Wout van Aert can round off a superb season by being crowned men’s world road race champion on home ground, giving Belgium a record-extending 27th rainbow jersey in male events. In all, 11 titles are up for grabs in the eight days (September 19-26) of wheel-to-wheel combat in Flanders, a cycling hotbed, which should draw massive crowds as Belgium plays host for the 10th time but first since 2002 and on the championships’ 100th anniversary. The fairytale ending for them would be for Van Aert to take the men’s road race honors on the final day of competition and follow in the footsteps of fellow Belgians like Eddie Merckx (1967/71/74) and two-time champion Freddy Maertens (1976/81). The 27-year-old took silver in both last year’s road race and at the Tokyo Olympics — the latter after three stage wins in the Tour de France. Van Aert will face stiff competition for the road race on September 26 — a 166 mile ride from Antwerp to Leuven — from defending champion Julian Alaphilippe. Van Aert, though, landed a psychological blow ahead of the end of season showpiece by winning the Tour of Britain with the Frenchman in third.
“I think my form is where I want it to be,” said Van Aert, who is bidding to become the first Belgian road race champion since Philippe Gilbert in 2012.
Alaphilippe is far from disheartened at his showing as he focuses on achieving his target of successfully defending his title having opted out of a tilt at Olympic glory in order to do so.
“Fire in the legs for the end of the season, it will pay off,” he posted on his Instagram account during the Tour of Britain.
Maertens had a five-year hiatus between his two world titles but for British great Mark Cavendish it would be a decade since his triumph in Copenhagen. The 36-year-old showed in the Tour de France he is no busted flush with four stage wins but if he falls short his younger team-mate Ethan Hayter — a silver medalist in the Madison track trace in Tokyo — is in fine fettle after a runners-up spot behind Van Aert in the Tour of Britain.
“Based on what we know about the course and with so many riders in top form, we’ve made the decision not to go with one team leader, giving us a number of options as the race plays out,” British Cycling’s performance director Stephen Park said.
For Cavendish’s former teammate Bradley Wiggins, however, there is only one name who fits the bill in being crowned world champion.
“For me, there has to be one clear favorite and that is Belgium’s very own Wout Van Aert,” Wiggins told Eurosport.
“He made history this year by winning incredibly a mountain stage at the Tour de France which took in the historical climb of the Mont Ventoux, a spectacular time trial win on the penultimate day and a very impressive sprint stage in Paris on the Champs-Élysées to round off a truly remarkable Tour de France achievement.”
The women’s road race — a 98 mile ride from Antwerp to Leuven — should also be a fascinating encounter. It pitches Austria’s surprise Olympic champion and mathematician Anna Kiesenhofer up against Dutch silver medalist Annemiek van Vleuten. The Dutch rider will hope this time to deny the Austrian a memorable double gold — and also avoid a repeat of her Tokyo misery when she raised her arms on crossing the line thinking she had won. Kiesenhofer admits her life has been turned upside down since Tokyo but treasures her gold medal.
“This Olympic gold medal is so much bigger than my PhD,” she told Cyclingtips.com.
“This was harder. If you count the number of people with a PhD in the world and those with a gold medal.”
Come September 25 she will hope her sums add up and a second gold medal is hanging in her cupboard.
RBA/AFP Photos: Bettini