Belgium's concern at where the next Tom Boonen might come from began long before 'Tommeke' hung up his wheels after Paris-Roubaix in 2017 – although the search was probably always moot. In a country with this kind of cycling heritage, there will be home contenders at the Tour of Flanders for as long as there are cobbles and hills in the Flemish Ardennes.
Even so, rather like in Japan, eras in Belgian cycling tend to be defined by their emperors. The 1990s belonged to Johan Museeuw, who in turn ceded the crown to Boonen. Although Greg Van Avermaet has been Belgium’s most consistently successful cobbled Classics rider in recent seasons, this still has the feel of an interregnum rather than a definable epoch. He has, after all, yet to win the Tour of Flanders – the Ronde weighs rather more than Olympic gold in these parts – and he now risks being outshone by a new star: Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma).
After claiming a third cyclo-cross world title last year, Van Aert's decision to test himself at the cobbled Classics was deemed more a curiosity than a guarantee of instant success. Sven Nys, after all, made no impression when he made a short-lived attempt at a similar transition in the early 2000s. A remarkable third place at a snow-swept Strade Bianche saw expectations immediately rocket skywards, however, and Van Aert dealt ably with the pressure on home roads in April, riding assuredly to ninth place on his Ronde debut.
By the time he took bronze at the European Championships in August, Van Aert already had a foot out of the door at Crelan-Charles, although it took a protracted legal battle before he was finally able to extricate himself from his contract and step up to WorldTour level with Jumbo-Visma a year ahead of schedule in 2019.
Like last year, Van Aert's road season began late after he rode a full cyclo-cross calendar over the winter, culminating in a silver medal behind Mathieu van der Poel at the Worlds. Rather than feel his way into the campaign with some stage racing, Van Aert's road schedule has continued at the same staccato rhythm as his cyclo-cross one, with seemingly no ill effects.
The 24-year-old has raced just five times on the road in 2019, and only at WorldTour one-day events, yet he has strung together a most striking sequence of results. His 13th place at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was followed by another third at Strade Bianche. Rather more surprisingly, he was part of the winning move on the Poggio at Milan-San Remo, placing sixth on the Via Roma, earning praise from Boonen himself.
"What he did in the final kilometre on the Poggio was a great effort on his part," Boonen said on Sporza's Extra Time Koers analysis show last week. "I didn't think he would be capable of doing that already."
Van Aert proceeded to place second at the E3 BinckBank Classic, outsprinted by another man of cyclo-cross stock, Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep), while at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday, that pair seemed to have an extra gear on the Kemmelberg in comparison with the rest of the Classics grandees.
"The watts were high. Today I produced 325 watts on average – a hundred more than in San Remo," Van Aert said afterwards, joking: "San Remo was actually endurance training."
Van Aert in good company at the E3 BinckBank Classic, with Jungels, Bettiol, Van Avermaet and Štybar (Getty Images)
Although he eventually finished Gent-Wevelgem in 29th place, Van Aert was hailed in the immediate aftermath by Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. "The strongest man in the race? Wout van Aert!" read an opinion piece, which proceeded to call on Van Aert to postpone the start of his 2019-20 cyclo-cross season to make sure he was available to be one of the leaders of the Belgian team at the road Worlds in Yorkshire in September.
In Tuesday's edition of the same newspaper, Roger De Vlaeminck, long a champion of the compatibility of cyclo-cross and road racing, couldn't resist reaching for an 'I told you so' as he assessed the displays of Van Aert and Van der Poel, who placed fourth in his Classics debut at Gent-Wevelgem.
"If you have big class, then you can do everything. From the moment Van der Poel and Van Aert became professional cyclists, I knew that they would be two very good road racers. The best in Belgium and Holland. I said that," said De Vlaeminck, who dismissed comparisons with Sven Nys. "A good cyclist, Nys, but he didn't have big class. He was lucky that he didn't have to race against 'Van Aertje' and Van der Poel."
Despite his inexperience, Van Aert has been listed among the top echelon of Ronde contenders by local bookmakers, with most placing him on similar odds to Stybar, Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan. Deceuninck-QuickStep's performances to date suggest that the road to victory will go through the men in blue, but Jumbo-Visma's strength in numbers caught the eye at Gent-Wevelgem. They had no fewer than five riders in the 20-man echelon they forced on the windswept roads near Gistel.
Reporters surround Van Aert after Gent-Wevelgem (Getty Images)
On Tuesday, Het Laatste Nieuws conceded that Mike Teunissen's early-season claim that Jumbo-Visma wanted to be "the Wolfpack light" was not as far-fetched as it first seemed. "Two months later the yellow-black team has the second strongest block for the Classics after 'the real thing', Deceuninck-QuickStep," HLN wrote.
It helps, of course, that Van Aert has given repeated evidence of being the real deal when it comes to the Flemish Classics. His conversion from the hour-long efforts of the cyclo-cross campaign to the mammoth length of the Classics has been as startling as it has been seamless.
"Wout was the missing link, because we had no real leader before his arrival," veteran Maarten Wynants told Het Nieuwsblad. "Because Wout is performing, the good work of his teammates also stands out for the outside world."
Van Aert's ambitions for the Tour of Flanders are underscored by the fact that, like Van Avermaet, Stybar and Sagan, he will not line up at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, preferring to spare himself for the rigours of De Ronde. Never one to knowingly undersell, De Vlaeminck decreed that Van Aert – a native of Herentals, like the 'Emperor' Rik Van Looy – could even win Liège-Bastogne-Liège, although, in these parts, the early-April horizon is understandably dominated by the Ronde.
"He has the mentality of a rider who already been a professional for 10 years," Boonen said of Van Aert last week. "I don't see why he couldn't win a Tour of Flanders."
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