Cyclo-cross world champion Wout Van Aert travelled to Lucca in Italy on Thursday in an attempt to shake off his poor run of results and the questions, the doubts and the worries in Belgium about his form and why he is struggling to be competitive against Dutch rival Mathieu van der Poel.
Instead of riding the UEC Cyclo-Cross European Championships in the Czech Republic, Van Aert will stay in Tuscany for a 10-day block of training, spending time with his partner away from the pressure cooker that is the Belgian cyclo-cross scene.
Van der Poel dominated Wednesday's Koppenbergcross race, with Van Aert finishing over a minute back in fourth. Van der Poel collapsed on the ground after a huge effort on the final assault of the cobbled climb. Van Aert finished 1:14 behind him, more disappointed than exhausted. He turned around and quickly descended to his camper van to lick his wounds.
Much to the chagrin of Belgian cyclo-cross fans, Van der Poel has so far won 12 of the 14 races he's ridden so far this season. Van Aert won the last three editions of the Koppenbergcross and his road racing ability was supposed to help him. Instead it only sparked more questions.
"I would have liked to sprint to the line, too, but so far it hasn't happened," Van Aert told VTM.
"It was not the performance I had hoped for. My season is poorer than I'd hoped. But I don't want to seem dramatic. It is true that I'm not winning as much as last year, I seem to be fighting against myself."
Taking on too much
The Belgian media had believed that Van Aert's biggest problem was Van der Poel's improvement. However, on Wednesday Telenet-Fidea pair Toon Aerts and Lars Van der Haar both looked stronger than Van Aert and tried to take on Van der Poel. Van Aert was simply unable to stay with them in the final laps of the race.
"Mathieu may be a bit better this year, but not 15 per cent," Van Aert's coach and former rider Niels Albert admitted to Het Nieuwsblad.
"If three riders are fighting for the win during the last three laps, Wout must be there too. It's not the others that are better, it's Wout that isn't at his normal level. What is the problem? If we knew, we'd already have solved it."
Their could be multiple reasons for Van Aert's struggles, according to Het Nieuwsblad.
He was ill in September and missed some key training, hence his terrible performances in the early season races in the US. There are also concerns that he is stretching himself too thin and taking on too much as he tries to be a successful road racer in the summer as well as the star of the winter cyclo-cross scene.
Van Aert raced for 27 days with the Professional Continental Verandas Willems-Crelan team between the Tour of Norway in May and the Schaal Sels race on dirt roads in Belgium on August 28. He won three races and also finished sixth in the Belgian national time trial championships.
Verandas Willems-Crelan are hoping to secure a wild card invitation to Paris-Roubaix in 2018, but that would depend on the presence of Van Aert.
"His summer has not been very different from that of 2016. Only the BinckBank Tour has been added, and I can not imagine that one week makes the difference," Albert argued.
Going back to the basics
Van Aert has close to 40 cyclo-cross races on his calendar. He hopes a block of training will help his form and his confidence. He will only return to racing at the SuperPrestige race in Gavere on November 12.
Before travelling to Italy, Van Aert tweeted: "I think it's time to go back to the basics: train, eat, sleep & repeat!"
Het Nieuwsblad asked if Van Aert was taking on too much or 'putting too much hay on his fork' to use a Flemish idiom. Is he paying the price for combining cyclo-cross with road race ambitions?
"Not at all, I have not trained yet. I did the same as last year," Van Aert argued.
"It's time to return to the basics with a good training period. For one reason or another the condition is currently less and there have been fewer good moments," he told Het Nieuwsblad.
"For me, it's important not to deviate too much from my routine: I'm going to work on my base, with longer training. I need to get my condition better to recover faster. I'm not doing that right now.
"This all shows one thing: good form is not available on order. I'm not going to panic. I'll be back and will be successful again."