Wout Van Aert (Belgium) soloed away from his rivals on the first lap of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships U23 race, never to be caught back. The 19 year-old rider from Lille outclassed the opposition and turned the race into a one-man show, taking the rainbow jersey with a healthy margin over teammate Michael Vanthourenhout. The expected duel with Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) never materialised as Van der Poel didn't start well and finished third, more than a minute in arrears.
"It was the best day to have good legs. I'm so happy with this jersey," Van Aert said. "I went full gas on parts it was possible and recovered on others. I didn't make any mistakes. The past few years I've always been a favourite at the championships but I always managed to screw it up. I'm glad I showed that I can do it at worlds."
Van Aert made a pre-planned move to run a section that his rivals tried to ride, and the gap proved to be enough to give him an unassailable lead. Runner-up Michael Vanthourenhout said he won silver, realizing Wout Van Aert was on a league of his own.
"I saw in the recon this morning that if you stay on the bike you don't have the grip," Van Aert said. "I figured that if you run straight away, you're faster than those on the bike. It wasn't my goal to go solo from there. Primarily I wanted to throw a first bomb to split the group apart. The Junior Men race remained together for a long time and I don't like that.
"Secondly I knew it might be a mental blow to Mathieu van der Poel if I attacked early. I started well and when approaching that section Toon Aerts was leading while I was not on my limit. I knew I could surprise by running. I immediately saw I had some metres. Then I had a good corner in the woods. I had a big gap instantly. I gave full gas for the rest of the race.
"I've gone early a lot of times and most of the times they don't come back. It's been incredible to race all the time alone in front. The crowd was amazing. There's not a better way to win, although beating Mathieu in the sprint would be nice, too."
Many spectators were already sidelining the 3338 metres long course in Hoogerheide for the morning U23 race, hours before the marquee elite men's competition, with thousands of Belgians streaming across the border to cheer for their team. They created such an atmosphere that Van was unable to communicate with his team like he is used to. "I never heard what the gap was. You couldn't hear anything with that crowd. Sometimes at the pit I heard Danny De Bie shouting but I didn't understand it well. Visually I had the best view at the bridge and at the switchbacks."
Van Aert's season was marked by consistently strong performances: he won two World Cup rounds and finished outside the top three only once in the sand of Koksijde. At the European championships in Mlada Boleslav he also finished off the podium. Most memorable was his disqualification at the Belgian national championships due to a false start.
"There were not many low points this season, only the Belgian championships and at the European championships I wasn't in good shape. Before the world championships I said I've forgotten about it [Belgian championships] but that wasn't the case. After the Belgian championships there was only one race that mattered to me. I was only focused on this championship. I wanted to show those who didn't grant me anything that I was worth it.:
On the first of November it was announced that he would leave the Telenet-Fidea team of Dutchman Hans van Kasteren to join the newly founded Vastgoedservice team, along with Jens Adams, the new Belgian U23 champion.
"Jens Adams is a good friend so it's great we both have a jersey now. Our new team can start with both a Belgian champion and a world champion. There's not many team who can claim that. Hans van Kasteren will be happy too with this gift. It's a nice end to my chapter with him."
Van Aert has not made a decision just yet on whether he would continue as an U23 or move up early to the elite ranks. He still has two years left in the Men Under 23 category. Then again, he has shown that he's capable of beating the professional riders too like he did in Otegem, one day after the Belgian championships. "I always said that was something to think about after this season. As a full time professional I would not be able to ride with the jersey a lot of times. Maybe I can do it partly. I've had a great year and I can still learn in this category because I have to fight to get on the podium or take the wins. Today was super but I don't think I have to search anything with the pro's just yet."