MALAUCENE, France -- Belgian champion Wout van Aert twice conquered the daunting and grueling Mont Ventoux to win the prestigious Stage 11 of the Tour de France on Wednesday.
Van Aert was part of a breakaway that formed in the early stages of the nearly 200-kilometer trek in southern France featuring an unprecedented double climb of the iconic mountain known as the "Giant of Provence."
"I know I'm not the best climber, but when I pick my day I know I have my chances," said van Aert. "The first time I climbed the Ventoux I was 10. It was my first big one. I was very motivated to try something today. This region is really famous in Belgium, and it's a mythical Tour climb."
The lively stage also gave a glimmer of hope to the rivals of race leader Tadej Pogacar that he can be taken off his perch, after the defending champion briefly got dropped on the second ascent but erased the deficit on the downhill to keep his yellow jersey.
Pogacar was fourth, 1 minute and 38 seconds behind. He did not lose ground on his main rivals, even increasing his overall lead after his closest rival at the start of the stage, Ben O'Connor, suffered a hard day and dropped to fifth overall. But for the first time since the start of the race, Pogacar showed weaknesses when he lost ground to Jonas Vingegaard near the summit. In the end it was just a scare and he holds a comfortable overall lead of five minutes and 18 seconds over Rigoberto Uran, with Vingegaard in third place, 5:32 off the pace.
At 26, van Aert is a jack-of-all-trades. He can sprint, climb and time-trial but did not fight for the general classification this year, working in support of Jumbo-Visma leader Primoz Roglic.
The former cyclocross world champion was given more leeway by his team after Roglic retired from the Tour last week, setting his sights on a stage win.
Van Aert went solo during the second ascent of the Ventoux, about 11 kilometers from the summit, to open a big gap with his breakaway companions.
He kept his lead intact in the long downhill to the finish line. He smiled to TV cameras and clenched his fist as he approached the town of Malaucene, then raised on his pedals and yelled in triumph with his arms stretched.
It was van Aert's fourth career stage win at the Tour.
The Ventoux is part of the Tour's lore. It was the site of an incredible scene back in 2016 when four-time champion Chris Froome had to briefly run toward the summit after he damaged his bike in a crash.
An epic contest between Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani in 2000 also took place on the slopes of the "Bald Giant," where British rider Tom Simpson collapsed and died in 1967 from a combination of amphetamines and alcohol.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.