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State of the Nation: Analysing Belgium's men's 2021 World Championships team

OYAMA, JAPAN - JULY 24: Wout van Aert of Team Belgium during the Men's road race at the Fuji International Speedway on day one of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 24, 2021 in Oyama, Shizuoka, Japan. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
Wout van Aert among his Belgium teammates at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics road race, where he took silver (Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Ahead of the 2021 UCI Road World Championships elite road races, Cyclingnews is taking a deep dive into the key teams.

History

As the most successful nation in Worlds men's road race history with 26 rainbow jerseys, the past two decades have been relatively barren for the Belgians. With two gold medals – the most recent coming courtesy of Philippe Gilbert in 2012 – as well as Wout van Aert's silver in Imola and Peter Van Petegem's bronze, they lag well behind Spain (12 medals including three golds) and Italy (eight and four).

Their last three medals have been spaced out across 15 years, which is some achievement given the depth of talent the country has been able to call on in that time. This year, Van Aert will hope to add his name alongside his 18 countrymen who have won gold – including Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx, Freddy Maertens, Johan Museeuw, and Tom Boonen.

Line-up

Key riders

It's no surprise that Belgium bring one of the strongest squads to the race, especially given they'll be battling on home ground. Few other nations can say they have left riders like Gilbert, Oliver Naesen, Greg Van Avermaet and Tim Wellens at home – in addition to top sprinters Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen, who are unsuited to the course.

Despite those absentees, among the remaining eight men are several riders who should affect proceedings deep into the 268.3-kilometre race, not least the team leader Van Aert. Over the past two years the 27-year-old has staked his claim for the best all-round rider in the world, or even the definitive best rider in the world.

Belgian road cyclist Wout Van Aert and Belgian road cyclist Remco Evenepoel pictured at the start of the mens cycling road race on the second day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games with finish at the Fuji Speedway in Gotenba Tokyo Japan on Saturday 24 July 2021 The postponed 2020 Summer Olympics are taking place from 23 July to 8 August 2021 BELGA PHOTO ROB WALBERS Photo by ROB WALBERSBELGA MAGAFP via Getty Images

Van Aert and Evenepoel at the Tokyo Olympics (Image credit: Rob Walbers/Belga/Getty Images)

Given that almost all terrain is to his liking, it's no surprise that he's among the top favourites for success on the tough, hilly course in Flanders. This year alone he's won Amstel Gold Race and the Paris sprint at the Tour de France, while he heads to the race off the back of four wins and the overall at the Tour of Britain. He's bang in form and can excel on Sunday whether it's via an attack or a sprint finish.

Remco Evenepoel is the next name that stands out in the line-up. The 21-year-old heads to his second senior Worlds road race after his debut in Harrogate two years ago, and looks like he's back to his best after returning to racing at the Giro d'Italia. This autumn he's racked up long-range solo wins at the Tour of Denmark, Druivenkoers-Overijse, and Brussels Cycling Classic, and took silver at the European Championships road race, too. He won't win any sprint finish, but the youngster will be a vital lieutenant-slash-plan B for Belgium.

Tiesj Benoot may not yet have hit the heights of Classics superstardom he threatened to as a youngster, but the 27-year-old is arguably the next-strongest man in the hills among the Belgian roster and should be around deep into the race. He heads to Flanders off the back of top 10s at the Benelux Tour, Antwerp Port Epic and GP Wallonie, and was also top 10 at Liège-Bastogne-Liège back in the spring.

Away from the big hitters, Deceuninck-QuickStep's reliable workhorse Tim Declercq will be road captain and will undoubtedly be seen working at the head of the peloton at some point during the long race. The veteran, regularly cited as among the world's top domestiques, will only be riding his second Worlds road race, but his general racing experience and ability to put in the long kilometres on the front will be invaluable.

Strengths

The team has arguably the strongest contender for victory as well as arguably the strongest team to back him up.

At his best, Van Aert can be near-unbeatable, and in Flanders there will be just a handful of men that any onlookers might expect to be able to do that – barring any big surprises.

Van Aert is up there with Julian Alaphilippe and Mathieu van der Poel among the biggest favourites at the race, and he can beat either on his day, and the team around him is – on paper – stronger than the other eight-man groups, such as France, Germany, Colombia, Denmark, Spain, Australia, the Netherlands, Italy and Great Britain.

IMOLA ITALY SEPTEMBER 27 Greg Van Avermaet of Belgium Wout Van Aert of Belgium Jasper Stuyven of Belgium Oliver Naesen of Belgium Peloton during the 93rd UCI Road World Championships 2020 Men Elite Road Race a 2582km race from Imola to Imola Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari ImolaEr2020 Imola2020 on September 27 2020 in Imola Italy Photo by Alex Whitehead PoolGetty Images

Belgium boss the peloton during the 2020 Worlds in Imola (Image credit: Alex Whitehead/Getty Images)

Weaknesses

It's tough to pick any real weaknesses in the Belgium squad or its leader. The 'Sagan problem' could be one of the few things for Belgium and Van Aert to fear. As the Slovak three-time world champion has experienced on numerous occasions during his career, few riders are happy working with the strongest man in the race if he can out-sprint them at the end.

Van Aert has felt this first-hand, too. In Imola last year, he found little co-operation in the chase behind Alaphilippe and ended up being forced to settle for silver, while at the Tokyo Olympics a similar scenario played out with Richard Carapaz up the road.

When the decisive attacks start flying late on in Flanders, Van Aert will hope to have one – or more – of Evenepoel, Benoot, Stuyven or Lampaert alongside him in order to prevent the possibility of another silver medal repeat.

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Daniel Ostanek

Daniel Ostanek has been a staff writer at Cyclingnews since August 2019, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later part-time production editor. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content on Cyclingnews and takes on live race text coverage throughout the season.


Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Tro-Bro Léon, Strade Bianche, and the Vuelta a España.