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Instead of backing just one leader, this year the elite men’s Belgian team will race for Van Aert along with recently crowned Vuelta a España winner Remco Evenepoel in order to open the team’s options.
“It was just not meant to be. For sure I learned from it, and as a team we learned from it,” Van Aert said of the 2021 worlds. “Now as a team with go with two leaders to Wollongong.”
Last year, the wheels unraveled on the heavily favored Belgian team racing on home roads in Leuven when the team backed Van Aert as the singular leader.
Julian Alaphilippe upturned those plans when the Frenchman attacked to win his second world title in a row, leaving Belgian to race for leftovers after Van Aert could not respond.
Recriminations played out for weeks in the Belgian media.
“I want to look forward, and I think it’s enough said that we learned from it and we are going to do it differently,” Van Aert said. “This year the other ones have to watch two Belgians and not only one.”
Van Aert said last year’s worlds played out in a different manner than he was expecting. Evenepoel attacked early in the race, and when Alaphilippe and others countered in the closing laps, Belgium covered the move with Jasper Stuyven, but no one was there to protect Van Aert.
Stuyven was fourth and Van Aert was 11th in a race that was heavily critiqued in the Belgian media on how it played out.
“We always try to improve. Last year was not even a matter of my physical condition. In Leuven, I was surprised how aggressive the racing was from the French team, and I got stressed in the race instead of keeping calm, and that cost me a lot of energy that you need in hard final like that,” Van Aert said in a media roundtable in Canada.
“Last year, I was the only leader, and with a guy as strong as Remco, it’s always better to go as a co-leader and race together, instead of offering his chance even before the start [early attack], so that is something we learned as a team. We will do it different this year.”
Van Aert: ‘We could have played it different in the final last year’
Van Aert was hesitant about replaying the 2021 worlds over again in the media, but said that the Belgian team took lessons from Leuven to carry into Wollongong.
Van Aert said it’s obvious that Evenepoel now deserves co-leader status, something that was no so clear as the young Belgian was coming off injury in a crash at Il Lombardia in 2020.
“We could have played it different in the final last year, but there were more doubts about his condition last year after a difficult summer for him. Now it’s obvious how strong he is,” Van Aert said of Evenepoel.
“It was not smart to use his power already from the beginning. The first time he was on the attack was with 200km to go I think. That is not what he should have done,” he said. “I think I can handle the pressure of being the only leader, that is not the problem.”
For Van Aert, sharing leadership duties with Evenepoel doesn’t change that much for him.
The final Belgian strategy will be spelled out in the coming days as the team regroups in Australia, but Van Aert said Evenepoel will have freedom to move late in the race, while Van Aert can save his legs for a reduced bunch sprint where his finishing speed will be hard to match.
“With Remco at the front, the others have to chase, and that can be a really good situation for me,” he said.
“The course looks very promising. It’s hard to judge what you see online, but a 1K climb at 7 percent, it sounds really familiar to what we know in Belgium,” Van Aert said.
“Also this year I’ve proven that I am really strong on kickers like this. That’s good for the mental aspect, but we will see,” he said. “We have a super strong team going there, and we can race with our own strength in mind.”
If Belgium brings home its first elite men’s rainbow jersey since 2012, the controversy of 2021 in Leuven will be long forgotten.
— Belgian Cycling Team (@BELCyclingTeam) September 15, 2022