In a typical year, racing at Azencross Loenhout would not be a big deal for Wout van Aert (Jumbo - Visma). Racing the Kerstperiode event near his Harentals home has been a regular part of the three-time world champion's holiday plans.
However, this is not a typical year for the star cyclist.
The story of Van Aert's first Tour de France and setbacks from a crash during the Stage 13 time trial have been well reported at this point. At the start of the cyclocross season, Van Aert could barely walk and most observers expected him to skip the 2019/20 cyclocross season and focus on his recovery.
Defeating Mathieu van der Poel at the World Championships takes a certain about of resilience and gumption, so it was probably not surprising for many cyclocross fans when images of Van Aert practicing cyclocross surfaced and he then announced he would be returning to the field at the DVV Trofee race in Loenhout during Kerstperiode.
In a typical year, Kerstperiode is the biggest party in cyclocross. With Van Aert making his return, the party went to 11 as crowds came out en masse to watch the return of the Belgian cycling hero.
Van Aert did not disappoint, finishing fifth at Azencross. He followed up that result with a fourth-place finish at Cyclocross Gullegem in the new year. With Van der Poel occupied by Dutch Nationals, Van Aert's results suggest he could sail to a podium finish this Sunday at Belgian Nats.
Van Aert's Jumbo - Visma WorldTour team features Bianchi as a bike sponsor, so that meant when the Belgian returned to cyclocross, he would be on a new cyclocross bike. Van Aert unveiled his Bianchi Zolder at Azencross, with the full celeste colorway tough to miss, even on a muddy afternoon.
We got the chance to take a closer look at Van Aert's Zolder thanks to contributor Bart Hazen.
Wout van Aert's 2019 Azencross Bianchi Zolder Pro
Founded in Italy in 1885, Bianchi has a rich history in the sport of cycling. Despite that history, the celeste has not necessarily popped in the fields of Belgium, making Van Aert's Zolder Pro a bit unique.
When naming the bike, the Italian company opted to pay homage to one of the iconic tracks of Belgium instead of maybe naming it the Fiuggi or Roma. Van Aert has only won World Cup Zolder once, but the famed Circuit Zolder was the site of his first Elite world championship, so perhaps it was fate he would one day ride the bike.
Bianchi released the Zolder Disc in 2014 when the disc brake revolution swept through the cyclocross market. Prior to the Zolder, the company's cyclocross bikes included the rim brake D2 Cross Concept and Cavaria.
Van Aert was on the Zolder Pro at Azencross. The newest version of the company's flagship bike was released for the 2019 model year. The monocoque frame and full carbon fork received a full modernization with flat mount disc brakes, 12mm thru-axles and internal cable routing.
After straying from its iconic—and trademarked—celeste green with some models in recent years, the company has largely returned to its well-established roots, and Van Aert's bike features the classic colorway that matches with his yellow kit oh so well.
For the Van Aert fans in the U.S. who want to ride like Wout, the Zolder Pro is currently not available in the States. However, even though Shimano-sponsored Euros have by-and-large stuck with Dura-Ace contrary to their GRX-inclined North American counterparts, the stock Zolder Pro is spec'd with Shimano GRX components, including an RX600 crankset with 46/30t chain rings.
Speaking of Dura-Ace, one noticeable feature of Van Aert's bike was that after years of being at the forefront of the development of SRAM's eTap and eTap AXS electronic groupsets, Van Aert is now a Shimano man.
At Azencross he ran a full Dura-Ace R9150 groupset. His R9100 crankset held 46/39t Dura-Ace 11-speed chain rings, and an R9150 Di2 front derailleur helped him shift between rings.
Running Dura-Ace meant no fluid damping in his rear derailleur for those Azencross rollers like he had last year with his SRAM Red eTap AXS prototype groupset. Van Aert ran the R9150 Di2 rear derailleur paired with an 11-28t cassette.
Van Aert's derailleurs and Dura-Ace R9170 flat mount calipers paired with the R9170 dual-control levers in his cockpit.
The new team also meant new wheels for the Belgian star. After a long-standing relationship with Zipp, Van Aert ran the Shimano Dura-Ace WH-R9170-C40 carbon tubulars at Azencross.
Since Euro pros typically source their own tires, Van Aert got to stick with A Dugast tubulars, and he opted for 700c x 33mm Typhoon intermediate treads in Loenhout.
Jumbo - Visma counts Full Speed Ahead as a sponsor, and the company's sister brand Vision provided Van Aert's cockpit. Perhaps in an effort to be like his rival Van der Poel with his Canyon Inflite, Van Aert ran the Vision Metron 6D integrated aero carbon handlebar and stem. Known as a stylish dude, Van Aert kept it matchy-matchy with celeste bar tape.
In the back, an FSA SL-K carbon seatpost held Van Aert's Fizik Antares saddle. Shimano "Prototype 101" SPDs rounded out his contact points. It is worth noting, the prototypes we have seen Van der Poel and others run were labeled "Prototype 00." *chin-scratching emoji*
Van Aert and his Bianchi Zolder Pro now head to Antwerp for the 2020 Belgian National Championships on Sunday where the three-time Elite champ is hoping to continue his impressive cyclocross comeback and add another Belgie jersey to his collection.
For a closer look at Van Aert's celeste bike, see the photo gallery and specs below.