World champion Wout Van Aert (Crelan-Charles) captured a seemingly easy win at the Belgian championships in Ostend on Sunday afternoon. In absence of arch rival Mathieu van der Poel (Beobank-Corendon) there were no Belgian rivals ready to fight up against the 22-year-old cyclo-cross star. Despite the spectacular course that was displayed at the Ostend hippodrome and North Sea beach, the championships missed tension to please the neutral spectators.
"That’s understandable, but fans also like to see the best rider win the race," Van Aert said at the post-race press conference in the Thermae Palace Hotel, next to the Royal Galleries in Ostend. "At a small race it’s sometimes an option to think about the tension. That’s not the case not at the championships because there’s always the option of mechanical failures. Immediately I rode at my own pace. I didn’t expect that the gaps would be that big. For a rider, it’s the most fun way to win. Of course, a win after a close race is nice but at the championships this is extra-ordinary.”
Straight away, the gaps were massive in Ostend. Van Aert managed the holeshot and never allowed anybody else to take over the lead on Sunday. One of the key obstacles in Ostend was a massive temporary bridge with an altitude of eight metres that connected the Wellington hippodrome with the beach, allowing car and tram traffic to pass underneath. The ramps of the bridge were as steep as 21 degrees.
Riders were to tackle the bridge twice a lap, once heading to the beach and once back the hippodrome. When climbing up the bridge back to the hippodrome, Van Aert already had a bonus of seven seconds. He was only seen back at the finish line.
"Everybody starts the race with great ambition," Van Aert said. "When you’re riding together for a few laps, others are gaining belief that something is possible. It was my goal to suppress that hope as soon as possible. If you’re 10 seconds ahead after one lap then they realise that it’ll be hard to come back. They will more likely focus on second place rather than getting back to the front."
Coming into the race, Van Aert was the clear top favourite, and the race showed that there was no reason to have doubts about that status. Belgium’s best cyclo-cross rider of the moment emphasized that he wasn’t a winner until he crossed the finish line.
"I’ve been beaten before, even last week [on New Year’s Day in Baal by Toon Aerts, Ed.] A race always has to be ridden. Feeling unbeatable is dangerous and plain wrong," Van Aert said. "I always try to remain humble, I think. I try to talk through my performances, rather than with words."
When asked which Belgian rider would be able to beat him during the upcoming years, Van Aert explained he wasn’t to be compared with men like Sven Nys just yet. "We’re a very young generation. It’s not so long ago since Laurens Sweeck was beating me every week in the youth categories. It’s in the past but it might return in the future. Not everybody is able to ride at a high level like Sven Nys has done in his career. Of course I hope to stay at the same high level but nothing’s infinite. That’s something important, something to bear in mind," Van Aert said.
When asked about the world championships, Van Aert tried to hold off the topic.
"At the TV studio they asked two questions about the race and then worlds was the topic too," he said. "Allow me to enjoy this win first. Tonight I’ll celebrate with the fans on home soil. Tomorrow I race in Otegem and on Tuesday I’m heading for a training camp in Spain to focus on the world championships."
Next week Van Aert flies over to Italy for the World Cup round in Fiuggi, in the Lazio region. His rival Mathieu van der Poel announced that he would skip the World Cup round to continue training in Belcasim, Spain.
"I didn’t know abou it. It’s a pity but he can decide on his own schedule,” Van Aert said. "He doesn’t need to defend a World Cup classification. It’s his choice to skip this race."
Van Aert still has classifications to defend in the World Cup, and after the world championships in Bieles, Luxembourg there’s also the Superprestige and DVV cyclo-cross series. The pressure to get a win at the Belgian or at the world championships is gone. Apparently, even before the Belgian championships Van Aert was relaxed.
"I learned a lot from previous years," he said. "I was quite relaxed this week which was in stark contrast with last year and especially two years ago. Some say that you can only lose the race but there’s so many other things in life that are so important. I already had 13 victories. I aimed for the win but my world wouldn’t end if it wouldn’t have worked out."