A chat with the champ: Wout Van Aert, on top of the world in Las Vegas

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It’s good to be Wout Van Aert.

The best cyclocross racer on the planet, Van Aert is a Belgian super talent dominating a discipline of cycling beloved nowhere more than in his homeland. Adorned in the rainbow jersey and paid handsomely to race his bicycle, he’s the new hero for a nation hungry for a rider to rally behind after the retirement of its biggest star.

And make no mistake about it, Van Aert is a star. Last season he won the world championship, Belgian national championship, all three major series titles — the UCI World Cup, Hansgrohe Superprestige, and bpost bank trofee series — and finished the season atop the UCI world ranking.

And yes, Van Aert also races on the road. In August he won Schaal Sels, a Belgian road race that features more than 30km of cobblestones and 30km of dirt roads. It was Van Aert’s second road win in 2016; his first came at the Baloise Belgium Tour in May, when he upstaged three-time world TT champion Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) in the prologue. In June, he finished ninth at the Belgian national road championship, behind eight WorldTour pros.

Also: Wout Van Aert turned 22 last week.

The Crelan-Vastgoedservice rider celebrated his birthday with a solo victory at the Trek CXC Cup in Waterloo, Wisconsin, riding away from a trio of chasing Telenet-Fidea riders. He spent half the race alone at the front, seemingly effortlessly, extending his gap as each lap ticked by. It was his second win of the season, following his victory at the season opener, Brico Cross Geraardsbergen, under the shadow of the famed church atop the Kapelmuur.

Wout Van Aert, winner of the 2016 Trek CXC Cup. Photo: Wil Matthews.
Wout Van Aert, winner of the 2016 Trek CXC Cup. Photo: Wil Matthews.

The world champion will spend the 2016-17 cyclocross season with a Belgian TV crew following his every step, quite possibly winning more often than not. He will race somewhere between 40 and 45 races this season, and based his strong start, there’s no reason to think he won’t equal or surpass his impressive 2015-16 run, when he won 19 races.

That all depends on the competition, of course, but at the moment, there’s not much competition to speak of.

Van Aert’s most signifiant rival, 2015 world champion and fellow millennial Mathieu van der Poel, is recovering from double knee surgery. The Beobank-Corendon rider expects to start his season October 2 at the opening round of the Hansgrohe Superprestige series.

Dutch rider Lars van der Haar (Giant-Alpecin), who finished second to Van Aert at the world championship in Zolder, Belgium, was forced to skip the U.S. World Cups, nursing a hamstring injury.

Sven Nys, the two-time world champion and winner of 50 World Cup races, is retired, memorably beating Van Aert and van der Poel at the Koksijde World Cup in his final season, at age 39. Nys now manages the Telenet-Fidea team.

Perhaps the only other man alive capable of toppling Van Aert is Czech rider Zdenek Stybar; the three-time world champion is currently riding the Eneco Tour, but told CyclingTips that he’ll return to cyclocross in December for the Christmas period [Kerstperiode].

Without those men in the field, Van Aert is free to dominate, seemingly at will, as he did in Wisconsin and as he is expected to do Wednesday night at CrossVegas, the World Cup opener. Van Aert won in Vegas last year, the beginning of his Cinderella season, and at the moment, all indications point to a sequel in the making.

Tall, dark, and handsome, Van Aert is on top of the world — both figuratively and, in a sporting sense, quite literally. CyclingTips sat down with Van Aert in Las Vegas to discuss his strengths and weaknesses, his rivalry with Mathieu van der Poel, and life as a 22-year-old world champion. Just don’t ask him about road racing.

CyclingTips: In Sunday’s race [the Trek CXC Cup], you looked very, very strong.

Wout Van Aert: I think so, yeah. For me, I didn’t know what to expect before, because I had jet lag. We only arrived on Wednesday. It was a long travel. And then on Thursday I visited my sponsor, SRAM, at their headquarters in Chicago. I only rode my bike for the first time on Friday, so I didn’t know what to expect for the race on Sunday. But the feeling I had was the same as when I started the season in Belgium, a week before. That was a good thing, to find my legs again, there. And I think it was good to race before the two World Cups.

CT: Obviously the Trek CXC Cup wasn’t a World Cup, but the Telenet-Fidea team was there with six in the top 10. You were outnumbered in the front group, and yet you looked to be in a class of your own.

WVA: I don’t know, it’s difficult to say, about myself, but I think it was difficult to handle these Telenet-Fidea guys, because they were really riding together. They were attacking, one after the other. I would catch them back, and then the next would attack. My tactic was to close the gap on my own pace, not very aggressive. I decided to wait until halfway through the race to do my own attack, because then they would be more tired, and there was more chance an attack would work out. I think it was good to do it like that. It was quite a nice race. It was a nice course, kind of a European course. I really liked being there.

Wout Van Aert held off six Telenet-Fidea riders in the top 10 to win the 2016 Trek CXC Cup. Photo: Wil Matthews.
Wout Van Aert held off six Telenet-Fidea riders in the top 10 to win the 2016 Trek CXC Cup. Photo: Wil Matthews.

CT: I had the race on the television at home, and my wife watched with me for few minutes while you were off the front, solo. She made the comment ‘He looks bored.’

WVA: [Laughs] No, no. Not at all. No time to get bored in one hour. I can understand why she would say that, because I was off the front for five or six laps. And you get into a certain rhythm. It wasn’t very exciting like other races, I know. For me, it’s great to be alone at the front. It’s one of the nicest things to have as a bike racer. I wasn’t bored at all.

CT: How has your life changed since you won the rainbow jersey?

WVA: Ah, my daily life hasn’t changed that much. I’m just at home, with my girlfriend. I’m just an easy guy, and I think I’ve stayed the same. But when I’m at the races, or in public places in Belgium, sure, there’s a lot more attention. There are a lot more people that recognize me. That’s changed a lot, and this season, without Sven Nys, you really feel a difference, in the attention. There’s a lot more TV interviews, newspaper interviews.

CT: That attention, that went to Sven Nys, now falls on to you?

WVA: Yeah, it falls to me. That’s something you really feel, especially now, at the beginning of the season. I try to enjoy it, because you never know when it might stop. It can happen faster than you think. So I’ll try to enjoy it now.

CT: There’s a Belgian television crew following you, filming your every move, it seems. They’re filming us, as we speak. What’s that like?

WVA: It’s a TV show with four episodes, played on Belgian television before the worlds, in January. They’re following me, Mathieu van der Poel — he’s a Dutch guy, but he’s living in Belgium — Laurens Sweeck, and Eli Iserbyt, the under-23 world champion. It’s a show where they follow my daily life, they follow me and my crew during races and preparation. I liked it, when they asked me, because it’s something different than other things that have come out. It’s more behind the scenes.

Wout Van Aert (Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace) ahead of world champion Mathieu van der Poel (BKCP-Powerplus) during Scheldecross, the fifth leg of the 2015-16 bpost bank trofee series, in Antwerp. Photo Cor Vos.
Wout Van Aert (Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace) ahead of world champion Mathieu van der Poel (BKCP-Powerplus) during Scheldecross, the fifth leg of the 2015-16 bpost bank trofee series, in Antwerp. Photo Cor Vos.

CT: Here’s a question I’m sure you’ve been asked a thousand times, so I apologize in advance, but…

WVA: I’m not going to race on the road.

CT: No, that wasn’t it. Well, I was going to get to that, but not yet. First I wanted to ask about Mathieu van der Poel. Because it seems that it’s very important, for the sport of cyclocross, that he’s healthy, and there to race against you. Because if he’s not, you could win 30 races this year.

WVA: Yeah, I can understand the question. When Mathieu is at his highest level, and me also, we always give really nice races, and really nice fights against each other. For me, it’s also the thing I want, so for me it’s really a pity that he’s now again injured. I prefer the races when all the best riders are there; the feeling when you win is more intense than when there are a lot of guys not out there. I think the sport really needs me and Mathieu, just like it needed Bart Wellens and Sven Nys in the past, or Niels Albert and Sven Nys. The popularity has always been so big because of the fight between two or three guys. That’s what people are waiting for, and hoping for. Me, as well.

CT: What’s your relationship like with Mathieu?

WVA: It’s good. He’s a very friendly guy. When we are outside of the race, we can talk. Of course, we are each other’s biggest rival, so we’re not going to train with each other. We don’t text with each other a lot. It’s not because we don’t like each other, but we need to be very aggressive in the race, so outside of the race, it’s difficult to be very close.

CT: What are your thoughts that Zdenek Stybar is going to race Kerstperiode this year?

WVA: I hadn’t heard that. Of course he’s a great rider. But his biggest problem is that he’s been out of cyclocross for a few years. To come back only for a few races, like he’s done the past few years, is really difficult. You need more the rhythm of cyclocross, and the technique, and all the training we put in. It’s not possible to just come out and say, ‘I was good in the past, so again, I’m here.’ To be on the top level, you need the specific training, like he did for the worlds in Hoogerheide, that year he did more races, and more specific training for cyclocross. When he is on his best level, he is for sure a big opponent, but I don’t know what his ambitions are.

CT: I get the sense that Stybar really misses cyclocross.

WVA: I think so, also. I don’t know his feeling, for racing on the road, but for me, at the end of the road season, I really miss cyclocross a lot, and want to get back there. It’s such a familiar atmosphere. It’s not boring, like road races. It’s more short, and fun, one hour, giving everything — very spectacular. I can imagine he would miss the sport, for sure.

CT: You have so many strengths when it comes to cyclocross — what is your biggest weakness?

WVA: Ah, I also have a lot. My technique is not the best of the cyclocross scene, and I think everybody knows this. A technical course, with a lot of barriers and stairs, like here at Cross Vegas, it’s not my best thing. And I think when I am battling against Mathieu, he is stronger in the explosive parts, after the corners. That’s not really a weakness, but against him, I’m not as good at it. I think these two are the most important to work on.

CT: And what’s your biggest strength?

WVA: I think it’s to set a high pace for one hour. I don’t need a lot of recuperation, I like more a race where you just have to put down the power for one hour. I think a lot of racers, they can put in an effort for one or two laps, but then they need a break, to recover. But I don’t really need it, normally.

Race leader Wout van Aert, who defeated three-time world champion Tony Martin in the prologue of the 2016 Baloise Belgium Tour. Photo JdM/Cor Vos.
Race leader Wout van Aert (Crelan-Vastgoedservice), who defeated three-time world champion Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) in the prologue of the 2016 Baloise Belgium Tour. Photo JdM/Cor Vos.

CT: I was speaking with Renaat Schotte [from Sporza] and he told me you don’t really like to be asked about a future in road racing.

WVA: Ah, it’s not that I don’t like to talk about it. I can understand the question. But in Belgium, they are repeating it, repeating it, repeating it. It’s a feeling they are giving me, like I need to make a change. But for me, it’s just good like it is now. I can do a road season with nice races, but not a lot, I pick the one I am ambitious for, and then I do a cyclocross season, which I still love more as a sport. I don’t know what’s wrong with that. It’s a good combination. I am there almost the whole year. I think, in the future, if I get bored with one or the other, then I can make a decision. But I’m not there yet.

CT: How many cyclocross races will you do this season?

WVA: More than 40. I think it will end up between 40 and 45. The calendar is not determined yet. I’m not sure.

CT: And how many can you win?

WVA: Last year I had a super big season, with a lot of wins. I won 19, the three classifications, and the two championships. It looks like 19 is already a lot. If I could get back to that number it would be crazy. I hope more than 10, for sure, but getting back to 19 would be difficult.

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