Wout van Aert saw little reason to sugarcoat his second-place finish at the X2O Trofee Baal on New Year’s Day. Mathieu van der Poel has been unbeatable on the cyclocross circuit this winter and the world champion duly continued his winning streak on Monday, but Van Aert confessed to surprise at a margin of victory just shy of two minutes.
“I was shocked by that, to be honest. Mathieu was super strong,” Van Aert said afterwards, according to Het Laatste Nieuws.
“If you win by two minutes, you are simply much better. Is this a disappointment? Well, I had hoped to make it more difficult for Mathieu. But I also know what I am doing.”
Van Aert has, of course, scaled back his cyclocross commitments this winter with a view to arriving fresher at the Spring Classics than he has done in years past.
The Belgian will forgo the World Championships and he now has just two cyclocross dates left on his calendar, the X2O Trofee Koksijde on Thursday and the Benidorm World Cup on January 21. In between, Van Aert will join his Visma-Lease A Bike team for a training camp on the road.
“If you see how Mathieu is riding now, I have to be realistic,” Van Aert conceded on Monday.
“It will be very difficult to win one of the two races I still have to ride. It is what it is.”
Van Aert’s realism is all part of a grand plan.
Although he won E3 Harelbeke and conceded Gent-Wevelgem to teammate Christophe Laporte last Spring, he fell short in the races that defined his Classics campaign. He placed fourth at the Tour of Flanders and took third at Paris-Roubaix after a late puncture.
Speaking to Wielerflits, Van Aert’s new coach Mathieu Heijboer explained that the Visma-Lease A Bike rider had deliberately lightened his cyclocross load with a view to performing early April.
“We want to continue to improve in a steady manner, to be ultimately at our best in April,” Heijboer said while watching Van Aert race on Monday.
“This means that you do not have a peak now, but that you increase a little every month. It was different last year. Back then, his level was also very high in the cyclocross period. That was followed by a dip, both physically and mentally, and he was also ill. And in the end, we suddenly ran out of time when it came to preparing for the Spring.”
Some have linked Van Aert’s switch in emphasis to the change in coach, but Heijboer insisted that the decision to reduce his cyclocross calendar had its genesis in a debrief after the 2023 Classics…