Wout van Aert will play a key role in Belgium's team for the elite men's race in the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships, but will start on the third row after falling down the rankings due to his absence from races this year.
Van Aert is 32nd in the UCI individual 'cross rankings and although eight of the riders ahead of him are Belgians left off the team, that still leaves more than 20 riders (depending on the composition of teams not yet announced) ahead of him on the start grid, as reported by Wielerflits.be.
The rankings are calculated on a rolling 12-month basis, but Van Aert has completed just six races over the past year including last year's Worlds.
Last year, Van Aert was second on the grid next to defending champion Mathieu van der Poel when he finished runner-up to the Dutchman. After Worlds he stopped his cyclo-cross season to focus on his road career with Jumbo-Visma, where he landed two podiums in the early Classics before winning two stages in the Critérium du Dauphiné and a stage in the Tour de France.
His season was interrupted by a violent run-in with a sharp edge on the barriers in the Tour de France individual time trial, resulting in severe tears to his hip muscles and capsule.
Because of his extended rehabilitation from the injury, Van Aert only competed for the first time in the cyclo-cross season on December 27 in Loenhout. His most recent result is fifth place in the Belgian championships.
With his poor start position, Van Aert will have to chase through the peloton to get to the head of the race.
However, Van Aert can take heart from the 2014 victory of Zdenek Stybar (Czech Republic) who came from a fourth row position in Hoogerheide to snatch the victory from Sven Nys (Belgium) in a thrilling duel.
The parcours in Dübendorf, Switzerland is largely flat and wide open which could benefit Van Aert, allowing the Belgian teammates ahead to use a more tactical strategy that could ease his passage to the head of the race.