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The Curious Case of Wout van Aert

The season's standout rider, under-23 world champion Wout van Aert, is set to compete in the Elite Belgian National Championships on Sunday. He is the big favourite for the race. However, the original plan was to defend his under-23 world title in Tabor, but with his great performances, is a change in the wind?

The under-23 rainbow jersey - will Wout have it next year?
The under-23 rainbow jersey - will Wout have it next year?
Patrick Verhoest

Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace rider Wout van Aert has been dominant recently. He has ridden eight elite series crosses, winning an astounding six. (Oudenaarde, Koksijde, Hamme-Zogge, Essen, Loenhout and Baal.) This is a longer list than anyone else, and a win percentage of 75%. This, compared to Kevin Pauwels' five wins, at a percentage of 28%, is absolutely incredible. However, he is sitting on the fence as to choosing which world championship race he will ride in Tabor.

Another thing to note about Van Aert's performances is that they come on all terrain, and all conditions. He won in the apocalyptic mud of Loenhout, but also the bone dry, lightning fast course in Hamme. He has a fearsome sprint, but has won races solo easily. He won on the Koksijde sand as well. If he has a weakness, no one has found it.

Under-23 riders must have permission from the UCI to race Elite worlds, and he must apply for it by mid-January, apparently. This gives him less time to decide, but he says he will choose after the Belgian National Championships, on January tenth.

When interviewed, the Belgian was still leaning on the side on the under-23 race: "As has always been the plan, the intention is to ride with the under-23 riders. That was the idea before the start of the season. But I must admit that we didn't know I would be beating pro riders."

The Belgian coach, Rudy de Bie, however, thinks that the Elite race would be a better idea. "At the under-23 level, he is the defending champion and can only lose the title. In the pro race, he can only win. But I leave the choice to Van Aert," he told Sporza. This is at odds with Van Aert's personal coach, Marc Lamberts, who said "He's only 20 and there are hopefully a lot of good years. Wout should also stay fresh and have new challenges. If he wins everything this year, where should he find motivation for the next ten years? Let's give him some time to make progress." One person who has not commented is Vastgoedservice coach and former world champion Niels Albert.

Last year, Van Aert took the under-23 race by the horns, beating Michael Vanthorenhout and rival Mathieu Van der Poel, who has seen the back of Van Aert rather a lot this season, finishing second to him in Hamme and Loenhout and third to him in Koksijde, never winning a race contested by the Vastgoedservice rider.

Should Van Aert ride the elite race, he would be the favourite of many and would be feared by all on the startline. On his Loenhout form, there are few who could stop him, a resurgent Nys perhaps? Or maybe a full-form Stybar, back from his shoulder injury. He would be fancied, reason enough to ride? I think so. The motivation issue, well, why do people ride if not to win? A race is a race everyone wants to win, no matter how many times they have won before, and surely he'd love to ride in rainbows next year.

This is not to say he will definitely win. Nothing is ever certain in cyclocross, and he will face challenges from Nys, Pauwels, Meeusen and many others. However, misfortune is just as likely, no matter what race he rides, and Mathieu Van der Poel, the rider who has come closest to Van Aert recently, will likely be waiting in the under-23.

All cyclocross fans would agree that the sport is thrilling, and the more protagonists the better. Van Aert would spice up the Elite race, and I'm sure that no one would not like him to be there, bar Kevin Pauwels.

This may be Pauwels' best chance to take the bands, and Van Aert can spoil the Sunweb rider's party. Pauwels has only beaten Van Aert in two races, Hasselt (first to Van Aert's second) and Ronse (fourth to Van Aert's seventh.) He will be hoping against hope that Van Aert will go back to defend his title in Tabor, leaving the on-form Pauwels to take the chance of victory.

If Van Aert does go to Tabor in the hope of only winning the under-23 race, he will disappoint many fans. I honestly believe he is capable of winning, so do many of his fans. Wout Van Aert is the best cyclocross rider at the minute. We will await his choice.