In stark contrast to last year's anonymous spring season, the Continental Veranda's Willems - Crelan team seems to be thriving. The team, managed by Nick Nuyens, received a massive boost in the past few weeks, mostly due to its prolific rider Wout Van Aert. After recently winning his third world title in cyclo-cross, he extended his season into the start of the Classics where he displayed great capabilities at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Van Aert, 23, had a difficult cyclo-cross season in which he was beaten much more than he wanted by his rival Mathieu van der Poel (Beobank-Corendon). Van Aert said that he wanted to have a go in the spring Classics in 2018 and that Strade Bianche was one of the races he dreamed of participating.
That dream received a blow when his team initially wasn't one of the two teams to receive a wild card from race organizer RCS. That was two weeks before the Valkenburg 2018 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships on February 3rd. There, things started to turn around.
Van Aert surprisingly managed to extend his world title in impressive style. Two weeks later - one week before the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad - his team was suddenly added as a third wild card team for the Strade Bianche race.
At the Omloop, Van Aert made a strong impression by featuring in the lead group until the final kilometres. The group was caught back in the final metres, so his 32nd place doesn't quite reflect his strong ride.
Having watched the race from the Veranda's Willems - Crelan bus, Tom Boonen was present and attracting more fans than usual. Nuyens stood aside from the bus with sports director Niels Albert, and they liked the increased attention.
"It's certainly the most attention we received with our road team. That's right, and we all know why. Wout delivered what everybody was hoping for," Nuyens said.
Meanwhile, jokes were flying around between Nuyens and Boonen about sending an invoice for his presence and being paid with beers. For once, Nuyens was able to laugh off the typical "Mathieu wasn't there" remark when Wout performed well. "We're very satisfied, especially with the way he did it. He encountered bad luck at a crucial moment, puncturing just before the Haaghoek. He was brought back by the team. We told the guys to stay cool. He's good at positioning and can follow the strongest riders. That's very nice."
Last year, the spring Classics campaign of Nuyens' team didn't quite go smoothly. Riders complained about the braking quality and stiffness of their Felt bikes. Sprinter Timothy Dupont no longer racked up the wins as he did in 2016. Later, he was even sent away by the team at the BinckBank Tour.
Things turned around when Van Aert started a strong road campaign in May, but it's quite a different sound compared to the positive mood in February 2018. Nuyens agreed it was going much better. "Yes. We're happy. It's fun that things are going our way plus Sean de Bie, who wins as well [Etoile de Bessèges stage 4]. That results in a good team atmosphere. The boys are willing to ride for each other."
When asked how it was possible the team got a third wild card to Strade Bianche, Nuyens explained that he didn't stop talking with RCS after being snubbed. "We were pushing. We put a lot of work into it. It was a close call for a long time. First, it was a no. When Wout became world champion once again that might have been a bonus. We stayed in touch. We've had rough times before so it's good to see how it's going now."
Shortly after crossing the finish line in Meerbeke, Van Aert was excited because he was able to mix in with the best at a spring Classic but also disappointed because he didn’t win.
"I didn't expect this. I thought this race would come too soon after the cyclo-cross season. I hope to be able to ride a good race and then build on that towards the next races. Apparently, the form is still very good, and I was able to deal well with the transition," Van Aert said after freshening up in the team bus.
Boonen congratulated his young compatriot and stated that Van Aert could've won the race. "The win was a possibility, but there were probably ten riders in the group in the same position. The one who wins was right, and the others didn't do it the right way. Nobody was exceptionally better than the others."
Van Aert went on to say that, "If there was one mistake I made, it was probably being too satisfied that I was featuring in the group. I wasn't thinking enough about how I would be able to win the race.
"That's why I was a bit disappointed at the finish because the peloton swarmed over us and there wasn't even a place of honour. That's where I probably lacked the experience to seize my moment. Due to the wind, I thought that all attacks would be blown back to us. From Denderwindeke on I decided to keep cool and ride a good sprint. That's when riders started to get a free ride, the pace dropped away in our group, and the peloton passed us. That was a major miscalculation."
The famous ascent of the Muur in Geraardsbergen was the sole moment where the favourites were able to shake off the peloton. Van Aert was riding within the top 10 and survived the selection, much to his own surprise. When looking around, he spotted classics specialist like Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac), Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors) among others.
“I was surprised to learn that I managed to get over the Muur that well. I was in a good position and didn't lose ground on the steep part. I didn't expect that to work out. Once up there I was no longer thinking about it."
Van Aert wasn't planning to ride Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on Sunday and will now focus on the undulating gravel roads of Strade Bianche.
"It’s a race with a lot of elevation. There’s a lot of good climbers at the start. It’s a difficult race. First of all, I'm very glad to be at the start of the race. I'm looking forward to it, just like I'll be looking forward to almost every race during the spring classics," Van Aert said.
His training schedule is focused on intensity and endurance, starting on Sunday. "I’ll do a bit of training on Sunday and watch tv, but I still have to decide whether I will watch 'cross or road," Van Aert joked.
"In Majorca, I learned that the long training rides went much better than expected. It's possible that it'll go downhill from here. We'll have to wait and see if I can remain at this level. There are two factors: endurance and intensity. I can take the intensity along from the winter and be good at the World Championships. With the long training rides, I tried to use the intensity for the final. The wind was a major factor. In the peloton, it was very comfortable. That’s how I managed to reach the finale without wasting energy. If the race would've started earlier, then I would've needed much more endurance. That would've benefited the other riders. Hopefully, I can increase my endurance during the upcoming weeks."