FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — After his successful spring classics debut, many are asking how far world cyclocross champion Wout van Aert can go in his road career.
The Belgian three-time world champion is considering a switch to the road, potentially leaving cyclocross behind after the classics. His classics run this spring included ninth place in the Tour of Flanders behind winner Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors), and after a puncture in the final 20 kilometers, 13th in Paris-Roubaix.
“I think he can go all the way,” said former Paris-Roubaix winner and Sky sports director Servais Knaven.
“He can be a top class. Look at what he’s doing now with the whole ‘cross season. Then he’s up there in the final of the race. And if you can be in the final of Flanders, you don’t need to say much. He lacks a bit of experience, more road racing in his legs then he could be unstoppable.”
“We know he is talented and strong, but in the first year with limited preparation, what he has shown is much more than I expected,” said Trek-Segafredo sports director Dirk Demol.
“I know he’s talented, he won races at the Continental level, but I was wondering how he’d go with all the WorldTour riders and in the long distances. Wow, he’s there in every race.”
Van Aert won the cyclocross world title the last three seasons in a row. This year, his Veranda’s Willems-Crelan team managed by former Flanders winner Nick Nuyens received invitations to the biggest one-day races from Strade Bianche through Paris-Roubaix.
It started off well for van Aert when he escaped with Tour de France star Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) on the muddy roads of Strade Bianche and placed third in Siena.
It continued through the biggest one-day monuments, races over 250 kilometers. A big change for someone used to performing at high intensities for one hour.
“I don’t know,” van Aert said when asked when he could make the switch completely. “It’s my first spring season on the road and afterwards we’ll make an evaluation.”
“He’s already shown how far he can go, he’s in that group of people who’s shown he can do it,” Dimension Data sports director Roger Hammond explained.
“Surprising? No, not at all. It’s never surprised me at all if these guys are good rider on the track, then they are good on the road. It’s just a matter of application.
“Why do we not see too many riders come over from cyclocross? Because they earn a good salary there and they have fame and fortune, so they have something to lose. I don’t think it’s sustainable to do what he’s doing, a full ‘cross season of traveling then jumping around and go straight into the road season and expect to be good. The bill comes at some point.”
Insiders predict that their rider could already challenge for the win in the monuments in 2019. And with the backing of a super team, he could dominate.
His contract with Veranda’s Willems-Crelan runs through 2019. It is expected that a big-money contract will come sometime soon and convince van Aert to transfer to the road for 2020. It would be similar to the past moves made by Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors) or Lars Boom (LottoNL-Jumbo) — both former cyclocross world champions.
“I think he’ll do cyclocross and the road, but he’ll need to make a decision: the road or cyclocross,” Herman Frison, Lotto-Soudal sport director said. “He must make a decision even if we see now that it’s possible for him.”
“That’s going to be a difficult choice for him,” Demol added. “I can imagine that he’s adoring cyclocross as a three-time world champion, but he’s seeing the impact of the road races.
“I don’t want to say cyclocross is a small sport, but on the road, you have 30 or more nationalities each day. It’s a global sport. And when you taste that and all the teams are interested in you, then of course [you’ll consider it].
“If he stays in that team, it won’t be good for his improvement. If you put him in a WorldTour team, and he can do one grand tour, then you’ll see how much stronger he can become. He’ll take another step.”
However, at odds with his results, van Aert’s successful spring campaign ended on a tragic note. When he finished 13th Sunday in Paris-Roubaix, he heard in the velodrome that his teammate Michael Goolaerts suffered a heart attack earlier in the race. He died later that night.
Van Aert said Wednesday, “I will definitely want to come back and take the winner’s flowers for him.”