Wout Van Aert is a three-time cyclo-cross world champion but admitted he was nervous when he sat down between Peter Sagan and Michal Kwiatkowski at the pre-race Strade Bianche press conference on Friday afternoon.
The Belgian's latest world title and his desire to compete in the spring Classics helped his Verandas Willems-Crelan team secure a late wild card invitation to Strade Bianche. He is arguably an outsider but his presence at Strade Bianche has added an extra twist to the race, sparking huge fascination in Belgium and huge curiosity about if his cyclo-cross skills will help him be competitive in one of the hardest races of the season.
"I'm sitting between two great riders I'd never met until five minutes ago," Van Aert admitted with a smile.
"I was perhaps more nervous for the press conference than for the race, which is actually stupid because as a cyclo-cross rider I also get a lot of attention and I have also given a lot of press conferences."
He explained why he was nervous.
"I think this part of season is a big challenge and it's a big experience to ride the Classics. I did all 'cross season so difficult to be at my best level in every race but I accept the challenge and I want to learn a lot this spring," he said.
"I think the Strade Bianche dirt roads suit me because of riding cyclo-cross but you still need to pedal hard, it’s still cycling despite what advantage I have. I think the weather will make it a special edition."
Van Aert made the key selection in last Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and will also ride Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in the next few weeks. He sacrificed a number of cyclo-cross races and the related start money to be fresh for two months of road racing. He is still only 23 and so still testing his limits on the road.
A baptism of fire
He was unable to get a taste of the Strade Bianche gravel roads due to flying to Tuscany from Belgium on Friday morning. He faces a baptism of fire on Saturday with 63km of farm tracks during the 184km race.
"It's the first time that I do the spring Classics, so it’s a dream come true to compete in this race. I'm happy to be at start of Strade Bianche and I'm looking forward do my best," he said.
"My first road race last weekend went pretty well and so I hope to perform tomorrow. Let's see what happens. I think racing is about who handles the conditions the best. We'll have some special conditions and good technique on the bike will not be enough to get a result, you need to be in great shape too.”
The Belgian media pushed Van Aert to make a bolder prediction, asking if he could even win Strade Bianche.
"Winning will be super weird, it would come out of nowhere. I'll try and if I can ride the finale, I'll try my best," he said, staying modest but without writing off his chances or ambitions.
"It's not up to me to make such bold statements, I'd be better off handing out my business card than say too much. I do not know if things will work out. The peloton is even stronger here than last week (at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad), if I were to finish top 10 here, that would be a huge success.
“It is a course with a lot of climbing and you can not underestimate that factor. Climbers often end up high in the results but I think I'm a little too heavy to be able to go with those guys."