Wout van Aert has selected the World Championships in Flanders as his biggest goal of the 2021 road season, placing the chance of winning the rainbow jersey at home in Belgium above the spring Classics, a shot at the green points jersey at the Tour de France and even an Olympic gold in Tokyo.
"I’ll have three periods where I want to be in my best shape but if I have to choose one goal, I’d pick the World Championships in Belgium in Leuven,” Van Aert told Belgian television channel RTBF.
“I think it's a classic course with small hills and cobblestones. So there are possibilities for me to do something. But I also want to win a Classic in the Spring and after that do a good Tour de France with the team. I think these are three big goals but if I have to choose, I would say the World Championships in Belgium."
After battling with rival Mathieu van der Poel and ultimately losing out at the Cyclo-cross World Championships, Van Aert spent a week at home with his partner Sarah and young son Georges, but he quickly headed to Tenerife for a warm-weather altitude camp with several of his Jumbo-Visma teammates. The mud of the cyclo-cross season is a fading memory and he is already focused on preparing for his road racing debut at Strade Bianche on Saturday, March 6.
"I get tired every now and then but I think it's always more in the head than physically,” he said after a 195km loop of the Spanish island Tenerife on Sunday.
“I took a good week's vacation after the World Championships. And then we came to Tenerife for training. My goals are already approaching so the motivation is there and it's important to stay fresh."
Van Aert has opted to forgo the 'Opening Weekend' of racing in Belgium at the end of the month so he can spend enough time on Mount Teide to benefit from the altitude training. Strade Bianche will again be his first race and first major goal of the season before he again targets Milan-San Remo and the cobbled Classics.
Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo were moved to August last year due to the coronavirus lockdown, and Van Aert won both races. He famously keeled over on the steep via Santa Caterina climb to central Siena in 2018 but got going again to finish third overall.
Van Aert’s power, climbing ability and bike skills make him ideal for the Tuscan Classic.
"I’ve ridden it three times and have been on the podium three times so I think it's a race that suits me well. It's the perfect mix of a Classic and small climbs. It's very hard, and with the gravel sectors it needs a good combination of technique and strength,” he said.
“The first time I did this race I was motivated but I was not at all prepared. I finished third place straight away, so it became one of the best races for me. It was a great emotion, it was my first great performance in the WorldTour.
“As a Flemish rider it’s a difficult decision to miss Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne but in sporting terms it’s the best decision. Because of the cyclo-cross season, it was only possible to start the altitude training course last week and the best option is to do it for three weeks. That’s only possible by missing the Opening Weekend. But due to the lockdown last year I won the Strade just on training, so I'm confident to try to do the same this year.”
A constant search for new limits
Van Aert was arguably the most successful rider of 2020 after also winning two stages at the Tour de France and helping Primož Roglič get close to overall victory.
He sees his second-place finishes at the Tour of Flanders and in the time trial and road race at the World Championships as a source of extra motivation rather than as regretful defeats.
“The goal is to do equally as well,” Van Aert said, setting his bar high. “It was a pity about those second places but they’re still good results. In 2020 I felt that I achieved everything I wanted. I’ve still got a lot of goals but it’ll be difficult to do better. To win a monument and stages in the Tour every year would be good.”
Van Aert will no doubt have a leading role in the five-rider Belgian team for the Tokyo Olympic Games but appears keen to lower expectations for the road race. He is obliged to ride the Tour de France with Jumbo-Visma and even Van Aert cannot do everything.
A shot at the green points jersey at the Tour de France will perhaps be delayed until 2022, while the time trial is his best shot at an Olympic medal.
"I think I’ll aim for the time trial at the Olympics rather than in the road race. The [road race] course is very hard, so I think the time trial is my best opportunity to win a medal,” he said, reiterating his mantra of trying to win as much as possible at least once, rather than focusing on a few goals and few disciplines and multiple victories.
“My goal is always to try to do something that is unique. I could have focused my whole career on cyclo-cross but I wanted to do well on the road too. I think that was a good decision. I always like to try new things and have new goals. Winning a race five times doesn’t interest me, finding my limits is a lot more interesting.”
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