Wout van Aert took his first cyclo-cross win of the 2018/19 season on Thursday when the Belgian won the Kermiscross in Ardooie, in West Flanders, Belgium, for the third year in a row.
Van Aert has endured a difficult past few months away from the bike in that his former team, Veranda's Willems-Crelan, announced in August that it was to merge with the Dutch Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij road team to create a new squad for 2019 – yet Van Aert said that he wasn't told about the deal until the 11th hour, and was unhappy about it.
Van Aert has already signed a deal to join LottoNL-Jumbo in 2020 – or Team Jumbo, as it's set to be called from next season. The 24-year-old had enjoyed a hugely successful road season with Veranda's Willems-Crelan in 2018, taking third place at the Strade Bianche, second place on a stage of the Tour of Austria, third place at the European Championship road race, and winning a stage and the overall classification at the Tour of Denmark.
But, in mid-September, after the Roompot merger story came out, Van Aert terminated his contract with Veranda's Willems-Crelan and went on to start the first round of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup in Waterloo, Wisconsin, USA, without a team, wearing his world champion's rainbow skinsuit with his initials – WVA – emblazoned across the front.
At the start of this month, however, Van Aert announced that he had joined the one-man 'off-road division' of the Cibel-Cebon team for the cyclo-cross season. The Belgian team also competes on the road at UCI Continental level.
Van Aert's Dutch rival, Mathieu van der Poel, wasn't at Thursday's Kermiscross in Ardooie.
"I don't think Mathieu not being here took anything away from the win," Van Aert told Het Nieuwsblad, clearly pleased to have got off the mark in the off-road discipline.
"I'd almost forgotten how to do a victory salute," he joked. "This victory is certainly fun, and it was obviously the goal to take the first victory here, which I've managed to do."
Van Aert got the better of Steylaerts-777's Gianni Vermeersch and Toon Aerts (Telenet-Fidea Lions) to take the win, but left it late in the race, attacking on the final lap to shake Vermeersch.
"This win gives me confidence, of course," said Van Aert, "although I don't have the best legs yet. But it's nice to win again.
"Did I need this? Yes – as a rider I needed it. But if I could beat Mathieu, that would give me even more confidence. I'm still a little way off that, I think, but I'll take it step-by-step. I'm just glad that I could win in Ardooie for the third time in a row," he told Het Nieuwsblad.