Wout Van Aert (Crelan-Vastgoedservice) is the undeniable favourite for the Belgian Cyclo-cross Championship in Lille this weekend, but after falling short last season in his first attempt as an elite racer, the 21-year-old says he's better equipped to handle the pressure of being the rider to watch.
"I feel I'm ready for Sunday," Van Aert said according to Sporza. "It's different now. Last year I didn't quite know how it would weigh on me. I now know more of that pressure as favourite. I want to prove myself, too, but I feel more ready than last year."
Van Aert has shown that he can ride away solo, going flat out from start to finish and win, or he can take the victory in a sprint. "I know I can tackle the course in different ways and that gives me confidence. Other riders have fewer options," he said.
After starting out the season with an impressive string of victories, Van Aert struggled to match rival Mathieu van der Poel in the December World Cups in Zolder and Namur. He bounced back on New Year's Day in Baal, winning the GP Sven Nys. Since then he has tried to get as much rest as possible to be fresh for Sunday.
Pauwels took to the course on Thursday with his Marlux-Napoleon Games teammates. He said to Sport.be that he has no particular plan to try and beat Van Aert, but will do his best. "I hope that on Sunday I can be strong. I'll do my best. I have to just try to follow as he attacks the others. If that fails, it will just be a boring cross [race]."
The quiet 31-year-old has never won a Belgian title since his junior years, but says he isn't concerned. "No, I do not feel any pressure on my shoulders. If I never get Belgian champion, then so be it. Wout is the top favorite after him and I along with Sven Nys and Tom Meeusen have an equal chance to get that title."