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Van Aert takes back seat for Belgium at Cyclo-cross World Championships

Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) made his return from injury at the 2019 Loenhout Azencross race
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) made his return from injury at the 2019 Loenhout Azencross race (Image credit: Getty Images)

Wout Van Aert has said that he's taking a different role at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships, with the three-time champion set to offer his services and experience for a Belgium teammate in Dübendorf on Sunday.

Speaking in an interview on Belgian Cycling Federation website, Van Aert said that, while he has planned all along to be at his best for the Worlds, he's more than happy to play the role of super-domestique in the battle against race favourite, Dutch leader Mathieu van der Poel.

"That's nice to hear. It's a nice role, I think," Van Aert said when told of Belgium national coach Sven Vanthourenhout saying that the 25-year-old is the 'cement' of the team. "I certainly agree with that this year.

"I hope I can return to be leader of the team, but at the moment I think that there are other guys who have been able to prepare better for these Worlds. Maybe I can teach them something, as the only guy who knows what it's like to win it.

"I'll be the first to trust those guys. I'll put my experience at their service, and it's great that the national coach thinks about things like this."

Laurens Sweeck, who has four wins this season and also leads the Superprestige ranking, and Toon Aerts, UCI World Cup winner with three wins under his belt and two second places at the past two World Cup rounds, are the main contenders to lead Belgium in Van Aert's stead.

For Van Aert, the 2019-20 campaign has been a lot different to his usual 'cross campaign. He made his debut at Azencross in late December, having spent months recovering from injuries sustained in a crash at the Tour de France.

The lowered expectations that came with his late return to racing have been a pleasant experience, he said. And, rather than focussing on the Worlds for months beforehand, he's been able to take it comparatively easier this time around.

"That was actually one of the main reasons I wanted to race cyclo-cross this winter. It's nice to race and progress each time and not have expectations attached to it. Though I will add that we built my schedule so I can be at my best for the Worlds.

"The way I have approached the race is completely different, though. Normally it's in your head for months before, but now it's something I've only been thinking about it for the past few weeks."

Nonetheless, Van Aert returned right at the top of the 'cross peloton, if not the peak of his powers. His first three races back, including the Belgian National Championships, saw him take three top five placings, while he was second to Van der Poel at Kasteelcross.

His final race before Switzerland, the World Cup at Hoogerheide, saw him finish eighth after knocking it off on the final lap. Before that race, though, came a team building session with his Belgium teammates, something that Van Aert enjoyed.

"A year ago it would have been totally normal being part of the Belgian team for the World Championships but this year is very different," he said. "But the special World Championships atmosphere returned during the team building prior to the World Cup in Hoogerheide.

"I'm just very happy to be part of the team again. That, in itself, is a major victory after this difficult time. I could only really start training seriously in December, so when I took to the start at Azencross it was a bit scary.

"Of course, I secretly hoped that I would be able to race at the front again, but at that moment it seemed like a dream to have a good National Championships and make the Worlds. I didn't dare think about it because I feared it just wasn't realistic.

"Before I started the Nationals, I realised that my level could be good enough to go to Dübendorf. Not only because that would be a good incentive with a view to spring, but also because I think it's super fun to go for it again because racing 'cross is still what I love doing most." 

Belgium squad for the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships (February 1-2)

Elite men: Laurens Sweeck, Toon Aerts, Eli Iserbyt, Michael Vanthourenhout, Quinten Hermans, Tim Merlier, Wout van Aert, Gianni Vermeersch, Jens Adams, Thijs Aerts 

Elite women: Sanne Cant, Ellen van Loy, Laura Verdonschot

U23 men: Toon Vandebosc, Niels Vandeputte, Timo Kielich, Jelle Camps, Yentl Bekaert, Jarno Bellens, Gerben Kuypers, Ryan Cortjens 

U23 women: Marthe Truyen, Kiona Crabbe

Junior men: Thibau Nys, Lennert Belmans, Emiel Verstrynge, Jente Michels, Ward Huybs, Yorben Lauryssen, Jetze van Campenhout 

Junior women: Julie de Wilde, Julie Brouwers, Sterre Vervloet, Mirthe van den Brande

Check here for full start lists for every race.