The Belgian team headed home from this year's World Championships in Innsbruck with hopes for the future thanks to Remco Evenepoel's world titles in the junior men's time trial and road race, but with serious doubts about the present and near future after failing to be competitive in the elite men's road race on Sunday.
National coach Kevin De Weert revealed immediately post-race that he had already resigned his position to join Lotto Soudal as their new Performance Manager, and Belgium has suddenly found itself rudderless and disappointed with their World Championships.
The Innsbruck course was always going to be difficult for a nation built on the cobbles and Ardennes hills, but the thousands of Belgian fans who had made the journey to Austria had hoped for more, and could only watch on as Spain, France, Canada, the Netherlands and Italy fought for the medals.
Dylan Teuns was designated team leader, and he was in the select group of riders that started the final Höttinger Höll together. However, he became stuck in far too big a gear and cracked on the double-digit gradient, eventually finishing 29th at 2:10. Tim Wellens was dropped on the final climb and failed to make an impact.
As widely expected, the course was far too testing for Greg Van Avermaet. The race was far faster and far more aggressive than when he won gold in the 2016 Olympic road race in Rio de Janeiro. He finished 50th at 8:08 after sparking a short-lived attack with over 50km to go. Tiesj Benoot and Serge Pauwels both failed to finish.
"There was a lot of climbing to get over, but I felt super good today," Van Avermaet said, trying to see beyond his simple race result.
"I knew I had to attack early and not wait until the final climb. I got away, but only two others came with me [Omar Fraile and Damiano Caruso]. Fraile didn't ride and we didn't open a big gap, so it was difficult to keep it going. It was a very controlled race."
Despite Valverde's involvement in the Operación Puerto doping investigation, and his subsequent two-year ban, Van Avermaet praised the Spaniard for his world title.
"Valverde deserves this world title. I'm happy for him," Van Avermaet said. "He's the best rider of his generation. No, I don't think you should look back at his past. He's very consistent; it'd really surprise me if he was still 'up to something'. He is a deserved winner."
De Weert to become Lotto Soudal's first Performance Manager
36-year-old De Weert has quietly impressed as national coach in recent years. He is not a former great of the sport, but managed to create a united team, and was in charge when Van Avermaet won gold at the Olympics in Rio.
He decided he could not miss the chance to work with Belgian WorldTour team Lotto Soudal in a new role as Performance Manager, which leaves the Belgian Cycling Federation suddenly looking for a new national coach.
The federation is unable to offer the same salary as the leading professional teams, and so struggles to find suitable candidates. Belgian media have named former pros Sven Vanthourenhout and Tom Steels as possible replacements, but Steels is unlikely to leave his coaching role at Quick-Step Floors, and their rivalry with other trade teams makes it impossible for him to hold both positions.
Lotto Soudal quickly confirmed De Weert's appointment at Performance Manager.
"My results as a coach do not lie. We won nine medals in three years, so we must be satisfied with that," De Weert said. "[Going to] Lotto Soudal is a great challenge, and I'm going to do it with a lot of enthusiasm.
"What I missed as a national coach was dealing with the riders on a daily basis. I also think that that's one of my strengths – communication. I go by feeling, and can look everyone straight in the eye.
"It is with great satisfaction that I look back at what I have achieved, but I just had to grab the opportunity to work at WorldTour level. I see this as a new step, but I absolutely wanted to prepare for the World Championships in Innsbruck with the same focus and drive, without thinking about my new adventure at Lotto Soudal," he said.
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