Wout van Aert studied the windswept and sandy UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships course in Ostend, Belgium on Friday morning, predicting a hard and selective race and a head-to-head battle with eternal rival Mathieu van der Poel.
Van Aert won the Belgian national title on the same course in 2017 and is known for his ability in the sand. During the training session, he rode several laps of the course and sprinted up the key bridge selection to test his legs and tyres.
“I want to have the right feeling, be able to test the tyres. In every other cross, an exploration ride on the day is sufficient, then you can correct things during the race and find the best lines. I want to be optimally prepared for the World Championships,” he told Het Laatste Nieuws.
Van der Poel studied the Ostend course on Thursday and so did not cross paths with his rival. Dutch journalist Daan Hakkenberg has calculated that the two have raced against each other 183 times, including 15 times in road races and their head to head sprint at last year’s Tour of Flanders.
They were born just three months apart, both emerged at Junior level, and have been racing each other for a decade, with one or the other winning the world cyclo-cross titles at the junior, under-23 and professional level since 2012. Both have won the elite men’s world title three times, with Van der Poel taking the last two editions as Van Aert focused less on cyclo-cross and had his 2019-20 season disrupted by recovery from his 2019 Tour de France crash.
This year they have been finely matched, swapping victories, with Van Aert winning three of their eight clashes and Van der Poel five. However, Van Aert won the final World Cup race in Overijse last Sunday after Van der Poel was slowed by a puncture early in the race.
“My confidence might have been less if I had been beaten a lot in recent months, like last year. Mathieu did beat me this winter, but I also beat him,” Van Aert pointed out, with his innate confidence.
“The difference will be made by small mistakes. That is the story of the past weeks. With a few exceptions, it has always been very close.”
Britain’s Tom Pidcock and Belgium’s Laurens Sweeck are expected to fight for the medals but several sections of deep sand - whether the section along the shore is rideable or a run will depend on the wind and the tide - will tip the balance toward the two titans of 'cross.
“I don't see anyone else being able to stay with us long enough to be able to compete for the world title,” Van Aert suggested.
“Laurens Sweeck and Thomas Pidcock will be the last. But in the end it will be a battle between the two of us.”
“I’m confident that the course suits me. Which is not to say that it doesn’t not suit Mathieu, too. I think Mathieu and I can do well on many different courses.”
Van Aert tried to pressure on Van der Poel by naming him as the favourite for Sunday.
“I don't think I'm the big favorite, Mathieu has won more than me this season, the pressure is on him,” he said.
“But this is of course a great opportunity for me to win a new world title. It's been a while and I have a real chance. My feeling is very good and I have worked towards this and have left nothing to chance.”
Find out how to watch the 2021 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships live from anywhere here.
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