Wout van Aert and Toon Aerts have been named as team leaders of the Belgian men's squad for the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships, in the hope that one of them can take on and beat the dominant Mathieu van der Poel.
Sanne Cant will lead the women's squad as she targets another world title, with Loes Sels, Ellen Van Loy and Laura Verdonschot also selected. Eli Iserbyt leads the men's under-23 team, while Thibau Nys - the son of two-time world champion Sven Nys - is part of the men's junior team.
This year's Cyclo-cross World Championships will be held in Bogense, Denmark on the weekend of February 2-3, with a circuit that looks out over the sea. The elite women's race will be held on Saturday and the elite men's event on Sunday.
Belgium can field seven riders and could add an eighth place if Toon Aerts wins the UCI World Cup series at next week's final race in Hoogerheide. Belgian national coach Sven Vanthourenhout confirmed that Tim Merlier, rather than Thijs Aerts, will be Belgian's eighth rider if Aerts completes his control of the World Cup series.
Aerts beat Van Aert to win the recent Belgian national title, but Van Aert turned the tables when he beat Aerts in a sprint to win Sunday's World Cup race in Pont-Château, France. Van der Poel missed the race to rest up for the World Championships.
Cant did not compete in Pont-Château, with Marianne Vos of the Netherlands going on to win the elite women's race and secure her overall success in the series. Cant and Vos are among the favourites for the women's title but others could be a threat after a number close races throughout the cyclo-cross season.
"I have discussed the selection with the captains and they understand them all," Vanthourenhout said when announcing the team.
"A good Tim Merlier would normally always be a certainty, but he couldn't prove himself this winter due to several circumstances. If he is not there, he will still be missed. His only task was to dive into the first corner each time first to prevent Mathieu van der Poel from driving away immediately, and he always succeeded."
Last year Van der Poel dominated the cyclo-cross season, but Van Aert managed to beat him after finding a late peak of form. Van der Poel has dominated the cyclo-cross season once again and is the huge favourite for Bogense, despite the Belgian strength as a team. Van Aert has had a difficult start to the season, but he has turned things around as the World Championships near.
"With Van Aert and Aerts, I have two leaders who really want to go for victory, so it is up to me as a coach to go along with them and support them," Vanthourenhout said.
"Based on what we have seen in the past few weeks, I put the two on the same level, although Wout is of course still the multiple world champion. We are all too well aware that we are dealing with someone who has outpaced everyone this season and who is likely to do so in Denmark.
"The days when he was really impressive, he was really impressive, and I think he has added one to two percent on top of that. His physical qualities are phenomenal, and I really only have a lot of respect for that."
Belgian team for the Cyclo-cross World Championships:
Elite men: Wout van Aert, Toon Aerts, Michael Vanthourenhout, Laurens Sweeck, Quinten Hermans, Gianni Vermeersch, Jens Adams, Tim Merlier (if Toon Aerts wins the World Cup). Reserves: Thijs Aerts and Kevin Pauwels
Under-23 men: Niels Derveaux, Andreas Goeman, Eli Iserbyt, Timo Kielich, Lander Loockx, Niels Vandeputte.
Junior men: Lennert Belmans, Ryan Cortjens, Ward Huybs, Witse Meeusen, Thibau Nys, Jelle Vermoote.
Elite women: Sanne Cant, Loes Sels, Ellen Van Loy, Laura Verdonschot.
Under-23 women: Axelle Bellaert, Jinse Peeters, Marthe Truyen.