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Cyclocross

Why Wout is wobbling on worlds: Van Aert and his cyclocross conundrum

Van Aert has won five out of five ‘crosses into the final week in December and looks unbeatable. So why hasn’t he committed to the Fayetteville worlds?

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What cyclocross races won’t Wout van Aert win this winter?

The world championships could be one of them.

Van Aert has taken the top step at all five of his ‘cross races this season, swatting away the likes of Mathieu van der Poel, Tom Pidcock, and Eli Iserbyt with a series of unstoppable solos.

Van Aert is by far the best of the bunch this cyclocross calendar. But despite seeming a shoo-in for the rainbow jersey, he’s still not committed to racing for a fourth elite title in Arkansas next month.

“I fear that that will be the question [about racing cyclocross worlds] every day,” van Aert said after winning in Zolder on Monday. “We will definitely talk about it after the Belgian championships. I keep saying that.”

The road classics are calling, and van Aert wants to keep a clear runway into the “opening weekend” late February. So why is van Aert so cautious while fellow cross-disciplinarians Pidcock and van der Poel are all-in for Arkansas?

Van Aert’s asphalt ambitions

Van Aert’s Tour de France triple was one of the stories of the summer. (: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Wout van Aert is planning to race through early January, and will only finally confirm a trip ‘Stateside after his Belgian title defense on the 9th.

Based on his current form, it’s not too far a stretch to imagine him winning each of the four ‘crosses currently carrying him to the race in Middelkerke.

Also read: Van Aert leaves rivals reeling with crushing ‘cross debut: ‘It’s incredible’

Even van Aert accepts he’s on the form of his life.

“Have I ever been this good after five crosses? I don’t think I’ve ever won five ‘cross races in a row,” he joked Monday. “Maybe that says enough.”

One month out from the January 30th worlds, van Aert is a broad head-and-shoulders above the rest of the pack, and a fourth rainbow jersey is well within his reach. And so his refusal to put his name on the start-list for Fayetteville shows just how far his focus has pivoted.

Not so long ago, van Aert saw road racing as a “nice-to-have” after focusing on the mud, ruts, and guts of a CX winter.

Van Aert’s long-time nemesis van der Poel and Tokyo Olympic mountain bike gold medalist Pidcock have maintained a broad spectrum of ambitions after expanding beyond their off-road roots earlier in their careers. In contrast, the Belgian’s focus has narrowed since he was plucked from the second-tier Vérandas Willems team by an increasingly ambitious Jumbo-Visma.

Van Aert has become arguably the biggest rider in the world in the past years thanks partly to his multi-discipline talent, but perhaps more so as a result of his road versatility.

He took the world by surprise with his mountain-flattening performance at the Tour last summer. And his winning atop Ventoux, he also took time trial stage, and a sprint stage, at the Tour in 2021, and sent the world — beyond the adoring Belgian media — into rapture.

Also read:

While Wout was taming the Tour, both van der Poel and Pidcock spent much of the summer riding the trails in anticipation of a Toyko Olympic MTB showdown. The contrast couldn’t be clearer.

Scores to settle

Van Aert had been hoping for a lot more than seventh at Roubaix this fall. (Photo: BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images))

But despite his Tour triumphs and victories at Amstel Gold and Gent-Wevelgem, 2021 didn’t go all Wout’s way.

As big as his two one-day wins may have been, they weren’t the two classics he had hoped to put on his palmarès. As a thoroughbred Flandrien, the cobbles have van Aert’s heart, and sixth at Tour of Flanders and seventh at Paris-Roubaix left a sour taste.

That’s why Wout is still pondering the long flight to Fayetteville.

Classics season starts four weeks after the ‘cross worlds at the curtain-raising Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Despite the month-long gap, van Aert and his crew are nervous about the 12-plus hour travel and its catalog of impacts on his road training.

Also read: Van Aert on Roubaix disappointment: ‘I wasn’t good enough’

“The cross-program is part of a bigger picture, and plays a role in service of the road season,” Jumbo-Visma head of performance Mathieu Heijboer said last month.

Jumbo-Visma has invested in its classics core for 2022, bringing in Tiesj Benoot and Christophe Laporte. Van Aert has a long-running, multi-million dollar contract to live up to and expectations to fulfill.

External pressures?

Mathieu van der Poel has kept a toe in all three disciplines with the backing of his team and sponsors. (Photo: Red Bull Content Pool)

Pidcock is a dead-cert for ‘cross worlds, however, recently van der Poel expressed doubt that he’ll be healthy enough.

They’re also both likely to be on the startline with van Aert, just one month later at Omloop, as well as at a host more marquee classics through the spring.

Why the difference?

Van der Poel and Pidcock have differing priorities and pressure to van Aert.

Pidcock wants to win all three world titles in one year and is intent on keeping an equal balance of cyclocross, MTB, and road.

He enjoyed a breakout classics program in 2021 and while he wants to better that next year, the expectations on him in his sophomore WorldTour season won’t meet the weight sitting atop van Aert.

Also read: Pidcock and his triple title dream

Like van Aert, Pidcock has a personal sponsorship with Red Bull. The big-budget energy drink backer will be fully invested in the Brit’s three-prong program and will likely be supporting his off-road ambition with every pedal stroke.

The story is a case of “same, but different,” for van der Poel.

The Dutchman carries his Alpecin-Fenix crew on his shoulders and is afforded flexibility in his program. Van der Poel’s partner Canyon bikes will want to see “MvdP” racing on as many of its machines as possible.

Unlike van Aert, van der Poel and all around him are still fully invested in all things dirt.

“I don’t really see why we should drop the worlds. Sure, it’s a bit of an ‘ambitious’ move. But I don’t feel that Mathieu has already reached a point in his career where he can just delete those things,” van der Poel’s team director Christoph Roodhooft pointed out to  Het Laatste Nieuws last month.

And there’s COVID-19. Both Europe and the United States are caught up in the ever-worsening omicron storm. Why risk the chance of infection, not to mention the hassles of traveling overseas in the latest flare-up?

That’s a question that not only van Aert will be pondering.

Here’s hoping for some FOMO

Both van Aert and van der Poel have ridden the ‘cross worlds every year since “MvdP” took the juniors jersey over second-place van Aert in 2011-2012.

Here’s hoping a little FOMO and the opportunity to go head-to-head with a behind-schedule van der Poel sees van Aert book into premium-class and make the trip to Arkansas next month.

The race won’t be the same without him.