Let's go back to Koppenbergcross. The riders are crossing the line for the last lap, and the leading group is Sven Nys, who I hope needs no introduction, Kevin Pauwels, also an established crosser, and the under-23 champion, 20-year-old Wout Van Aert. They all looked strong, but we wondered if Van Aert could handle the long and difficult race, the last lap scrap. It was only reasonable, he was clearly talented, but his successes were in forty minute races, not the hour that can be expected in the town of Oudenaarde. All who doubted were wrong. He won the sprint from Nys, despite what you might say about Denuwelare, it really would not have made a difference, his sprint is superb.
A month before, Mathieu Van der Poel, a year younger than Van Aert, had won the first big race of the season in Gieten, also holding off established talents such as Lars Van der Haar (Last years' world cup winner) in a sprint, a perceived strength of the then Dutch champion. He leads the Superprstige classification, winning Diegem solo. He has also won the road junior world championships, and went a whole year without losing a race, when he was 17.
Later in November, amid the much more difficult zandstroken of Koksijde, the two went away together at the beginning of the race, before Van Aert dropped Van der Poel, to win by 40 seconds. This scene has been repeated, in Loenhout, and of course he has won many other races.
That would seem to emphasize their respective talents, wouldn't it?
After winning the Dutch championships last week, Mathieu Van der Poel released almost immediately that he would do battle with Nys and Pauwels in Tabor, but Van Aert was more hesitant, releasing to Het Nieuwsblad that he had decided, but would tell the world on Friday. He had originally intended to ride the under-23 race, as I wrote in The Curious Case of Wout van Aert. However, he has decided against it.
Why? Maybe because he was disappointed at not being able to wear the Belgian Driekleur. Alternatively, maybe he didn't want Van der Poel to win it: there's no doubt he is capable, although he has only beaten Van Aert once this season. Or maybe he thought it was a waste of good form.
One person who will be ecstatic about Van Aert's choice is Belgian under-23 champion Laurens Sweeck, who beat them both in Zolder, for example, and shone particularly brightly on the weekend of Scheldecross and Zilvermeer, finishing second in both. Interestingly, he lost both to the two other under-23s. Van der Poel won Scheldecross, Van Aert Zilvermeer.
Sweeck, in an under-23 race without Van Aert and van der Poel, will be the favourite, he can often hold his own with the pros, unless Vermeersch rides, and I don't think he will, his only apparent challenger will be Sunweb's Michael Vanthorenhout, second last year in the under-23 category, beating Van der Poel, impressively enough.
By competing in the world championships, Van Aert and Van der Poel would be agreeing to one, crucial point. According to UCI rules, if they ride the Elite race, they would be forfeiting the chance to ever ride another under-23 race. That's right, we would never see another "Beloften" startlist with their names on it. The precedent is set by Lars Van der Haar, who rode to third in Louisville, at the age of 21, and the following season won the World Cup, not riding another under-23 race. Therefore, we will be seeing a lot more of them.
As for the riders' schedules for the rest of the season, Van Aert will ride Zonnebeke on Saturday, then the week after, he may ride the under-23 version of Hoogerheide, to take the World Cup. He will probably be accompanied by Van der Poel. The week after will be the worlds, and then Van Aert will ride the Krawatencross, to celebrate his BPost Bank Trofee win. After that, Van der Poel will try and defend his narrow lead in the Superprestige classification, in Hoogstratem and Middelkerke. He will be joined there by Van Aert, unless he wants to end his season early.
The Worlds is set to be a thrilling race, with Vantornout and Nys coming into form, Pauwels and Van Aert staying in it and Van der Poel getting more. The route will suit Van der Haar, unless it snows. It's going to be exciting, and well balanced.