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On Friday afternoon, van Aert sat before a group of Dutch, Flemish, and American journalists and fielded questions about Sunday’s Tour of Flanders. What did he think about the course? Could his Jumbo-Visma team overcome Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s numbers and experience? Where did he plan to attack?
When asked whether the stress and media hype around his Flanders attempt was greater than that during his cyclocross campaigns, van Aert smiled.
“[Flanders] is easier. Cyclocross is more stressful,” van Aert said. “For Sunday there are 10-15 favorites, and the attention like this is on everyone. In cyclocross, they only talk about me and Mathieu [van der Poel], and we get all of the same questions for weeks.”
In fact, van Aert was adamant that cyclocross created a more pressure-filled environment that the Tour of Flanders, which he first raced last season, finishing ninth. A three-time world cyclocross champion, van Aert said even cyclocross’s racing format generated more stress.
“Cyclocross is stressful because everything needs to be right in the first minute, and the race is just one hour,” van Aert continued. “The Tour of Flanders is a long race and so much can happen during it. I don’t think it makes much sense to think too much about each race situation.”
Van Aert’s laid-back attitude may help him block out the expectations that have quickly been lumped on his shoulders. At 24, he has become the new darling of Belgian road cycling over the past month, due to his impressive results at the early-season classics. His near-miss at E3 BinckBank Classic generated national praise — he outsprinted Flemish cycling hero Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team).
At the finish line in Harelbeke, van Aert was swarmed by a massive number of photographers and television cameras. Van Aert’s image then appeared prominently on national newspapers, alongside stories praising his strong form.
His strong form comes as other Belgian stars — Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) appear to be battling illness.
Yet van Aert shrugged off comments that he had become Belgium’s best hope to win the race.
“Actually I didn’t think about being Belgium’s hope,” van Aert said. “I think it’s about my own and the team’s ambitions that are important.
Van Aert acknowledged his place on the short list of favorites and said that he has greater ambitions for Sunday than he did a year ago when he made his Flanders debut.
“I look forward to the race, and I try to enjoy this fact of being a favorite for the Tour of Flanders my second time,” he said. “It’s kind of crazy.”
Whether van Aert finds himself in a position to win could depend on his Jumbo-Visma team. Throughout this cobbled classics season, Jumbo-Visma has emerged as one of the strongest in the bunch.
During Gent-Wevelgem, Jumbo-Visma placed its riders in all of the early breakaways, and placed three riders — van Aert included — in a 20-man break that got away early. The team also seized control of the peloton throughout the middle section of the race, helping split the group up in the gusting crosswinds.
Nico Verhoeven, the team’s sport director, said they plan for similarly aggressive tactics on Sunday.
“Everyone is still talking about that moment at Gent-Wevelgem where the team was pulling and dropped a lot of riders,” Verhoeven said. “When you look to Sunday there will be a moment in the race where you can do something like that. You have to do it just when you have the chance.”
Whether those tactics deliver van Aert into the final move is yet to be seen. Van Aert is confident he has the legs to ride into the winning selection of riders on Sunday. When asked if he plans to attack, or wait for the sprint, van Aert played it safe.
“It’s hard to say right now because a sprint after such a race is different than a normal sprint,” van Aert said. “You can see for example in Harelbeke when you beat a guy like Van Avermaet, you’re very close to the win, but I still got beaten by Stybar. I would say I will follow my feelings at that point.”