Jumbo-Visma's Wout van Aert will put more focus on specific cyclo-cross skills in his training over the coming weeks as he seeks to close the gap on the likes of European cyclo-cross champion Eli Iserbyt and Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal teammate Michael Vanthourenhout.
Iserbyt came out on top at Saturday's second round of the X²O Badkamers Trofee in Kortrijk, while Vanthourenhout won the opening round of the World Cup in Tabor, in the Czech Republic, on Sunday. At both races, Van Aert fought his way to third place in what was his first weekend of 'cross racing since the Krawatencross in Lille, France, in February.
"This was a very good start," Van Aert's Jumbo-Visma sports director, Jan Boven, who accompanied him at both races, told HLN on Tuesday. "We've been experiencing a special year, in which everything has been shifted around because of the coronavirus pandemic, and it's also drastically shortened the preparation period for the new cyclo-cross season.
"After his gruelling road campaign, Wout hasn't been back in training again for that long," he continued, "and yet he radiated an incredible amount of enthusiasm and confidence last weekend. He showed real determination, and he can continue to build on these foundations."
Last season, Van Aert made a gentler return to cyclo-cross in late December, following his recovery from a crash at the 2019 Tour de France, where he seriously injured his thigh. This season, he's hit the ground running, but is now ready to ramp up his commitment to the 'cross season.
"The intention is that Wout will visit the woods and fields more often this week," Boven said, ahead of an individual training camp back in Girona, Spain, following the third round of the Superprestige series in Boom, Belgium, on Sunday.
"There, too, he'll focus his training content more specifically on cyclo-cross. That's not been the case so far," added Boven, with Van Aert having done his last training camp in Spain ahead of his 'cross season on his road bike.
"In the days before Kortrijk and Tabor, he drove home by car. It wasn't until the Friday that he quickly tested some new 'cross equipment, so it wasn't exactly the most ideal run-up, which made those two third places even more of a success.
"Certainly in Tabor, he was on the limit. On the last two laps, he rode on character. Fortunately, he has plenty of that," said Boven. "It's about taking steps, not giant leaps.
"He's already capable of following some of the world's best 'cross riders, but don't expect him to suddenly be able to ride away from Vanthourenhout, Iserbyt or Toon Aerts (Telenet Baloise Lions) in a few weeks' time. Anyone who thinks he will is doing those guys a serious disservice."
Van Aert is also expected to meet reigning world champion Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) for the first time at the second round of the World Cup in Namur on December 20 – three days earlier than previously planned, with the two originally expected to meet at the Herentals round of the X²O Badkamers Trofee on December 23.
The two riders' longtime race rivalry is expected to quickly be reignited, as Boven expects Van der Poel to come in with all guns blazing.
"I don't know what Mathieu's preparation has been like, but 'taking it easy' simply isn't in his nature," he said. "Let's just assume that he's going to be very good.
"The fact is that he'll soon have a completely different Wout as a rival than he did 12 months ago," Boven said, referring to Van Aert's comeback from injury and him only reaching his best later in the 2019/20 cyclo-cross season.
"Wout will be much better armed this time around, as his road season has shown," the Jumbo-Visma sports director said, with Van Aert having won Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo and two stages at the Tour de France this year.
"It's only going to make the battle more fun and interesting."
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