Wout van Aert finishing second in Jaarmaarktcross Niel against the pros. © Kurt van Hout
by Christine Vardaros
After being pulled from the U23 Belgian National Championship event for a false start, Telenet-Fidea rider Wout van Aert had one thing on his mind—revenge. He plans to take all his anger out on his competition at Worlds, namely BKCP-Powerplus rider Mathieu Van der Poel who is rumored to be the pre-race favorite.
The day after the Nationals debacle where he was expected to walk away with the victory, Van Aert gave a sample of what he is capable of when seeking revenge. He won his first victory in a professional cross race at Cyclocross Otegem, finishing in front of big names like Klaas Vantornout, Rob Peeters, and Kevin Pauwels.
“It was very painful to lose Nationals like that. It was my big goal for this season to become Belgian Champion because I never succeeded in that before. When you get disqualified for a false start—it is only the second time in history they disqualified somebody for a false start—it makes me really motivated for Worlds. I hope I can put the aggression into energy for Worlds.”
In only his second year in the U23’s, Van Aert has already accumulated seven UCI wins and nine additional podium placings to include his 2nd place to Sven Nys in his breakout pro race at Soudal Classics Jaarmaarktcross Niel where he was the last rider to be cracked by Nys’ blistering pace. He also just placed eighth in the Soudal Classics Leuven Elite category last weekend in the penultimate test before Worlds. And that result was accomplished despite two flat tires and a crash on the barriers.
Sharing much of the glory in the U23 category is Dutch rival Mathieu Van der Poel, son of the infamous Adri van der Poel—former cyclocross World Champion. Van der Poel is three months younger than Van Aert but only in his first year of U23. Of the last six times that Van Aert has gone head to head with Van der Poel, they’ve split the victories, with the other finishing just behind in 2nd place.
Coming into their ultimate battle at Worlds, there is one determining factor that Van Aert is keeping a close eye on: course conditions. “I watch the weather forecast every day and right now it’s raining until then. But maybe the last days before Worlds it’s changing to cold weather so I hope it keeps on raining. I hope for a very muddy heavy track. I beat him a few times this year but it was always on heavy tracks so when it’s raining the days before the race then I have a good chance. Then I am a little bit stronger; I have a little advantage on him. But when it’s fast it will be very interesting to see because Mathieu is also a world class road racer [having won the Junior Road World Championships in 2013]. He really has the speed in his legs.”
Last year, Van Aert finished third at the U23 Cyclocross World Championships in Louisville in his first year in that category. He lost to Dutch rider Mike Teunisson who has not been as dominant this year and Belgian Wietse Bosmans who graduated to the elite ranks.
No matter the outcome at Worlds, Van Aert has the next step in his career to focus on. Starting March 1st, Van Aert will turn professional with Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace Cycling Team, becoming Rob Peeters’ teammate. “Although I will officially be pro, I can still choose for the next two years which category I prefer. Maybe I’ll do some classification events in the pro category like Superprestige or BPost Bank Trofee’s and the others in the U23. Maybe something like that but I have to do it step by step and don’t want to be too fast to upgrade fully. I have to listen to my body I think.”
Listening to his body is also what he will rely on for the next days before Worlds. “I think it’s better to have such a good shape two weeks before Worlds because in two weeks it’s difficult to become better. I only have to hold onto this form and hopefully I continue to be healthy. Then I think I will be in top condition at the start of Worlds.” The rest is up to mother nature.