New Belgian national coach Vanthourenhout sets sights on Olympics and World Championships

Belgian national cyclo-cross coach Sven Vanthourenhout has also taken over the role of national road coach following the departure of Rik Verbrugghe
Belgian national cyclo-cross coach Sven Vanthourenhout has also taken over the role of national road coach following the departure of Rik Verbrugghe (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Belgium's new national coach, Sven Vanthourenhout, says he's ready for what will – coronavirus-pandemic-permitting – be a busy 2021 season, with the 39-year-old continuing in his role as national cyclo-cross coach in addition to his new responsibilities on the road.

He'll lead his nation's best riders into the rescheduled Tokyo Olympic Games next summer, while also heading the Belgian selections for both the cyclo-cross and road World Championships, which will both be held on home soil next year: in Ostend in January, and in various locations in Flanders in September, respectively.

Despite being somewhat thrown in at the deep end, Vanthourenhout says that he's in it for the long haul, and that he hopes "to be doing this job for a long time".

His predecessors – Rik Verbrugghe and Kevin De Weert – were both lured away from the position by more lucrative offers to become members of staff at WorldTour teams, but Vanthourenhout says that he's focused on the job at hand.

"It would be a very bad signal if I now declared that I dreamed of a position as a sports director at a WorldTour team in the long run," Vanthourenhout said on Sporza's De Tribune podcast on Monday.

"I would be charmed [to be approached], but today my head is completely on my task as national coach," he said. "If it was up to me, I hope to be doing this job for a long time, and I think the federation sees it that way, too.

"I'm still quite young," continued Vanthourenhout, who turns 40 in January, "and it's difficult to put a number on it, but I could be here for the next five or 10 years. A lot will also depend on my performance.

"If I can't take a single medal over the next five years, that would mean that I wasn’t doing well," he said. "Missing out on a medal once can always happen, but, as a national coach, you're also judged on other tasks, such as discovering young talent."

De Weert left the role to join Lotto Soudal as performance manager in 2019, while Verbrugghe last month accepted the position of sports manager at Israel Start-Up Nation for 2021.

Verbrugghe had hoped to combine his national role with his new position at the Israeli WorldTour team next season, but the Belgian federation was looking for someone who could fully focus on the national squad.

"2021 will be a very busy and important year," Belgian Cycling director Jos Smets told Sporza last week. "It would have been difficult for Rik Verbrugghe because of his new job. We had an open conversation with him, and we parted ways on good terms."

Vanthourenhout ticked all the right boxes as a replacement, Smets said.

"Sven is a good coach – he can talk and interact well with the riders, and he's good organisationally. The coming year will be challenging right away; he has to make a number of selections. And at the World Championships, in our own country, all eyes will be on us."

Both Vanthourenhout and Hagens Berman Axeon manager Axel Merckx were shortlisted for the national selector's role eventually won by Verbrugghe ahead of the 2019 season, and Merckx was apparently considered once more before the job was handed to Vanthourenhout.

He's already been given the seal of approval by arguably Belgian cycling's biggest star right now, Jumbo-Visma's Wout van Aert, whose cyclo-cross background means that the two men already know each other well.

"Good job, Belgian Cycling!" Van Aert tweeted following the announcement about the new national coach's position. "Good luck, Sven Vanthourenhout."

Van Aert is likely to be the first name on Vanthourenhout's lists for the Olympics, road Worlds and cyclo-cross Worlds, followed closely by Deceuninck-QuickStep's Remco Evenepoel, who's now back in training after recovering from his crash at Il Lombardia earlier this year, and who's already qualified for one of the two men's time-trial places for the Olympics by virtue of winning the TT title at the UEC Road European Championships in Alkmaar, in the Netherlands, in 2019.

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