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Wout van Aert aiming to get back into his rhythm in Dublin logo 05/12/2022 Gerard Cromwell

Belgian road and cyclo-cross superstar Wout van Aert had planned to start his cyclo-cross season a little earlier this winter, but illness saw him postpone his debut until the Antwerp round of the UCI Cyclo-Cross World Cup yesterday.

“The illness wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t ideal either,” he said before his off-road comeback, where he finished second to Mathieu van der Poel. “If I did have to get sick, it wasn’t so badly timed. When I started training with the bike again at the end of October, I had lost a lot of condition.

“I need to be able to catch up on that ’cross rhythm that I’m missing. I want to prepare as well as possible for January during the Christmas period. I’m at 90 percent myself, I think. I can ride at a high pace for a long time, but I still miss that acceleration.”

Even a Van Aert at 90 per cent though, should be enough to give Tom Pidcock, Eli Iserbyt and others a run for their money in the ninth round in Dublin.

Like his great rival on and off the road, Van der Poel, the Flandrian will be targeting the World Championships in February and with the Dutchman missing due to team training camp commitments, Van Aert will be aiming to lay down a marker in Abbotstown on Sunday.

Van Aert began his career in the world of cyclo-cross, turning professional with the Telenet-Fidea team in 2013 after he finished second in both the Belgian junior national title race and the junior world championships the year before.

Rising quickly through the pro ranks, he won 12 cyclo-cross races in 2014 and took the Belgian elite national title for the first time two years later. He then won the UCI Cyclo-Cross World Cup overall and the first of three consecutive UCI Cyclo-Cross World Championships in 2016.

He has taken the Belgian national title five times so far, despite venturing more onto the road for the first time during the 2018 season.

His road performances at the Strade-Bianche one-day classic, where he finished third, and other strong rides, saw him involved in a tug of war between his team at the time, Verandas Willems–Crelan and his current Jumbo-Visma squad for the following season.

The loss of such a precocious talent saw a million-euro compensation claim from his former team owners, but Van Aert still moved to Jumbo-Visma in March 2019 and after a court in Mechelen ruled in his favour eight months later, he hasn’t looked back since.

The 28-year-old Belgian is one of the brightest stars of the all-conquering WorldTour team on the road, winning three stages and the green jersey of point classification leader at this year’s Tour de France alone.

In his first season with Jumbo-Visma, he won two stages and the green jersey at the Criterium du Dauphine as well as a bunch sprint stage at his debut Tour de France, which he didn’t finish due to a crash on stage 10.

Since recovering from his injuries, Van Aert has become a star of the pro peloton and has won everything from time trials to bunch sprint finishes and even mountain stages of the Tour.

In the 2020 road season alone he won the classics Strade-Bianche, Milan-San Remo and two more stages of the Tour and silver medals in the time trial and road race at the world championships in Imola.

Last year, his versatility earned him silver medals in the Olympic road race, the cyclo-cross world championships and the world time trial championship.

He also won the Belgian national championships on the road and cyclo-cross, as well as the Gent-Wevelgem classic, Amstel Gold Race (in a photo finish with Tom Pidcock), three stages of the Tour de France, two stages of Tirreno-Adriatico and no less than four stages and the overall at the Tour of Britain.

It’s no wonder the comparisons to his all-conquering compatriot Eddy Merckx have been around for years.

“It’s impossible,” Van Aert said of the evaluation. “Eddy Merckx won the GC of the Tour five times and he won basically every race in the world of cycling. I’m just a really little cyclist compared with Eddy. I’m just proud of my own performances.”

Those performances continued this year with road wins at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Bretagne Classic, two stages of Paris-Nice, two stages of Criterium du Dauphine and three stages of the Tour de France, including the penultimate stage time trial.

Van Aert also went home with the green points jersey in all three of those stage races and even wore the coveted yellow jersey at the Tour in July for four days, all the while helping team-mate Jonas Vingegaard win the race overall, leading Rouleur magazine to remark that ‘Van Aert is peerless in the modern era.”

With the world title race on home soil in Hoogerheide on February 5, the Belgian is now back focused on his first love and has confirmed he will be in Dublin for the ninth round of the UCI Cyclo-Cross World Cup on Sunday.

“The world championships are close to home, on a circuit where I became world champion in the U-23 category,” he said last week. “They are my major goal of the winter.”

The versatile Belgian already has one eye on the new road season too though, and has hinted that he will skip the opening classic of the season, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which he won this year, in order to recover from a hard cross season.

“Because I’m now focusing on the Cyclo-Cross World Championships in Hoogerheide in February, my preparation for next spring will be different from last season. That means we have to do some things differently,” he said. “But I definitely see a return to the Italian competitions. Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo are certainly already on my mind.”

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