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UPDATE: Veranda’s Willems distances itself from talk of Aqua Blue acquisition

Still unclear where world cyclocross champ and emerging classics talent Wout Van Aert will ride in 2019

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Not long after Aqua Blue Sport announced via its website that it was acquiring fellow Pro Continental outfit Veranda’s Willems-Crelan, both teams have distanced themselves from any talk of an acquisition.

For a few hours, it appeared that world cyclocross champ and budding classics specialist Wout Van Aert would be riding in Aqua Blue kit in 2019, but the initial post on the Aqua Blue website has since been taken down. Meanwhile, team founder Rick Delaney has tweeted, “Don’t you just love fake news everywhere”—although it is not expressly clear that he is referring to the reports of a Veranda’s Willems deal.

The Belgian squad went further, delivering a statement on the news.

“We dissociate ourselves expressly from all communication that has been published today regarding the supposed acquisition of our team by Aqua Blue Sport,” Veranda’s Willems tweeted Wednesday afternoon. “We can confirm however that Sniper Cycling and Aqua Blue Sport are currently holding talks to look into a possible collaboration from 2019 onwards. Out of respect to all parties involved, we will currently refrain from further comments.”

Aqua Blue Sport had initially announced earlier Wednesday morning that it had bought Sniper Cycling, which runs the Veranda’s Willems-Crelan squad. While the two Pro Continental teams only count a few riders signed through the coming year between them, star Van Aert is one of them.

With Veranda’s Willems’s sponsorship outlook unclear for the near future, rumors had circulated around the sport that Van Aert might jump ship for LottoNL-Jumbo on the road. Instead, the acquisition by Aqua Blue Sport could see Van Aert headlining the Irish team for at least the coming season, if a deal does ultimately go through.

The 23-year-old Belgian has won three elite world cyclocross titles, and over the past three years has gradually developed as a road rider, turning heads this classics season with a podium ride at Strade Bianche and top 10s in Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders. In his new digs, he would continue to have the opportunity to compete both on the road and in cyclocross events.

According to Delaney in the now-removed announcement on the team website, the acquisition would be part of a larger initiative to expand. Delaney has made no secret of his intentions to seek a WorldTour upgrade in the future. Aqua Blue received a Vuelta a España invite in 2017 and duly delivered a stage victory there with Stefan Denifl, but that was not enough to earn them any grand tour bids this season, much to the team’s chagrin.

Aqua Blue racing at the Hammer Series Stavanger Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

With a marquee name like Van Aert on the roster, Aqua Blue could at least expect a few more invitations to major races in 2019.

“This is a golden opportunity to expand our project internationally, and increase our audience for the e-commerce project,” Delaney said in the initial statement.

“Wout will be a huge addition to the Aqua Blue Sport squad and we are currently in negotiations with a number of other high-profile riders for the 2019 season. We will hopefully announce these signings shortly.”

Veranda’s Willems’s general manager — and former Tour of Flanders winner — Nick Nuyens was also reported to be joining Aqua Blue as part of the acquisition.

“Aqua Blue Sport is going from strength to strength, on the road and also off it,” Nuyens said. “I am very excited to be able to be involved in the team going forward.”