The Jumbo-Visma rider started the day with the intention of supporting his general classification leader Primož Roglič, with the risk crosswinds could cause drama in the yellow jersey race.
As the rapid day of racing unfolded from Millau to Lavaur, it was the sprinters who found themselves in danger of losing touch as Bora-Hansgrohe smashed the front of the peloton to distance Sam Bennett (Deceuninck – Quick-Step).
After a phenomenal job of keeping Roglic out of danger for most of the stage, Van Aert found an opportunity to take a second stage victory with most of the pure sprinters lagging behind because of the crosswinds.
In the post-race interview with Eurosport, former cyclocross world champion Van Aert said: “I’m really proud of this one. Straight from the gun it was all out. I have to say impressive stage from Bora-Hansgrohe. They went flat out on the first KoM and they made sure a lot of sprinters were dropped.
“Afterwards it was always hectic and everyone feared the crosswinds. In the final we decided it was worth it to put a lot of energy in the position. I think I was with Primož in the front for the whole stage, so good day for the team. A few favourites from the GC lost time and I could finish it off as well, so incredible, wow.”
The drama start almost immediately as Bora rode hard at the front to drop Bennett on the early climbs, setting Peter Sagan up to take the intermediate sprint points and usurp the green jersey classification.
With the sprint favourites all left behind early on in the stage, attention turned to the GC race in the closing stages as more crosswinds caused splits in the bunch, with best young rider Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) and Mikel Landa (Bahrain-McLaren) losing time.
After skilfully steering Roglič through the dangers of the stage, Van Aert was free to sprint for the victory from a reduced bunch, which included the likes of Peter Sagan, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (NTT Pro Cycling).
Van Aert added: “I didn’t expect it to be such a mess in the end with a small group. It would be a shame to not give it a try in the smaller bunch sprint and I think the guys launched the sprint quite early and I was able to get some slipstream and find a gap on the right hand side. I timed my sprint perfectly I think.
“I didn’t expect it this morning so it’s more of a surprise today. For everyone it was a surprise we had such a hard stage. A great one to finish off.”
He also revealed that Tom Dumoulin, who is still riding high in the general classification himself, led him out in the final stages to set up the victory.
Van Aert added: “Tom kept me in position in the last 3km which would have cost him energy, but he knew I had a chance so he gave me something back. “