20-year-old Wout van Aert wins Koppenbergcross over Sven Nys and Kevin Pauwels.

20-year-old Wout van Aert winning Koppenbergcross over Sven Nys and Kevin Pauwels. He is one of the favorites for Nationals. © Bart Hazen/Cyclocross Magazine

by Christine Vardaros

Most years, the Belgian Championships serve as a mini precursor of what to expect at World Championships three weeks later – minus a couple of Netherlanders. This year at is no different. But instead of 38 year old Sven Nys (Crelan-AA Drink) as the clear frontrunner for the 2015 Erpe-Mere edition, we have 20 year old Wout van Aert (Vastgoedservice – Golden Palace).

This season Van Aert has been killing it not only in the U23’s where he’s World Champion but also in the Elite events where he’s been throwing his competition around like ragdolls. Of his 20 races so far, he’s walked away with 15 wins, 4 2nd places and a 7th – in Ronse where Nys took the win.

Van Aert’s breakout race of the season was Koppenbergcross where he bested Nys in a sprint to the line. However dodgy the sprint was thanks to unsportsmanlike maneuvers of Van Aert’s lapped teammate Jan Denuwelaere to foil Nys’ efforts, it remains that Van Aert was there at the finish with “Koppenberg King” Nys. As long as Van Aert’s bike remains in one piece and his stress is at a minimum, he should take the Elite Belgian jersey.

While the top of the podium is theoretically occupied with Van Aert, the last two spots could easily go to a handful of guys. Of this handful, the two standouts are Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea) and Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games). In the weeks leading up to the race, they have both proven to have the chops to make it happen.

Pauwels says after Leuven Cyclocross a week before Nationals, “I am not yet good enough to stand on the top of the podium next week, but I have confidence for it. I will have to be better (than in Leuven) to beat Wout van Aert because he will ride on a higher level. You will need to be on his wheel immediately or he’s gone.”

Meeusen surely agrees with this sentiment, explaining, “This year we have one top favorite – and that’s Wout. He beat us all in the Christmas period – in a few races with more than one minute, so the gap is pretty big. But in a championship, it’s always more difficult to drop someone. Everyone’s just gonna take Wout’s wheel and wait when he goes for it. So I think he will have a lot of pressure in the race.” As for Meeusen’s chances to best Pauwels on the podium, he adds, “In Leuven I won the sprint from Pauwels, so I think I have to keep in mind that I have a really fast last lap. If I can be there in the last lap, I always have a mental advantage.”

Meeusen is looking to Nationals for season redemption. He explains, “Last year I was not on such a consistent level as this year but I had more victories (6) then. This year I don’t know how many podiums I have already – a lot (9 in fact), but only 2 wins. And then there are the Series events like the World Cup where I had problems with my back and dropped from 2nd to 5th after one race. And in BPost Bank Trofee Baal I had a flat tire with three laps to go. I went into the race as 2nd overall in the series but now I’m off the podium. I hope it doesn’t become the season of “always there (at the front) but nothing to show for it.” I have to be good at Nats and the Worlds to be happy about my season.” After Nats, Meeusen heads off to Valencia, Spain for a 10-day training camp in preparation for Worlds.

If the course is super muddy as expected due to heavy rain the last weeks, then there are a few other riders who are in with a chance to knock Meeusen and Pauwels off the podium. On top of this list is of course current National Champ Sven Nys. He may be off his game through to a week before the big event due to stress from his divorce, but don’t forget that he’s already won four events this season and landed on the podium an additional six times. His experience as nine-time Elite Belgian Champion also gives proof that he an expert at lifting his game for this race.

Another rider favored in sloppy technical conditions is Pauwels’ teammate Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Napoleon Games). And if there are long running sections, the favor is tipped in his direction as he’s the fastest runner of the bunch thanks to his extra long sinewy legs. He won, in fact, the 2013 Belgian Championships held in Mol in the running section on the last lap where he got a gap and held it to the end.

An outside favorite who rises to the top when the mud is at its deepest is Van Aert’s teammate Rob Peeters [Vastgoedservice – Golden Palace]. He’s raised his form during the Christmas period and should easily hold onto it through Nats.

Luckily for these guys, 21 year old Laurens Sweeck (Corendon-KwadrO) will be riding with the U23’s as he is only awarded his pro contract just after the season.

Side note: the organizers have already removed a corn field section of the course since it was completely unrideable.