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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Three-time cyclocross world champion Wout van Aert is having a dream debut on the road this 2018 season.
“It’s above my expectations and I really enjoy racing the Flemish classics,” he told VeloNews. “It’s really tough racing, but I like them.”
After Sven Nys retired, attention turned to Wout van Aert. The 23-year-old has been a top cyclocross rider for the last winter seasons, collecting three rainbow jerseys in a row at the world championships. He also won three road races in 2017 but only raced one WorldTour event late in that season.
For 2018, he decided to make a deeper push into road cycling with his Veranda’s Willems-Crelan team managed by former Tour of Flanders winner Nick Nuyens. Thanks partly to van Aert, the team received invitations to Strade Bianche and Gent-Wevelgem, as well as the big monuments, Tour Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
“I was the most afraid of the mental aspect. Focusing after the world championships was not easy, but I had this planned for a long time on my mind, and it made it easy to make the switch,” continued van Aert.
“In cyclocross, it’s just one hour and you know it’s full-gas from the start and [on the road], it’s always doubting where the decision will be made. For sure, in the classics, it’s even harder because it’s nervous from the start. Everyone wants to be in the front. It’s difficult to read the races. And that’s why you need a lot of experience for these races.”
Van Aert can lean on Nuyens’s experience but also that of veteran teammate and two-time Flanders winner, Stijn Devolder. Sunday, van Aert made the 23-man move over the Kemmelberg and rode to 10th place behind Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) in Gent-Wevelgem.
Earlier this month, he showed his skills on the rain-soaked gravel roads around Siena. He rode clear at 45 kilometers to go with Romain Bardet, who was second and third in the last two editions of the Tour de France. Van Aert survived brutal cramps to place third.
“I have nothing to lose, I came out of the cyclocross season and I came in wanting to learn, sometimes you learn more by trying than not trying at all. That was my mindset,” van Aert explained.
“For me, it was good fun. I could use some of my skills to get in front on the gravel sections.”
At the start of Strade Bianche, van Aert sat next to Sagan. Though they are both three-time world champions, Sagan seemed to not know his name. van Aert knew Sagan’s.
“I think [they recognize me now]. I don’t know. Let’s see if it’ll make a difference, but in the race, it’s just a big war and everyone wants to be in the best spot. You have no friends.”
Van Aert plans to race through Paris-Roubaix and Tro-Bro Léon. After that, he will need to take a break to be ready for the 2018/2019 cyclocross season. As the major star, he can demand huge start fees for the races.
Nuyens may sprinkle some more road races on his calendar, but the idea is that van Aert will return to the trails that made him famous before evaluating a complete transition away from cyclocross.
“I don’t know. It’s my first spring season on the road and afterwards we’ll make an evaluation, but I think money is never a good motivation [to stay with cyclocross],” van Aert explained.
“I will always choose with my heart. I’ll choose the way I think I’ll like the most. It’s not clear yet for me.”