You’ve got to take your hat off to Wout van Aert. The three-time world cross champion has come straight from another cyclo-cross season to mixing it with the big boys on the road.
The Belgian was up there in Het Nieuwsblad, produced a heroic ride to finish third in Strade Bianche and threw in an attack during the final kilometres of Gent-Wevelgem. There was a 12th at the GP de Denain too, but you probably didn’t watch that on TV either.
Almost singlehandedly Van Aert has flown the flag for his Vérandas Willems-Crelan team in these races. And it was largely because of the potential he might offer on the white gravel roads of Tuscany that his Belgian squad were invited down to Italy to ride Strade in the first place. No disrespect to the Pro-Conti set-up, but he’s starting to look a little out of their league.
Last November I watched Van Aert race the Gavere round of the Superprestige cyclo-cross series in Belgium. While he was quickest off the grid, he was soon passed and distanced by the most dominant rider on the cross circuit this season, Mathieu van der Poel.
Lap after lap, Van der Poel prised open his margin. With a couple to go, it looked a done deal. But there was a doggedness in Van Aert’s ride that meant that when the Dutchman suffered a mechanical with less than half a lap to go, Van Aert was still poised to profit.
Van Aert’s tenacity was there for all to see at Strade Bianche when – after a long two-up with Romain Bardet – double leg cramps reduced him to briefly dismounting on the final climb. But his work ethic could also be witnessed at Het Nieuwsblad and Gent-Wevelgem when he found himself in sizeable but significant splits. While some of his colleagues fumbled around on the front looking over their shoulders, dodging turns or only half-committing, Van Aert could regularly be seen chipping through, getting on with the job.
It might be tempting to put this down to a tactical naivety of a new boy switching over from cyclo-cross. But although Van Aert, still only 23, has not previously performed quite at this level on the road (or the sorry excuses for it in some of these events), he is accomplished in the discipline.
Last year for instance he won the GP Pino Cerami ahead of BMC’s Jean-Pierre Drucker and Quick Step’s Dries Devenyns. During the same wave of mid-season form, he also won two other 1.1 level road races (including the Bruge Cycling Classic ahead of fellow crossover talent Van der Poel), led the Baloise Tour of Belgium and finished sixth in his national time-trial championships.
He is by no means the first rider to potentially make the transition from top cross man to road race ace. Lars Boom, Zdenek Stybar and John Gadret are just some more recent examples.
As popular and lucrative as cross is in the Low Countries, few with the necessary potential would resist the riches (prestige as much as financial), challenge and broader reach that the road scene offers.
And as Van Aert hinted in an interview after Strade Bianche, a top crosser is a big fish in a small pond. The road scene offers a greater depth of rivalry. If you’ve already proved yourself time and again off-road, who wouldn’t be tempted to go big in another domain?
Crossing over from cyclo-cross to road shouldn’t be so difficult. In the old-world view of cycling, cross was simply a winter pastime to help racers keep their fitness up. But the realities of elite racing in an era of scientific specialisation are not so simple.
A rider coming immediately from a winter schedule of regular one hour-long competition will have an abundance of top-end capacity. The thrust and charge, not to mention some of the trickier surfaces and unpredictable weather of the earlier season races, will suit their cross conditioning. But one-day classics in particular are as much defined by strength and endurance.
Ignoring his Dwars door Vlaanderen faux pas, it’s no great revelation that Van Aert is able to nail his positioning, make light work of rough roads and apply himself suitably to get in the moves.
Where he has made a real impression is in his ability to still be there at crunch time. Like the Duracell Bunny he just keeps going. I know, that’s perhaps an unfortunate comparison for a rider who has previously fallen into the crosshairs of the motor-doping conspiracy theorists, but to go searching for another simile, that would be to actively gloss over those past rumblings – however speculative they might have been.
Ahead for Van Aert lies the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, plus a bit more mixed surface fun at Brittany’s Tro Bro Léon. The stakes are higher in the two Monuments and the competition tougher than the races he’s proved himself in so far this season.
But, however he does, his mark on this kind of racing has already been made. People are talking. Journalists are profiling. Top teams are interested. Here is a Classics star of the future.
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