Wout van Aert ‘Better Than Hoped’ in CX Season Debut, but Confirms Worlds Are off Agenda
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However his pessimistic assessment turned out to be either completely off the mark or deliberate deflection, as the Belgian decimated the field at the Robotland cyclocross in Essen. He broke clear on lap four of seven and eventually crossed the line 1:36 ahead of Jens Adams (Athletes for Hope), and 2:51 in front of Thijs Aerts (Circus-Reuz-Technord).
And even if many of the biggest names out of the cyclocross regulars were missing, including an absent World Cup leader Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal), plus the yet-to-compete duo of Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers), he said he was encouraged with his form.
“I needed the first few laps to assess my form and assess the competition,” he stated. “Every lap, the conditions got harder and harder, and halfway through the race, I noticed I was the best in the running sectors. Then, I found my rhythm, which allowed me to build up a lead. I struggled a bit at the end, but that is not unusual on a course like this. It’s always good to start here. I am happy that I was able to please the crowd.”
Van Aert is deliberated doing a limited cyclocross program in order to further his goals of the strongest-possible classics campaign. He told Sporza before Saturday’s race that he would definitely miss both the Belgian championships and the world championships.
“It is with a heavy heart, but it is a conscious choice to quickly make the transition to the road season and experience a quiet winter,” he explained.
“If the Belgian championships had been held closer to the Christmas period, I would have liked to participate, but now it doesn’t fit. The world championships are again at the beginning of February. I have already made the worlds-spring combination, but now I opt for something else .
“The crosses that I do ride, I just hope to give the best of myself.”
Win number 🖐️ in Essen. pic.twitter.com/phVFT5EmEb
— Team Jumbo-Visma cycling (@JumboVismaRoad) December 9, 2023
The decision is prompted in part by his spring classics campaign in 2023. While he won the E3 Saxo Classic, he had frustrating near-misses in several key events. He was runner-up in Gent-Wevelgem, third in both Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix, fourth in the Tour of Flanders. He was also not at top form in the Tour de France, with two second places and two thirds as close as he got to a victory.
Runner up to Van der Poel in the world road race championships will also have frustrated him, although he did end the season on a brighter note by winning the Tour of Britain and the Coppa-Bernocchi.
Still, five road wins out of 54 days of competition falls short of his usual targets, sharpening his resolve for 2024.
He will take encouragement from how Saturday’s race went, and consequently will travel to a Visma-Lease a Bike training camp after the weekend in good morale.
“The feeling today was better than I had hoped,” he said. “It was difficult to predict how I would do here. This winter, I am deliberately taking a calmer approach than in previous years. It’s good not to put too much pressure on myself during the winter. Above all, I want to have fun, and that was the case today.”
His next cross race will be in Mol on December 22nd, where he will square up against his big rival on and off road, Mathieu van der Poel. Before then, the Visma-Lease a Bike camp will enable him to keep building.
“I hope to improve my form during the training camp for the upcoming Christmas period. After my last race in January, I will concentrate on the upcoming road season.”
With an important classics campaign, a first-ever Giro d’Italia participation and the Olympic Games all looming, 2024 will be a crucial year.