The legal dispute between Wout van Aert and Sniper Cycling reached the courts for the first time today, with lawyers meeting to set the wheels in motion on a process that could drag on to the end of the 2019 season.
Van Aert terminated his contract with the Veranda's Willems-Crelan team - owned by Sniper Cycling - in September, voicing his displeasure at being kept out of the loop as the team grappled to secure a merger with other Pro Continental teams. The team, run by Nick Nuyens, soon announced it had filed a lawsuit against Van Aert for breach of contract.
According to a report in Tuesday's edition of Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad, the case was brought before an employment tribunal in the city of Mechelen on Tuesday for the parties' legal representatives to decide on the length and terms of the case. In what was an administrative formality, neither Van Aert nor Nuyens were present at the hearing, but their respective lawyers were present as the judge set out the conditions of the case.
Nieuwsblad states that both parties had already agreed on a period of 10 months for the exchange of evidence and arguments in writing, so Tuesday's hearing would be a case of formalizing that time frame.
With that, the case could drag on for nearly a year. According to Nieuwsblad, a proper hearing, in which all parties and their lawyers meet together in court, can only take place one month after the expiry of that preliminary period - so 11 months from now.
In the meantime, Van Aert is currently competing in cyclo-cross as an independent rider with private sponsors, but still needs to secure a contract for the 2019 road season. As Cyclingnews reported last month, he is likely to join LottoNL-Jumbo a year early, having already agreed to sign for the team from 2020 earlier in the summer.
Under UCI rules, Van Aert would have to get clearance from the governing body over his termination with Veranda's Willems-Crelan before signing a valid contract with another team. However, if the agreed merger between the team and Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij does go ahead, the paying agent will change at the turn of the year and old contracts will have to be swapped out for new ones, with the riders' permission. Van Aert could refuse and essentially find himself as a free agent and go on to join a WorldTour team.
In any case, Nuyens is pursuing Van Aert for damages in the Belgian courts, where the judge will have to decide if Van Aert's reasons for terminating his contract were justified. If not, he would have to 'buy out' the unfulfilled months of his contract and may have to pay compensation on top of that.