Two-time cyclo-cross world champion Bart Wellens has had it tough over the past few years, but is hoping to turn his bad luck around with a fresh start to the season in the USA. The change has already resulted in two victories in Washington state this past week, but Wellens has his sights on something bigger: his first World Cup win in five seasons.
Plagued by illness and injury as well as a fresh young crop of super-talented 'cross racers, the Belgian has in recent seasons not lived up to the stellar reputation which includes two Belgian championships (2004, 2007), the World Cup overall in 2003 and the overall Superprestige and GvA Trofee in 2004.
Wellens, 33, made some changes to his build-up to cyclo-cross season in hopes of reviving a career that has seen a steadily declining number of victories since his peak in 2004.
"The last three years I had lots of injuries, lots of problems. Every year you get older and older and it gets harder to come back," Wellens told Cyclingnews at last week's CrossVegas. "This year I hope to be back with the best in Belgium."
For the first time in five years, Wellens is back working with a trainer - Marc Lamberts, the same man responsible for Omega Pharma-Lotto's Jurgen Van den Broeck's fine performances. He's been with Lamberts for three months, and already Wellens can see the difference.
"It's completely different, and for me it's better. I hope I can see the difference this winter."
Wellens missed half of the 2010-2011 season due to cytomegalovirus, and when he announced his comeback and was immediately selected for the Koksijde World Cup, other riders in the Belgian program protested being passed over for an unknown quantity. Wellens rallied and took fifth, ending the season as the sixth-ranked Belgian in the UCI standings, but with just one victory for the year in a C2 race.
As competition from a deep field of Belgian talent, including youngsters like his teammates Tom Meeusen and Rob Peeters, threatens Wellens' position in the national team, he knows he has to be at his best to ensure that he makes the squad for the World Cups and the world championships. He wants to show that time hasn't ticked down on his career.
"I'm now 33, I always said I'd stop at 35 and go to do something in cycling with teams or young riders, but as 35 comes closer I don't want to think about stopping. We'll see when I'm 35. If I'm good enough I will keep going, otherwise I will go work.
"This year I want to win one big race, and the big challenge is to win five races," he said. "But I want to be consistently with the top riders."
His trip to America is a way to gain some momentum for the season and to scout out the 2013 world championship venue in Louisville, Kentucky. But it's also "a big adventure".
"I want to see what cyclo-cross is like here in the US. It may be my first time here, but it also might be the last time I get this chance. The team gave me this chance to come and it was welcome."
After experiencing three races: CrossVegas where his solo attack was nullified in the last lap and the Starcrossed and Rapha-Focus GP, both of which he won, Wellens has achieved his goal of earning some UCI points, but also gained new respect for the American riders.
"Now I know what it feels like for the US riders to come to Europe - where they don't have all the support and equipment, and you have to travel a lot and you're tired. Now that I know what it's like for them when they come to Europe, I have more respect for the ones that do," he said after the Starcrossed race.
Wellens and Peeters travel next to Louisville to check out the 2013 Worlds course before heading to Sun Prairie, Wisconsin for the first round of the US Grand Prix of Cyclo-cross. The pair will then head back to Europe to resume their season in Belgium.