Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by SWpix.com
Wout van Aert’s decision to allow Christophe Laporte to win Gent-Wevelgem may have brought disapproval from Eddy Merckx, but it will almost certainly guarantee the Frenchman’s support when the time comes
They call them ‘gifts’. The one-day races, the stage wins, the classification jerseys, handed on a plate to other riders — usually teammates — usually from a position of superiority, although not always. But these gestures all mean the same thing: “You owe me and one day I will call on you to collect.”
Wout van Aert did it last Sunday, ceding victory in Gent-Wevelgem to Jumbo-Visma teammate Christophe Laporte. Of the pair, there’s no doubt that Van Aert is the bigger name and, given his track record, the greater talent. He now has Laporte’s unerring loyalty and will be able to rely on the Frenchman for the rest of their time racing together.
Van Aert is hardly the first to have stepped back into the shadows and let a lesser known teammate enjoy centre stage. Even bitter rivals have done it, with both Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong offering prestigious Tour de France stage wins to their most dangerous rivals — Bernard Hinault and Marco Pantani, respectively — in the hope of placating them. On both occasions, it backfired.
LeMond, keen to paper over the cracks in his relationship with ageing mentor and team captain Hinault, offered him the stage win on Alpe d’Huez during the bitter rivalry that characterised the 1986 Tour. As the pair neared the finish line, hatchet apparently buried, they embraced and Kathy LeMond told commentators: “It’s good to see they’re still good friends..”
It’s become a well-worn story, told beautifully in the late Richard Moore’s Slaying The Badger. On the anniversary of Moore’s death, it’s worth revisiting…
In a makeshift studio at the summit of Alpe d’Huez, the yellow-jerseyed LeMond sits beside a relaxed-looking Hinault, who, with a white towel wrapped around his neck, slumps in his chair, sipping from a bottle of beer. Above the crowd’s chants of “Hin-ault, Hin-ault,” the interviewer asks Hinault about the day’s stage. “I thought Greg learned a lot again today,” he says, between glugs of beer. “I only hope the strongest man wins this Tour.”
“The Tour is not finished,” Hinault shrugs. “There could be a crash, many things can still happen. But if we have a war, it’ll be a fair war and the stronger one will win.”
Hinault is asked again: can he still catch LeMond? “I don’t know,” he says. “We’ll see.”
LeMond, meanwhile, shifts uncomfortably in his seat. And, in the description of Rolling Stone magazine, “he turns ashen.”
The most manipulative rider of all, Lance Armstrong, also tried to use ‘gifting’ as a way of ‘squashing beef’ — or ending bad feeling — with rivals. Sometimes he even tried it with his teammates.
In 2000, on the upper slopes of a windy Mont Ventoux, the American sought to placate the troubled Marco Pantani with a clumsy gesture that was both benevolent and patronising. I asked Armstrong about his mistaken attempt to befriend the Italian, for my own book, Ventoux.
“I said as best I could in Italian, “Tu vince, tu vince – meaning that he could have the stage, but that wasn’t what he heard. After everything that had happened to Pantani, I thought it would be a generous thing to do. But Eddy Merckx was right when he said it at the time — you never give away the Ventoux.'”
In fact, although he did take the stage win, Pantani took Armstrong’s gesture as an insult. “He wasn’t the kind of guy that wanted handouts or charity,” Armstrong said. An enraged Pantani set out to wreak havoc on the American, attacking on stage 16 to Morzine with 120 kilometres to race. The chase exhausted Armstrong and left him vulnerable on the dreaded Joux Plane climb, with Jan Ullrich taking back a minute and a half.
“I’ve given gifts in the Tour de France and very rarely has it come back to help me,” the American recalled later. He was of course referencing Pantani, but maybe also former teammate turned whistleblower Floyd Landis, who he had once, apocryphally, told to “ride like ya stole something” when encouraging him to take a stage win. It turned out Landis knew exactly what Armstrong meant.
While Van Aert and Laporte were maintaining their ‘Brothers in Arms’ act on rainy finish line in Belgium, much further south, in sunny Spain, rivals Remco Evenepoel and Van Aert’s teammate Primož Roglič embraced in Montjuïc after a spectacular week of sparring in the Tour of Catalunya. Both had reason to feel they had made their point: Roglič had led throughout and won the race overall, while Evenepoel finished second and took two stage wins.
The pair were head and shoulders above their rivals, at times riding what seemed almost a private event. On the stages that Evenepoel won, Roglič finished second, looking down at his computer, disinterestedly, as the Belgian raised him arms in triumph. Could Roglič have won even one of those stages? Or contested them a little more closely? It seemed to some in the media, watching on, that that was possible. We will never know, but if he could have, he was wise to make it look like he was trying to.