Road

Wout van Aert sets expectation soaring for spring with crushing ‘cross campaign

Van Aert closed out his 'cross season with nine wins from 10 and the Belgian title, setting home hype to warp-speed for cobbled classics.

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Want to set expectations soaring the Wout van Aert way?

Go and win nine races out of 10 and a fifth national title.

After a near-faultless winter closed out with a dominant Begian title defense Sunday, home hero van Aert now turns to the road and the upcoming spring classics. Cobblestone goals and a whole heap of home hype await.

Despite proving untouchable this ‘cross season, van Aert choose to forgo an almost open door to a fourth world title in Fayetteville later this month. With the decision now done, anything less than a huge harvest of road results from van Aert this year will be met with inquests and upset from Brussels to the beyond.

Despite his phenomenal palmarès this winter, it’s a dead-cert that van Aert is done with ‘cross for the year. From Monday onward, Wout is in road-mode as he jets to Alicante, Spain, for a 10-day camp with Jumbo-Visma.

“I have no doubt,” van Aert said of his cyclocross-road trade-off Sunday. “From Monday I will do long training sessions. It would be stupid to change my mind [about racing CX worlds] at the last minute.”

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The clock is now counting down toward the “opening weekend” of the classics in late February, and with every passing day, cycling-mad Belgian media and “cult of Wout” home fans will be expecting bigger and bigger things.

Van Aert came up short in his three biggest goals last year, missing the moves at Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, and the Leuven worlds. Ending his ‘cross season early, even when he seems a shoo-in for the title now that Mathieu van der Poel has pulled out, is van Aert’s strategy for making sure he doesn’t fall short again in the races that matter to him most.

But it will also exaggerate anything short of a series of wins in the months to come.

The scale of van Aert’s ambition for 2022 has already seen him take a preview of the Wollongong road worlds course. The long flight to Australia is still nine months in the long view, but he’s already dreaming of rainbows.

“Of course, the world championships are a goal,” he said Sunday. “It’s something I haven’t achieved yet, and it will always be a big goal for years to come. The course in Australia can be very beautiful … It is still a long way off, but something I am definitely thinking about.”

But first comes the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. As a thoroughbred Flandrien, the two cobbled monuments hold a prestige that punch far above van Aert’s victories at Milano-Sanremo, Amstel Gold Race, or Strade Bianche.

For Belgian fans, De Ronde is the most sacred of Sundays, the climax of the so-called “Holy Week” and the day the nation comes to a standstill.

The weight of expectation that van Aert and his Belgian brawlers felt ahead of their ruptured ride at the Leuven worlds was just a taster of what’s to come for the Jumbo-Visma captain this spring. It’s a pressure-pot that will keep boiling through until September, where Belgium will want to see its first world champion since Philippe Gilbert in 2012.

Van Aert will be hoping “choking” isn’t really a thing.

From ‘cross to the cobbles – translating the hero-status

Van Aert conquered ‘cross – now to convert it to the cobbles. (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

However van Aert’s season goes in the months to come, his crushing ‘cross season is in the books after a long solo in Middelkerke on Sunday.

It was only a jammed chain at the very start of the race in Hulst that robbed him the opportunity to go unbeaten through a season that has put him on a pedestal similar to Belgian ‘cross legends like Eric De Vlaeminck or Sven Nys.

“This means a lot to me. Now for the fifth time Belgian champion – that is a very nice number,” van Aert said Sunday. “I think I am now in a list where few come close. I already said it before, I attach great importance to that jersey. I have been able to ride it for a whole year now that I am also Belgian champion on the road, and it is one of the most beautiful jerseys in the peloton.”

Van Aert now has to match that Belgian tricolor and the nine races that came before it with a similarly sizzling road season. The curtain-raising cobblestones of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad are now just seven weeks away and a nation expects.

But first? Celebrations, Belgium-style.

“I’m going to celebrate this title with a good pack of chips and a beer,” van Aert said Sunday. “I’m still a Belgian, hey. And I’ve been able to keep it off in the last few weeks.”