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No pressure on van Aert to live up to 2018

Jumbo-Visma is taking a patient approach to develop its young classics prodigy Wout van Aert, but he's already off to a fast start in 2019.

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Sophomore slump? Not for Wout van Aert through the opening months of the 2019 road season.

The 24-year-old Belgian rocked the classics last spring with a series of tantalizing performances that put Flemish cycling fans on the edge of their seats.

The pressure might be on van Aert to exceed expectations, but it won’t be coming from his Jumbo-Visma team. Staffers are fully supporting van Aert, but they are not the ones piling on the pressure to win. At least not yet.

“There is no pressure from us. The external expectations are very different than internally,” said Jumbo-Visma general manager Richard Plugge. “He has to make that next step in his development, to be there in the big finals and play a role. That’s more important right now than talking about any specific results.”

Van Aert surprised some when he chose Jumbo-Visma as his professional home after a long, drawn-out effort to join a WorldTour team. Once clear of his contractual obligations with Verandas Willems-Crelan, van Aert chose the Dutch outfit Jumbo-Visma in a three-year deal to transition fully onto the road racing scene. He’ll still race a bit in the mud of cyclocross, but van Aert’s future lies on the road.

And the future is now as the Flemish classics season clicks into gear. Van Aert will lead in Friday’s E3 BinckBank Classic and Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem ahead of his anticipated return to Flanders and Roubaix.

“I am more than ready for the Flemish classics,” van Aert said after Milano-Sanremo. “I proved that again, and I definitely feel really good.”

If there’s any hint of a sophomore jinx, that certainly does not seem to be a problem so far in 2019.

Van Aert has bolted hot out of the gates in his transition from cyclocross to the road. After missing out on what would have been a fourth-straight cyclocross world title, he’s fully committed to the skinny tires for the remainder of the road season.

In his first three road races this spring, he’s boldly pedaled back into the mix. At Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, he finished in the front chase group. Van Aert erased any doubt with another spectacular performance at Strade Bianche, the scene of his arrival last year. Van Aert made the select group, got dropped, fought back, and matched his third-place podium spot with another gutsy ride. At Milano-Sanremo, van Aert was there again, in the select group of would-be winners.

Plugge is pleased but cautioned that van Aert is still in the early stages of his career. The team naturally wants to be careful with its diamond in the rough and is trying to find the balance between opportunities to perform and space to grow and develop.

“He’s still a young guy — everyone forgets that,” Plugge said. “You need a lot of experience and stamina to make it into the finals of Roubaix or Flanders.

“It’s 250km, 260km, that’s a long distance, we have to build with him slowly,” Plugge said. “We want to do it carefully, and do it step by step. We want to bring him along as far as possible in the finals.”

Van Aert is central to an improved Jumbo-Visma classics team. He’ll play a starring role, but other riders will also have their chances. Danny Van Poppel and Dylan Groenewegen, a winner at Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne on Wednesday, will see their chances in the sprinter-friendly races. Mike Teunissen is back on the team after two years with Sunweb, and will provide more depth in the one-days.

Plugge cautioned that van Aert is still in the early stages of what everyone expects to be a long and successful road career, and compared his position to that of Primoz Roglic, another rider that Jumbo-Visma has patiently developed.

Roglic was another talented prospect that slowly learned the ropes under the team’s protection, and has quickly flowered into a legitimate GC contender in every race he starts. That’s the path the team is hoping to follow with van Aert.

“It’s the opposite with Primoz. We cannot go anymore with a GC rider like him without racing to be a contender for the overall,” he said. “It’s the other way around with Wout. It would not be honest for him. It is not fair to already be asking too much from him. It’s only his second year. He has to grow, and build on what he did last year.”

Van Aert is raring to go and looks to be ready for the big dates on the spring calendar. The only pressure that he feels is the pressure he puts on himself.

“Winning is always on the mind,” van Aert said. “Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s just one chance and one opportunity.”