Vantornout at Leuven. © Kristel van Gilst

Vantornout at Leuven. © Kristel van Gilst

by Christine Vardaros

To Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Napoleon Games), there is nothing more important than winning one of the two jerseys up for grabs per year—the Belgian stripes and the rainbow stripes. Having to give up his hard-earned Belgian jersey earlier in the month broke this 31-year-old’s heart, but he continues to hold onto hope that he can shortly turn his luck around in time for World Championships where dreams do come true—at least for one lucky person.

“The last year was the most beautiful year of my career—in the most beautiful jersey that exists—the Belgian National jersey. While I got to ride in it—whether it was in training or in the races, I was extremely proud. Nobody can take that away from me.” He came very close to snagging the second jersey as well, but lost out to Sven Nys in the final meters.

This year’s Belgian National Championships should have again proved the perfect course for Vantornout to strut his talents. It was a hard, muddy, technical race with lots of running. Unfortunately, we will never know what he was truly capable of due to a combination of illness and the emotional toll he sustained due to the pre-Nationals drama over the placing of barriers on the track—an issue well-documented in the Belgian press, since cyclocross racers there are tabloid fodder.

The drama all started when Vantornout was checking out the track nine days before the race. As the course was not yet fully set up, Vantornout asked one of the on-site organizers where they had planned to set up the barriers. He had then suggested to relocate them after a bend in the track to ensure that the bunny-hopping specialists like Sven Nys would not get an unfair advantage. Contrary to what was weaved throughout the Belgian press, Vantornout repeatedly denied offering money to the organizer in exchange for barrier placement. Unfortunately this rumor got completely blown out of proportion. Even some of his fellow competitors had a field day with it on Twitter, returning with both harsh words for Vantornout as well as some bantering amongst themselves about paying off Nys to include strategic barriers in his own GP Sven Nys.

This circus of events further made its rounds through the press when Nys publicly announced that he would not bunny-hop the barriers to prove that the race can be won without barrier-hopping. Nys went on to win the race, bunny-hop free, while Vantornout DNF’d. Vantornout’s pre-race plan was to react to the unfortunate situation with the pedals but it proved to be that bit too emotionally trying.

“The last weeks I wasn’t good because of a viral infection. And in top sport, there are no miracles. And then there was a lot of hoopla with the barriers, accompanied by unjust criticism. That surely ate away at me. Cyclocross is a very small world. We are only 3-4 toppers and the sport is enormously popular in Belgium. And the press can be very harsh. The press can make you big but it can also seriously break you down.”

The next day, Vantornout came back with a second place in Otegem, proving to the naysayers that his legs were very much in order and that he could be on target for Worlds.

“There are only two jerseys to earn per year and of course everyone wants one. And one of those chances has already passed. I also realize that the chance is very small for me to win the last jersey left but I’m doing everything I can.”

While Vantornout works to get back to a relaxed mental state, the illness he sustained during the heavy Christmas period of racing continues to haunt him. “Now I’m no longer sick. But the viral infection did its work on my condition. It’s a bit less. I noticed it in the Belgian Championships. My priority is to first get back to my calm mental state of mind then the rest should follow, I hope.”

The following week in Leuven, he had to yet again step out of the race because he simply wasn’t recovered yet. Keeping a positive attitude, Vantornout quips, “Well… It can’t get worse. It can only get better and I have to look at the positive.”

Vantornout spent the following week in Mallorca with teammate Kevin Pauwels to relax, recharge and rebuild, hoping to gain a few extra percentages of fitness before the big day. During that week, he trained longer and harder than he has the whole season.

Although he only placed tenth in Nommay World Cup at the end of his training period – one week before Worlds, it was enough to give him a positive feeling that his fight for the rainbow jersey is not yet lost. In fact, he half-expected that his result in Nommay would be sub-par considering he would not yet be recovered from his overload week in Mallorca.

Over the season, Vantornout had two victories in Aardooie and Superprestige Ruddervoorde, a hometown race located less than 10km from where he grew up. He’s also visited the podium an additional ten times which makes for an impressive season… If only his top priority wasn’t strictly jersey-related.

Course conditions will certainly partly determine how close he comes to the big payout. “I hope that it’s a muddy track. If it is hard packed, then it would be a very fast course. Then the non-Belgians can play a very big role. “

Will it all come together in time for Vantornout? He took a gamble by running his body super hard two weeks before Worlds. But it is a gamble he gladly takes as it is the jersey or nothing. While he admittedly doesn’t count on miracles, if he can recover from his training overload he can very well win those extra percentage points needed to possibly overturn pre-race favorite Nys.