The Belgian armada sunk in front of a sea of home crowds in the Leuven worlds last year. Tactical miscues and personal ambitions left the five-star favorites licking wounds and launching inquisitions all the way through the fall.
Fast-forward 12 months, and Van Aert and Evenepoel return to center stage at this year’s Australian event.
The freshly-crowned Vuelta a España champion and Tour de France terminator co-captain the Belgian team in a fearsome road race double-punch, and are backed by a typically deep blue-clad crew.
With the strongest team in the worlds peloton, surely 2022 will be Belgium’s year, 10 years after Philippe Gilbert won in Valkenburg?
“Last year, I was the only leader, and with a guy as strong as Remco, it’s always better to go as a co-leader and race together, instead of offering his chance even before the start [early attack], so that is something we learned as a team,” Van Aert said last week. “We will do it different this year.”
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Van Aert insisted that lessons have been learned since the misfire of 2021.
He and Evenepoel give Belgium a two-pronged attack and multi-phase strategy for next Sunday’s race. The Belgian playbook currently reads along the lines of Evenepoel going long with a trademark early escape and Van Aert betting on his sprint.
Meanwhile, it’s all-for-one in the other leading nations.
Slovenia is going all-in with Tadej Pogačar in the absence of Primož Roglič and Matej Mohorič, and the home Aussie team is topped exclusively by Michael Matthews.
“With Remco at the front, the others have to chase, and that can be a really good situation for me,” Van Aert told reporters.
The race for the rainbow jersey next weekend will be shaped by the Mount Plesant climb that plays centerpiece to the Wollongong circuit.
The severe kick over the short ramp will strip down the bunch. The final ascent comes just 10km from the line and will likely play kingmaker ahead of a reduced sprint or solo gallop.
Belgian tactics should be more clear-cut as the team backs each rider’s unique profile. But what happens if Evenepoel and Van Aert both survive the final ride over Mount “UnPleasant” next Sunday?
The situation will no doubt be discussed on the team bus before time, but “rainbow fever” could see any script thrown out deep in the denouement a seven-hour race.
Evenepoel is a changed rider from the tricky 21-year-old that threw a firework under the Belgian team with his long-range attack in Leuven.
The Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl “wolfcub” rode beyond his age at this summer’s Vuelta to deliver emphatic and mature victory in his second-ever grand tour.
With a red jersey in his wardrobe, the Belgian wunderkind said Friday that he already considers his season a success. A result at worlds would just be a bonus.
Evenepoel will be buoyed with confidence and ambition at worlds as the gains and good memories of Spain reverberate. He will race the time trial Sunday in a ride that may ripple through to the road race one week later.
Evenepoel heads into the TT as a top favorite for the rainbow jersey and plans to go all-in.
Scoring an elite time trial title to match his junior victory of 2018 would bookmark a bumper season and might quench any thirst for a trophy in the 270km road race. However, a near-miss might just stoke Evenepeol’s fire for one last win – no matter who else is on the team.
Meanwhile, Van Aert commands favorites’ status for next Sunday’s race alongside premium puncheurs Pogačar and Matthews. The recently turned 28-year-old should be Belgium’s best bet in a small-bunch sprint.
“The course looks very promising. It’s hard to judge what you see online, but a one K climb at 7 percent, it sounds really familiar to what we know in Belgium,” Van Aert said.
“Also this year I’ve proven that I am really strong on kickers like this. That’s good for the mental aspect, but we will see,” he said.
Evenepoel, Van Aert, and ‘rainbow fever’
Belgium expects big things this after the miscues of Leuven.
Although its team will be free of the suffocating zeal of hundreds of thousands of home fans some 17,000km across the globe, the hype remains high.
Evenepoel secured historic grand tour victory last weekend, while Van Aert commands superstar status and sits only a shade behind Pogačar at the top of the WorldTour ranking.
Rumors of a frosty relationship after the 2021 fallout will have to thaw fast as the Belgian team taps easy rides in their pre-race shakeouts in coming days.
“We have a super strong team going there, and we can race with our own strength in mind,” Van Aert said.
The whole of Belgium will be setting its alarms early, or staying up all night, hoping that this time, team strength banks success.