Despite his young age, Wout Van Aert (Crelan-Vastgoedservice) is living the life of a rock star. At the age of 21 he became the elite cyclo-cross world champion and winner of all the major series in cyclo-cross. This season he's living up to high expectations and taking over the role of now-retired cyclo-cross legend Sven Nys.
After nearly two months into the 2016 and 2017 racing season, Van Aert is leading the general classification of the World Cup and the DVV Trophy, and is only three points behind rival Mathieu van der Poel in the Superprestige series. After the third round of the Superprestige in Ruddervoorde on Sunday, he's headed for Calpe, Spain to take a small break.
Van Aert says he is starting to feel the weight of the pressure on his shoulders. In previous years, it was Nys who mostly dealt with the media.
"The season is very long. Every race where I'm present I have and want to perform. That's why I'm not racing everywhere. That's why it is important to search for some peace of mind.
"That's sometimes easier far away from home rather than in busy Belgium. It's not like I'm ending a first part of the season. Afterwards I'm two weeks at home and then back to Spain with the team. It's just good to train in a more comfortable temperature, as the weather in Belgium will be worse.
"It'll be good. I'll ride my bike and enjoy the calm that I'll hopefully find over there. In Belgium it's always quite hectic with a lot on my hands. It's not always possible to sit in the couch during the afternoon.
"Hopefully that will be possible over there. Enjoying warm temperatures and being far away from everybody with Sarah [De Bie, girlfriend – ed.]. I'm looking forward to that. My manager arranged a place near Calpe. It's great that I don't have to worry about that.
"Tomorrow [Monday] we're flying off and on Saturday I'm back. It'll be fun," Van Aert said, shortly after finishing as runner-up behind Van der Poel in Ruddervoorde after a mechanical.
While talking with the media in Ruddervoorde, Van Aert reacted somewhat agitated when asked about his chain problems during the race.
He explained that the chain problem had nothing to do with earlier chain problems he had this season, which were sorted out with SRAM.
"The bumpy ride in the Koppenbergcross proved that. The chain problem today came when the race was already lost. I realize that it's only normal that I'm asked about it, that there's a spotlight on me and Mathieu, and if something happens with our bike, when we cut the cheese or do whatever. I realize that this is the way it is but that doesn't make it easy."
World champion enjoys mixing US and European racing
During the month of September, the races didn't include van der Poel, who was out with a knee injury, skipping the much-discussed trip to the US for two World Cup rounds. Van der Poel doesn't seem keen on racing in the US, preferring to make the sport grow in Europe.
Van Aert feels differently, however. "For me it was great fun. It was good to meet a different kind of fans. People come watch you warm up or ask to take a picture. That's busy too but they're racers themselves. Here, when I'm exiting this interview tent then I'll be mobbed by children or drunk people. That's the success of cyclo-cross here. Over there it's more of a connaisseur-type crowd. The mixture of the two makes it enjoyable. I really had good fun there and hope to go back one day."
Back from the US, the races in Europe often ended in duels with van der Poel. The two are a close match to each other most races. Often the terrain turns out to be the decider.
Van Aert impressively won on Tuesday in the Koppenbergcross where van der Poel faltered. In Ruddervoorde, however, the Dutch rider excelled on the technical course. The scoreboard in direct duels this season after Ruddervoorde has Van Aert at three victories and van der Poel at five.
"The Koppenberg is something that suits me better. I can use my power there. It's something I like a lot. On courses like Ruddervoorde I have to search for points of improvement. It's a welcoming challenge. It's not that I'm not gunning for it on courses that don't suit me too well. It's important that I improve there too. I didn't make too many mistakes and was steering quite well but Mathieu takes on slightly more risks. Some aspects are part of your package, others are missing and will never work out for me. It's still a close call and that's great for the spectators," Van Aert said.
Superprestige Asper-Gavere on Van Aert's radar as next big victory
He is keen to add another big win next Sunday at the Superprestige's fourth round in Asper-Gavere.
"Gavere is a race I like a lot. I've won it three times as an U23 rider and last year in the elite ranks. I'm always headed there with a bag full of confidence. This midweek in Spain will hopefully allow me come back in great shape and take a first Superprestige point back in Gavere.
It's urgent to close in on his advantage. The next rounds in Francorchamps and Gavere should suit me well but if Mathieu is good, it suits him too.
"Gavere is quite technical too but I love the long climb there. Anything can happen in the Superprestige series. One bad day and a bonus can be gone, whereas the time-based classification of the Bpost [sic] can put you much further back after three defeats. It's exciting but much more stressful for the riders because you're never sure," Van Aert said.
In Ruddervoorde, not the course but a bike switch cost Van Aert the victory. "It was so stupid. I shouldn't have done it. I thought it might be good to have rings that run more smoothly and clean tubulars. On this wet course the sand was sticking on the bike. I thought it would be a bonus.
"Once in Diegem, I waited too long and then I broke my derailleur. I thought I wouldn't lose much time in the pit."
He was unable to get back on Van der Poel's wheel after the bike switch and after three laps at a close distance he eventually settled for second place.
"It wouldn't have changed the result," he said. "Mathieu would've won anyway. He was slightly better on the technical sections. There would have been a point where I would get dropped but it's a pity that I lost contact this way because afterwards I remained at seven or eight seconds for a long time.
"If we're riding at our pace then it's telling to see that we're so close to each other. Mathieu often has the punch to create a gap. If I have a good day then I can do that too but today [Sunday] on this course [Ruddervoorde] it wasn't possible to put him under pressure.
"Next time I have to think more thoroughly about whether to switch bikes or not."