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When you’ve got a team that includes the top favorite Wout van Aert and outside contenders Remco Evenepoel, Jasper Stuyven, and Tiesj Benoot, your biggest problem is deciding which one of them is going for the win.
But as far as the Belgian team’s mindset for this year’s world championships road race is concerned, there will be only one rider wearing the captain’s armband for Sunday’s race through Flanders.
“Wout is our man, that’s all that matters,” Stuyven said in a press conference Thursday.
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The Belgian team has been under the microscope in past weeks as the cycling-mad home media ramps up expectations on van Aert and “the next Eddy Merckx” that is Evenepoel.
After steamrollering the season so far, Van Aert was a shoo-in for leadership as soon as the Belgian team was announced, but questions have been swirling around Evenepoel’s dedication to his elder.
After the 21-year-old Evenepeol attacked early before burning out and leaving van Aert on his lonesome at the Olympic road race this summer, will Remco repeat the rookie error this weekend?
Even Belgian legend Merckx has weighed in on the topic, telling Het Nieuwsblad that Evenepoel could blow apart the host nation’s bid for its first rainbow jersey since Philippe Gilbert in 2012.
“If there really is only one leader, you shouldn’t take Evenepoel with you,” said Merckx, who holds semi-sovereign status in Belgium. “He mainly rides for himself, we saw that at the Olympics.”
Evenepoel tamped down any suggestions of intra-squad mutiny Thursday. Like Stuyven, Benoot, Yves Lampaert, and a whole host of top home talent, Evenepoel promises to rally around van Aert as the Belgians look to set up a reduced bunch sprint.
“We only have one plan, and that is Wout. One ultimate leader for whom we have to do as much work as possible, that makes it easy,” Evenepoel said. “For the rest, it remains to be seen what Sven [Vanthourenhout, national coach] has in store, in terms of roles. Only Tim Declercq knows for sure what awaits him.”
Evenepoel also wasn’t shy in hitting back at three-time world champion Merckx.
“I have a lot of respect for him and his record, but apparently that is not mutual,” Evenepoel said. “He should know that I also just do my best and work hard. I’m not at the start to screw the team. That doesn’t even occur to me.”
Van Aert stacks his chips on a sprint
As the event hosts with the top favorite in their midst, the Belgian squad is under pressure to deliver Sunday.
Although the sky-blue ballers could play the race in any number of ways on a course littered with climbs Sunday, Team Belgium is looking to lend van Aert a limousine ride toward a reduced bunch sprint rather than trying to crack the race open too early.
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“Offense is sometimes the best defense, but the ideal scenario for me right now is to go to the final in saving mode,” van Aert said. “I have to dare to trust my sprint. I’m not afraid of anyone.”
Van Aert cited France, Italy, Denmark, Tom Pidcock, Matej Mohorič, and – of course – longtime rival Mathieu van der Poel as his main opponents.
Rather than burning his own matches too early by trying to match riders one-on-one, van Aert is trusting his team – including Evenepoel – just as much as he is relying on his sprint.
“I can have bad legs or go through something. But we all start with the idea that I’m the one who should try to finish the race,” van Aert said. “Everyone realizes that I have the best chances. I have faith in the team. They will ride strong and can counter many attacks for me. That could give me a luxury position.”
Van Aert seemed happy enough that Evenepoel knows his place now that the youngster has repeatedly defended himself against questions probing into his intentions.
For now, at least, it’s all calm in the Belgian team bus, and van Aert bears the burden of his nation’s expectations.
“We are both hard workers who feel the same way. I think it’s fantastic to hear how motivated he is to contribute as part of the team,” van Aert said of Evenepoel. “I am absolutely not afraid that we would not be on the same page.”
Belgian coach Vanthourenhout will be hoping Remco and Wout have both been reading the same book in the past few nights.