of commission, Christophe Laporte injured, and Dylan van Baarle sick, Visma will have to go with Jorgenson on Sunday at Flanders. He’s absolutely up for the fight, but Flanders is a different beast than Dwars. It’s a 270-kilometer leg-murderer with the Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg, and the Koppenberg. There’s nowhere to hide, and while Visma is still strong, it would take something truly spectacular to beat Van der Poel there. It’ll be fun to see Jorgenson try.

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