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Van Aert happy playing the underdog at cyclocross worlds

Wout Van Aert is keeping a cool head ahead of the season's biggest race in front of the home crowd on Belgian soil this Sunday.

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ZOLDER, Belgium (VN) — Reigning world champion Mathieu van der Poel may be favored to repeat as world champion in Sunday’s elite championship race in Zolder, thanks to a strong showing in the past month of ‘cross racing. But it’s Belgian champion Wout Van Aert who has been the king of cyclocross for most of the season, and it’s Van Aert who will have the highly partisan home crowd behind him come race time.

Van Aert narrowly missed out on a chance to wear the rainbow stripes at last year’s championships in the Czech Republic, finishing second despite a host of technical problems during the race. But this year is another chance, and he seems unlikely to repeat last year’s mistakes. VeloNews caught up with the race’s top underdog in Zolder for a chat about his chances, his preparation, and his feelings about leading his country in front of the home fans in Sunday’s race.

Q: How are you feeling ahead of the race on Sunday? What’s your mentality right now?

A: For now I feel really relaxed. I have the feeling I’ve already achieved a lot of beautiful things this season. So I can already be happy with that. I think the stress will come up on Sunday morning. I’m motivated, but that’s all. I would really like to go for the world title, but I can be relaxed until Sunday.

Q: How much pressure do you feel because the race is in Belgium? The fans are going to want you to win very, very much.

A: A lot of people expect something from me, and also from all the Belgians. But I’ve learned to live with that feeling, and I think the only pressure I need to feel is the pressure I put on myself. So I think that’s important to know. For me, I learned a lot in the last year, and I think that’s why I can be relaxed at this moment. That’s really important.

Q: How do you keep from getting caught up in the excitement of the race, from going out too hard or making mistakes?

A: I learned a few tricks for that, but I think it’s really important to enjoy the crowd and not be afraid of it. That’s one important thing to keep in your mind before. I think you have to see it as something positive. There are a lot of people who will be out there on Sunday, a lot of Belgians for sure. I think they’ll support me, but they only can give me a boost.

Q: You said in some interviews last week you had specifically trained on, and for, this course. Can you talk a bit about how you prepared for the race?

A: We saw already at the World Cup right after Christmas that it’s a really explosive course. You really need to accelerate many times during the lap, and normally that’s not my best quality. I love more the long, straight parts. When we knew that after the Christmas World Cup, we worked on it in Spain and really worked on some attacks and steep parts and things like that. And I think that will work out on Sunday. I hope it.

Q: Mathieu is the top favorite. Do you think that gives you any kind of tactical advantage in the race, if people are looking at him and not at you?

A: Yeah, I hope so, but I don’t know. Mathieu is a really strong rider, and his biggest capacity is to stay cool in the head always. He is never impressed by anything. So I think he is going to do his own race. But I know his strenghts after racing with him for so many years. So I think that’s a big advantage for me, I know how to answer his attacks — or I’ll try it, at least — and then we’ll see what the second half of the race brings.