Mathieu van der Poel has named his long-time rival Wout van Aert as the favourite for Sunday's men's road race at the Flanders World Championships as the pair look to face off once again in a battle for a rainbow jersey.
Van der Poel and Van Aert have been rivals at the cyclo-cross Worlds since 2015, sharing all seven world titles since then, with the Dutchman one ahead in the gold medal count. Sunday's race in Leuven will mark the first time the pair have faced one another at a road Worlds, however.
Speaking at a virtual press conference on Friday, Van der Poel named Van Aert as the top favourite in the 268.3-kilometre race. There was also one surprising admission – that the pair might need each other in order for either to succeed.
"Van Aert is the big favourite and I think he has the best chances. If you see how he's been racing the last few weeks, it can't be helped," Van der Poel said.
"I won't ascribe the role of favourite to myself. I'm not saying that because I want to play the role of underdog. I have no problem with being a favourite at all.
"It's up to [Belgium] to take control of the race. I'm going to have to race a little more sensibly and distribute my strength well. But Wout and I have already proven in several races that sometimes we need each other – either in controlling or agreeing to not constantly catch each other in the attack."
Last year's Gent-Wevelgem, then – where the pair finished eighth and ninth after focussing on marking one other in the final – was an example of what Van der Poel is seeking to avoid on Sunday. A week later at the Tour of Flanders, he outsprinted the Belgian after the pair emerged as the strongest of the field following Julian Alaphilippe's moto crash.
Van der Poel said that it would be a risk to rely on a repeat of that scenario, though said that his sprint is usually relatively stronger at the end of a hard race – such as the six and a half hour Worlds.
"Few are faster in the end so it's a risk to ride with him to the finish, but he will see it the other way around," said Van der Poel. "The Worlds is not entirely comparable to Flanders – that was a different race with a long final where the two of us rode for a long time. It's slightly different from riding to the line with a group and then having to sprint. Normally for me it's a case of the more difficult a race, the better my sprint becomes.
"But I don't think Belgium is betting on him alone. It's logical that he's the leader but with Evenepoel, for example, there will be a tactical plan."
One major question mark hanging over Van der Poel is the issue of his back injury, reportedly a herniated disc which he has suffered from since May, and which has kept him out of both the MTB Worlds and the Benelux Tour.
He returned to racing earlier this month with a win at the Antwerp Port Epic and he also raced the Primus Classic and Gooikse Pijl last week, but still felt pain during the races, he said.
"After the highlight of the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, it was all disappointing. At the moment, I feel pretty OK. We know I didn't have an ideal preparation, but I wouldn't be here if I didn't feel I could play an important role.
"I still feel [my back] during every race but I'm assuming it will be OK during the race. The problems are not 100 per cent solved yet. I hope to be able to do that after Paris-Roubaix when I can finally rest for a long period."
Van der Poel, who named Italy's Sonny Colbrelli, Australia's Caleb Ewan, and the Danish team as major threats for Sunday, said that the course was well suited to him, and expects to be one of the watched riders of the race despite his injury and relative lack of racing in the run-up to the Worlds.
"I think the Flandrian loop will make the race hard. It will certainly not be a slow race there. The race will be a gruelling one, but I think that this course is perfectly suited to me, and most riders will undoubtedly keep an eye on me.
"The fact that the race is in Belgium was a factor in my decision to do everything I could to be at the start. I've lived there all my life and the people are crazy about racing. It will be a special World Championships."
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Try your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
Daniel Ostanek has been a staff writer at Cyclingnews since August 2019, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later part-time production editor. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content on Cyclingnews and takes on live race text coverage throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Tro-Bro Léon, Strade Bianche, and the Vuelta a España.
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.