Today’s stage win alone gives him a good case. He did, after all, just drop the entire Tour de France peloton, on a climb, and win the stage. Even the strongest climbers in the world - Jonas Vingegaard, Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar - could not match him, and Roglič may find himself to have been significant collateral damage in Van Aert’s attack, since he was distanced by Van Hooydonck’s surge while his team-mate Vingegaard was not. If the sole criterion for being the best cyclist in the world is to win a bike race, then Van Aert already qualifies.
However, the best cyclist doesn’t always win the bike race. Paradoxically it’s the run of second places that reinforces his claim to be the best in the world. He was second in the Copenhagen time trial, to the surprise winner Yves Lampaert. He followed that result with second places in the two subsequent bunch sprints. Time trialling and sprinting offer sufficiently different physiological challenges that to be able to compete in both is already vanishingly rare. Wout van Aert not only came within a whisker of winning both, but has now just won on a puncheur’s finish. (In case his all-round credentials weren’t already now fully established, remember that he also won a mountain stage of last year’s Tour.) Van Aert can win bunch sprints, TTs, on hilly courses and occasionally in the mountains. There’s nobody else in cycling who can do that - even Pogačar doesn’t figure in bunch sprints.
Being the best cyclist in the world means different things as different riders’ careers ebb and flow. Road cycling has such a broad range of challenges and events that points systems or even races alone rarely tell the full story. Sometimes the best cyclist in the world is the rider who is winning the Tour de France, the sport’s biggest race; sometimes it’s the rider who is dominating the Classics. Sometimes they are male, sometimes they are female. Sometimes it’s impossible to even tell: in 2012, Bradley Wiggins won the Tour and several other stage races while Tom Boonen won all four major Belgian spring Classics, and comparing was a matter of personal taste. Through spring and early summer last season, Mathieu van der Poel was the best cyclist in the world; then Pogačar took over, with wins in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour de France and Il Lombardia. Now it’s Wout van Aert.
But even beyond the results and run of high placings, it’s clear that Van Aert is illuminating this Tour de France with his riding style and presence. It’s Wout van Aert’s Tour - everybody else is just riding in it.