Once a promising junior in cyclo-cross and the European champion in 2006, Belgian Vincent Baestaens has struggled through more than a decade in the sport's second tier; chasing UCI points in faraway lands while younger compatriots dominated the sport.
Now, at the age of 32, Baestaens has had one of his best seasons to date and will make his debut in the elite men's race at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas. When he was named to the Belgian team for Worlds, Baestaens was so giddy.
"I started laughing spontaneously when I was on the bike," he told Sporza. "I can go to the Cyclo-cross World Championships. How can that be?"
As unlikely as his selection seemed at the beginning of the season, Baestaens deserved it. He traveled to the US and won four races in a row - both days at Rochester Cyclocross and Charm City Cross - and followed that with a victory on day one of Jingle Cross to contend as the early leader in the USCX Cyclocross Series.
He earned his spot on the Belgian team through numerous top-10 finishes with his Deschacht-Group Hens-Maes Containers team, including ninth in the World Cups in Hulst, Namur and Rucphen, seventh in Koksijde and Waterloo and eighth in Tabor.
It's a stark improvement from languishing outside the top 15 on home soil and having to travel to smaller races in the US, Italy, Switzerland, Spain or the Czech Republic to notch up a win.
"I never thought that I would ever be at the start of a World Championships. But thanks to a change in mentality, my wild dream has come true," Baestaens said.
"Before the season, my new coach asked if I still had a wild dream. 'Get to the World Championship', I laughed. That seemed an unrealistic goal to me. But my wild dream has come true."
In his junior years, Baestaens was touted as one of the next great talents of cyclo-cross but health problems held him back, he says.
"I broke my back twice, my wrist once and also had surgery on my femoral artery (twice) and on my knee."
But he admits that he was overconfident in his ability to guide his own training.
"My mentality has changed in recent years. I used to be less professional. For example, I didn't think I needed a trainer. I didn't believe in scientific guidance either. I mainly tried to train for many hours and to ride hard. I wouldn't go for less than an average of 35kph."
Now, with trainer Michel Geerinck, Baestaens has fully embraced the structured training that has led to such solid results.
"I didn't trust his approach in the beginning. I told Michel ten times in preparation for the season that I had to train more. 'Otherwise it won't work out', I always said a bit worried.
"But contrary to own expectations I am racing a fantastic season. Thanks to Michel I now train much more focused. The scientific approach pays off."
The trip to the US will be familiar for Baestaens who has made it a habit of coming to America to rack up early-season UCI points for better starting positions. He has an aunt who works as a physical therapist in Michigan, and the family also has homes in Illinois and Florida.
"I have traveled to the US 25 times in the past few years to ride crosses. It was always my mission to get UCI points."
Now he will go there to race at Worlds for the first time since his U23 days, and he said it will be a "special Worlds".
"Defending the colors of your country is always special. Being in the United States makes it extra beautiful. I have a special bond with that country. Besides, my aunt lives in the US. My cousins have American nationality.
"My aunt also has a place in Naples, Florida where I am most of the time on holiday. That is the reason why I have been so many times in the US. I just like the people, like the atmosphere of the races, it’s amazing to ride here. If I were on my own, I’d like to ride more races here, but there are not so many teams interested in a Belgian rider," Baestaens told Cyclingnews after his win in Waterloo, Wisconsin at the Trek CX Cup.
He appeared on the Belgian team in 2020 and finished 10th in the European Championships, and he called that first selection as an elite rider very memorable.
"I was just like a child, I was so happy I could wear the Belgium clothes again because it was so many years ago. That was always a dream for me."
Racing at Worlds could be a bittersweet peak before an uncertain future, as Wednesday, his team announced it would stop at the end of the season, and he is struggling to find a position in existing teams who are focused on younger riders.
"I have already spoken with almost every team. Those were positive conversations, but the preference is for the youth. I understand that."
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Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Deputy Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. As former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks.
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