17.1.2021 door Katy Madgwick, Katy's opinions
It’s a known fact that at any given moment, 496 sports writers around the globe are writing about Wout van Aert.
OK, I can’t confirm the accuracy of that fact, but it’s hard to argue against – everywhere you looked in 2020, there he is. A stellar season on the road has led to further dominance in the cross and his much-lauded rivalry with Mathieu van der Poel has provided morsels of tasty goodness for cycling fans to devour, in desperate need of a winter fix to get our teeth into.
So, what can I add to the mass of words that have been written about the man, the myth, the majestic muddy Belgian legend that is our Wout? I have a platform upon which to extol the virtues of a consummate athlete and list his many and varied achievements. What a privilege and one I do not take lightly. So, what will I do with this great responsibility? I’ll tell you. I plan to discuss sandpits, rubber ducks and muddy, muddy boys. Got a problem with that? No? Excellent. Let’s get on with it then.
When the mere mortals of the pro peloton hang up their feather-light bike frames and skinsuits for the winter and go home to eat pies and watch re-runs of Friends, Wout van Aert not only continues racing on his bike, he does so up and down stairs, over hurdles, and through wild hilly forests. He’s just… better than everyone else.
Disclaimer: this is my debut cyclocross season. I had no idea what I was in for but the off-season deprivation was hitting hard; one look at a bunch of what appeared to be actual proper cyclists running up and down some stairs with their bikes over their shoulders like majestic Sherpas in November and I was sold. When it appeared that there were many Belgians, a few sandpits and some bits of descending so hair-raising that a kid on a sledge wouldn’t go near them, cyclocross officially had me. I was IN.
GCN commentator Marty McDonald spoke to me directly it seemed, early on in the season: ‘if you’re new to cyclocross,’ he said, ‘it’s going to feel a bit like unplugging from the Matrix.’ He wasn’t wrong, and I don’t feel as though it was just me that experienced this fracturing from the reality of the road. It’s fair to say Wout took a little while to find his stride, fresh from a triumphant 2020 season.
He began his campaign on the unique urban parcours of Kortrijk, the grass and tarmac twisting and turning and posing no great issues yet he failed to make his mark as Michael Vantourenhout stamped his authority on the race before pocket rocket Eli Iserbyt took over at the head of the race as Vantourenhout suffered a puncture. Next up, the first round of the World Cup in Tabor, and Vantourenhout was once again in explosive form, taking the win. Two podium finishes not too shabby though, for Wout’s opening weekend.
The following weekend in Boom seemed well-suited to Wout’s riding style with treacherous, undulating terrain, and on the fourth lap he made his move, forcing the other leaders to match him as he cranked up the pace. Sadly though, he couldn’t sustain it and a couple of laps later Toon Aerts and Eli Iserbyt teamed up to push Wout back into third. A series of calamities later including coming off his bike and struggling with tyre pressure and Wout was beaten out of a podium place, finishing in fourth.
Wout had wisely scheduled a training break after that, thus avoiding arch nemesis Mathieu Van Der Poel who started his cross season in Antwerp the following weekend with a win. Was this a tactical move on Wout’s part? Perhaps. Van Der Poel would have to wait a while longer for their first showdown, which would be the World Cup fixture in Namur.
Trinity Racing and soon to be INEOS cannon fodder Tom Pidcock shook up the pairing of van der Poel and van Aert on the opening laps in Namur, on an awesomely varied parcours with awkward turns, steep climbs and sketchy descents. With the Brit out in front the rivals were forced to work together to reel him back in, and it was Wout who did the hard work to bridge the gap in the end, bringing van der Poel along for the ride and ultimately launching him into pole position, from which he quickly built an unassailable lead. After the race Wout displayed his trademark honesty and humility, admitting he needed to have more confidence in himself to take races on earlier.
Next up his home turf of Herentals beckoned. Despite his preparations being less than satisfactory, as footage emerged of him stacking it face-first into the mud on his practice lap, he emerged with a smile on his face, and was undeterred. Van Der Poel meant business though and despite Wout fighting tooth and nail alongside his arch rival, he lost touch with him on the first lap and the distance stretched out, causing Jumbo Visma fans some tense moments. But Wout reeled him slowly, slowly back in, and finally, just over halfway through the race, used the twisty, turny, mud-covered woodland parcours to his advantage, catching and overtaking his rival. He’d learned his lesson from Namur; this was HIS race. His home town, and his victory, make no mistake. He built up a dominating lead after that and no way, no how was he allowing MVDP to catch him. Chalk that one up as a home win, baby.
Let’s pause to catch our breath before we launch into the Christmas period. The festive calendar was as congested as Santa’s sack, and the stacked schedule would pile on the pressure and separate those who had hit their stride from those who had overdone it on the Christmas pudding. With six elite races taking place over five days, it was clear we weren’t going to see all the favourites turning up at every course – particularly as there was one day with three races going on across three different countries – but I’m not familiar enough with the ins and outs of the sport to be able to accurately predict where the black and yellow machine would appear, so engaged in a game of ‘spot van Aert’ on each start line. Let me tell you: it’s not that hard.
The seemingly random lottery of who will turn up where on the cyclocross schedule is not working for me, I’m afraid. I like to know where I stand. I’m sure there’s some simple solution. Like the internet. But hey, I like to keep things interesting: do I understand yet how the scheduling works, and which riders are going to be at which events? No. But do I at least grasp the basic notion that there’s some logic to the programme, in order to figure out where my favourite riders will be racing? Also no.
First on Wout’s festive schedule turned out to be Dendermonde. Freshly churned from the rampaging Storm Bella and indistinguishable from a pig farm after an Earthquake, the parcours itself should have been relatively unchallenging compared to the ups and downs of Namur and Herentals, yet the conditions were an unrelenting nightmare of man against mud. Lesser mortals fell by the wayside as Wout turned the pedals lap after lap, the splatters of mud decorating his face like war paint, his pace ferocious and consistent, breaking down first Z and shortly after Mathieu van der Poel, who later complained that the course wasn’t fit to stage a World Cup race. If you can’t handle the pace, Mathieu… 😉
Sitting up as he crossed the line, Wout made a futile attempt to clear the mud away from the sponsor logo on his jersey, a hopeless gesture of goodwill that shone out like a wry smile through the grime. He made the mud his own and got the job done, a consummate professional despite what the elements threw at him.
That was 2020 done. The intrepid racers had a whole four days rest, much to my chagrin – what was I supposed to do? It was that weird bit between Christmas and New Year and they were leaving me hanging with nothing but a pile of cheese and chocolate for company. What would come next? Join me for part 2 of my odyssey into the weird and wonderful world of Wout and his cyclocross season, coming soon.