When Wout van Aert won his first-ever gravel race at Houffalize with a nine minute advantage on the opposition, the crushing triumph unleashed a wave of speculation about what he might well achieve two months later in the Gravel World Championships.
Van Aert’s ability to shine on all kinds of terrain and in all kinds of circumstances has been evident time and again. And that may well be what matters the most on Sunday.
Following Houffalize, Van Aert’s overall victory at the Tour of Britain didn’t only showcase his GC talents and even his sprint leadout skills. Van Aert also secured a fifth place in the World Championships time trial in Glasgow, while his ability at scooping up one-day triumphs was evident as recently as the Coppa Bernocchi in Italy on Monday.
Van Aert’s 2023 road season has already confirmed him as cycling’s ‘man who can do everything.’ And that’s not even counting the Classics triumphs, Tour de France support role and cyclo-cross success that preceded this summer.
Van Aert recognised after his Houffalize win that the level of competition will be on a much higher level in Italy.
Earlier this week Het Nieuwsblad described Van Aert as the favourite for Sunday, but the Belgian’s inexperience at top-level gravel racing can’t be ignored.
The second edition of the UCI Gravel World Championships on Sunday will reveal an extra dimension to Van Aert’s many talents and perhaps give him a world title after so many second places.
His stated goals for 2023 were the Road World Championships and adding a second Monument win to his 2020 Milan-San Remo title. All of those targets have ended in sometimes painfully narrow misses. So, too, did his bid for a fourth World Cyclo-Cross Championships title this February, when a thrilling duel with Mathieu Van Der Poel concluded with the closest of defeats.
Those losses are starting to add up, even for a rider with Van Aert’s palmares and even allowing for his E3 Harelbeke win in March. In fact, this week L’Equipe even went as far as to describe Van Aert’s 2023 campaign as ‘a season to forget.’
A rainbow jersey would be something to remember.
Back to his roots
Interestingly, after his failure to secure Paris-Roubaix earlier this year, Van Aert headed off-road for a break from racing.
In April he headed back to France for a 300-kilometre two-day gravel ride through the Champagne region – the same…