The Dutchman will be defending his current title and searching for his fourth rainbow jersey on a course dominated by sand and a huge bridge in Ostende, Belgium, Sunday, and an early recon of the route has given him a lot to be happy about.
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“My first impression? That there is a lot of wind,” van der Poel told Het Nieuwsblad after taking a ride in blustery conditions Thursday. “But it is a very nice circuit, especially the beach part with the bridge is very difficult … I hope it will be a bit smoother on Sunday, but the difference will be made on the beach.”
Although van der Poel has had the slight upper hand on long-time foe Wout van Aert through the ‘cross season to date, the Belgian is heading into the worlds with a win at last weekend’s final World Cup round in his pocket and a reputation for benefiting from courses stacked with sand.
Van der Poel said he’s not worried by Van Aert’s historical performances, which includes a win at the same coastal course at the Belgian nationals in 2017. The defending Dutchman instead believes that the pick-‘n’-mix course of sand, tight twisting grassy sections, and several paved sectors offers something for everyone.
“In the past, I might have been kept awake about that, but not anymore, certainly not after what I saw today,” van der Poel said. “The course has pleasantly surprised me. It’s not going to be mud ‘cross in the fields, and I always enjoy riding in the sand.”
“It’s a course where we both have our part,” he continued. “The technical section on the grass suits me well, and the sand and the bridge are perhaps a bit more in favor of Wout’s power. But it is not a really big disadvantage for me.”
Top-tier ‘crossers have not yet ridden a circuit heavy in sand through the season to date, and both van Aert and van der Poel have both signaled in the last week that the lack of recent precedent wipes the slate clean in terms of head-to-head records this winter. As van der Poel said after his recon, the selection is likely to be made by success in the sand, adding that a good sprinkling of fair fortune and cool thinking will be as necessary as optimal tire pressures or peerless technique.
“The strange thing will be that you can punch away in one sand strip for twenty seconds, while you can lose another twenty seconds afterward, he said. “It’s just a matter of keeping calm should something happen.”