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Van Aert heads into the Ostende worlds with the momentum of a recent World Cup victory and the confidence that the beachy course for Sunday’s race is tailor-made for him. Nonetheless, the Belgian supremo is happy to cast himself as underdog ahead of Sunday’s clash with van der Poel.
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“I still don’t think I’m the big favorite,” Van Aert told media after scouting the course on the Belgian coast Friday. “Mathieu van der Poel won more than me this season. He remains favorite, the pressure is on him.”
Although van der Poel has had a half-wheel over Van Aert through the ‘cross winter to date, the Jumbo-Visma star goes into the race with the history of success on sandy courses – including on the very same Ostende circuit in 2017 – and the burden of expectation as a national champion and Belgian sporting icon riding at his home race.
Van Aert has been engaging in the mental jousting for the past week, also pushing the focus onto van der Poel when speaking after taking a confident victory at the final round of the World Cup last Sunday.
“It’s good to have this victory and it gives me something mentally extra for next week,” Van Aert said after his victory in Overijse. “But Mathieu has shown in previous weeks he’s the favorite.”
Van Aert and van der Poel have been going toe to toe for cyclocross honors since their teenage years, and with the elite cyclocross world title tally currently at three apiece, Sunday’s race gains extra sauce. Whichever of the two wins in Ostende this weekend takes a four-three advantage over the other and bragging rights heading into the spring classics.
Van Aert has not worn the rainbow jersey since 2018, but despite playing down his chances against the defending Dutchman, sais he’s full of confidence after blasting his way around the sandy circuit in a team recon Friday.
“This is of course a great opportunity for me to win a new world title – it’s been a while,” he said. “I have a real chance. My feeling is very good and I worked toward this and left nothing to chance.”
And the rest of the pack, including a closely-tied bunch of Tom Pidcock, Laurens Sweeck, Toon Aerts and Michael Vanthourenhout? Van Aert will be watching one man only – the Dutchman with the number one of defending champ pinned to his back.
“The last few weeks have made it clear that I am the only Belgian contender for gold and that it might be another duel with Mathieu,” Van Aert said. “I don’t expect other riders to stay with us for long. Laurens Sweeck and Thomas Pidcock perhaps. But in the end, it will be a duel.”