As long as Wout van Aert has been cyclocross world champion, cyclocross fans have speculated about when he will leave the discipline to race on the road. Although he has won three world championships in cyclocross, Van Aert has made it no secret the money and fame of European road racing appeal to him and his massive cycling engine.
On Sunday shortly before starting the Tour of Flanders, Van Aert finally put speculation about his future to rest. The 23-year old Belgian announced he is leaving not only cyclocross but also the entire sport of cycling to pursue a career in professional American football, starting by accepting a scholarship to play wide receiver at the University of Iowa this fall.
Van Aert’s announcement came as a shock to the cycling world as it seemingly came out of nowhere for a rider who appeared destined for road success after finishing third at Strade Bianche earlier this month.
Van Aert was first exposed to the popular American sport last fall when he attended an Iowa Hawkeye football game during the Jingle Cross World Cup weekend. An Iowa assistant coach reached out to Van Aert after seeing his running performance at the Valkenburg World Championships and a grainy YouTube video of him running routes and catching passes in the sand after the Koksijde World Cup.
Veranda’s Willems-Crelan team manager Nick Nuyens said he was taken aback when Van Aert told him his plans. “This comes as a total shock to all of us,” he said. “I didn’t think anything of it when he asked to start holeshot drills with ‘Blue 52, hut hut’ instead of a whistle, but I guess it was a sign.” He continued, “Now that I think about it, when he was out late after Worlds, he wasn’t celebrating, he was watching the Super Bowl.”
In an official announcement, Iowa Football head coach Kirk Ferentz welcomed Van Aert to the program. “We are excited to welcome Wout van Aert to the Iowa Football family. We were impressed by his running ability at the cyclocross World Championships and the pass-catching ability he displayed in that grainy YouTube video. Wout has displayed Iowa Hawkeye values like dedication and commitment, and we see his pass-catching ability as a key to returning Hawkeye football to the top of the Big Ten.”
From the Ruts to the Gridiron
Thanks to Cyclocross Magazine’s European correspondent Giorno List, we were able to get the scoop on Van Aert’s decision before he announced it today. List spoke with him after a motor pacing session during his preparation for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
The young Belgian said he was smitten by the sport when he attended an Iowa football game before the Jingle Cross World Cup last September. “I was impressed by how fast the players run and the excitement of the touchdown bombs,” he said. “They say rubbin’ is racin’ in cyclocross, but the level of contact in football is what I really want.”
Van Aert also added that the crowd at the Iowa football game was intoxicating. “I heard there were 25,000 people at Valkenburg, but there were 70,000 at the football game I went to,” he said. “Fans in America like drinking beer and yelling, so it should be just like cyclocross.” He added, “Plus, yellow and black are my colors. I never liked how the rainbow stripes went with my eyes.”
However premature it might be, Van Aert also said he has been getting into the American football spirit by working on his touchdown dances. “To be honest, post-ups are boring. Sagan did that hula thing once, but I want to really work on the Duck, Duck, Grey Duck one. I would also be pretty good at the bike lock celebration”
Attending college in the U.S. is one thing, but signing a football scholarship is a whole different proposition. No one doubts Van Aert’s physical abilities, but we heard rumblings asking how exactly he developed his receiving skills. After all, there are no Turkey Bowls or flag football intramurals in Belgium, although the flat-fest at the 2017 World Championships was a Deflate-Gate of sorts.
Van Aert said he picked up a football at a Madison sporting goods store before heading back to Europe and found time to toss the pigskin around during his training. “Tim Merlier and I really liked to throw the football around after pre-ride,” he said. “Merlier has a pretty good arm. I hear in America they call it ‘a cannon.’ We challenged Mathieu [Van der Poel] and his team to a game, but, and I feel bad for saying this, Mathieu can’t catch or throw very good.”
Van Aert said his goal is to make it to the NFL, where he can again be a Sunday star. “I have a lot of work to do, but I think I can achieve my dream of stepping onto, what do they call it, the iron grid,” he told us. “I think my dream team is Indianapolis because it’s close to that movie Breaking Away. Not a big fan of the Lions, reminds me too much of all of Sven’s guys.”
Attending the University of Iowa also means the 23-year-old Van Aert will have to return to the classroom as a freshman. He said he is unsure about his major but is leaning toward fashion design. “My fiancé Sarah and I are starting a clothing line, and I want to help with the designs. I think I have pretty good style, so I will do okay in school.”
la collection WVA ~ Today @Sarah_DeBie and I are 5 years together. No better day to launch our own designed collection. The webshop will be online next week! #lacollectionWVA pic.twitter.com/NsESQWPI6c
— Wout van Aert (@WoutvanAert) September 28, 2017
Looking to Europe for Pigskin Talent
Iowa’s football team is coming off two straight 8-5 seasons. Last year, the Hawkeyes finished their Big Ten schedule at 4-5 and at times struggled to put points on the board. Overall, their offense ranked 117th in the country in total offense and 93rd in passing yards. Van Aert’s presence on campus is viewed as an outside-the-box way to help boost the team’s offense.
An anonymous NFL scout commented on Van Aert’s signing. “Very interesting move by Iowa,” they said. “Good size to match up against some of the shorter DBs. If he can sprint on the field like he does on the bike, could be a solid deep threat. I’d be concerned about how he matches up against 250-pound linebackers after racing those 150-pound bike weenies.”
Another scout, who did not want to be named, also commented on Van Aert’s scholarship offer. “Obviously Ferentz is thinking … I don’t know what Ferentz is thinking. They’re going to turn that guy into waffle fries.”
Ferentz said recruiting foreign players like Van Aert is becoming a necessity for college coaches like him in the face of declining youth football participation in the U.S. thanks to fears about concussions and other injuries.
“We have an assistant watching foreign athletes for a new recruiting pipeline,” Ferentz told Cyclocross Magazine. “I don’t want to give away too many secrets, but I basically have him watch NBC Sports to find athletes in weird sports I’ve never heard of. When you promise a kid the chance to play in front of 70,000 fans when they are on NBC Gold playing *checks notes* cyclecross [sic], it’s an easy sell.”
Observers expect Van Aert is expected to redshirt in 2018 as he adapts to American and the game, but Ferentz plans to get him some reps with first-team quarterback Nate Stanley during this summer’s informal practices.
A Shocked Cycling World
Van Aert has been groomed for stardom in cycling from a young age, so his decision to try to go pro in something else sent palpable shockwaves through the cycling world. Van Aert has acquitted himself well during the Spring Classics, highlighted by an epic third at the Strade Bianche, and was expected to get attention from World Tour teams.
“We had our eye on him, for sure,” said a representative of a WorldTour team who did not want to be named. “I saw that Super Bowl once, I can see why he wants to try for the NFL.” He also added, “Not this year’s Super Bowl though. That Timberlake halftime show was terrible. They should hire Kevin Pauwels to rap next year.”
Veranda’s Willems-Crelan team director Nuyens was a little more to the point about Van Aert’s move. “We expected to lose him to the WorldTour, but not this soon. If I knew he was going to do this I would have taken that damn football away from him and Merlier.”
Van Aert’s cyclocross team manager Niels Albert was a little more understanding. “I’m happy for him,” he said. “If he needs some green rubber for his football shoes, I think it has potential for his new clothing line.”
While Van Aert will be gone from the cyclocross peloton this coming fall and winter, his presence will be unavoidable during the two U.S. World Cups. The Hawkeyes play on the road against the Wisconsin Badgers the weekend of World Cup Waterloo, and then the cyclocross world will be just down the road from the Iowa campus the following weekend during Jingle Cross.
With the Hawkeyes off, will the young Belgian be tempted to head to the Johnson County Fairgrounds? “I doubt it,” he said. “I want to get the full college experience, like that movie, um, Animal House. I have never been to a Greek party, but I have already started shopping for a toga. Too bad there are no Greek cyclocross riders to ask how they go.”
This story was published on April 1, 2018.