Feature | Road Cycling

He's tearing up the roads, but this is just the start for Wout van Aert

Belgian three-time cyclo-cross world champion has a bright future in road cycling after making his mark in just two years

By ZK Goh ·

Three Tour de France stage wins, three more at the Criterium du Dauphiné, a Strade Bianche one-day triumph, and one Monument victory at Milan-Sanremo.

For many, that would more than represent a successful road cycling career. But for Belgium's Wout van Aert, this is only the beginning – he has achieved it all in just two years.

The 25-year-old, who rides for Jumbo-Visma, switched from cyclo-cross – in which he is a three-time world champion – and has quickly adapted to the road in many ways, perhaps assisted by his background in the other discipline.

But who is Wout van Aert and how would he describe himself?

Cyclo-cross beginnings

Wout van Aert was born in September 1994 in Herentals, Belgium, which lies to the east of Antwerp in the country's north. The city, like many in Belgium, is proud of its cyclists; it lays claim to Rik van Looy – a two-time world road race champion and the first man to win all five one-day Monument classics.

Unsurprisingly, van Aert was never far from a bike when young. Mainly racing the cyclo-cross circuit, the Belgian first made a name for himself in 2011 when he began racing in various competitions in the country, winning the junior category at Ruddervoorde.

After second-place finishes in the junior races at both the national and world championships in 2012, van Aert chose to turn professional, riding in the under-23 category for Telenet-Fidea and winning that year's Cyclo-cross World Cup in his age division.

Van Aert only improved from there, winning three straight elite-level world titles from 2016 through 2018 after he had switched to the elite (senior) category during the 2014-15 season.

It was in the last of those seasons, after the conclusion of the 2017-18 cyclo-cross circuit, that he decided to give road racing a serious go.

Near-immediate road success

The then-23-year-old seemed to have no trouble with the transition at all, easily transferring his skills to the road – especially in the one-day classics.

That year, he finished third on the podium at Strade Bianche and a creditable ninth at the Tour of Flanders in his first Monument race. A bronze medal in the European Championships followed that summer in Glasgow.

But off the bike, things were getting messy – his then team was merging with another, and he unilaterally cancelled his contract. After an extended battle in the Belgian courts and with the world governing body, the UCI, he was allowed to sign with Dutch outfit Jumbo-Visma at the start of 2019.

In a stunning rookie season at the WorldTour level, van Aert finished on the podium at two classics, sixth at Milan-Sanremo, took two stages and the green points jersey at the Criterium du Dauphiné, and the national time trial championship.

All that led to his inclusion in Jumbo-Visma's squad for his first Tour de France. He would win Stage 10 in a sprint finish, but a serious crash a few stages later in a time trial ended his race and could have led to his premature retirement from the sport.

Due to surgical errors after he was taken to hospital for a severe hip and upper leg injury, he had to learn to walk again.

It "could have been the end of my career", van Aert has said, but just a few months later he was back on his bike to finish fourth at the Cyclo-cross World Championships.

Versatile van Aert

Van Aert's versatility on the bike honed in cyclo-cross has proved immensely beneficial to him on the road.

In 2020, he finally won Strade Bianche and a few weeks later added his first Monument at Milan-Sanremo. He would add another stage win en route to retaining his Dauphiné green jersey before winning two sprints in the first week of the Tour de France.

His wide range of abilities – as a puncheur who likes climbing, a rider who is comfortable on cobbled roads, a time triallist, and a sprinter – has set tongues wagging. But, after a number of his various wins, he has dismissed labels and comparisons.

"Everybody has their own favourites, so for me, it's not about that label. It's about winning races," he once said. Before the 2020 Tour, he defined himself as "somewhere in between" a sprinter and a climber.

This is just a taste of what's to come, too.

"I think it's a super good thing that I don't know what my limits are. I'm 25 and it's really a pleasure to still discover what I'm able to do," he said after winning in Sanremo.

"I hope to have won a variety of different things by the end of my career, but as a Belgian guy, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are top of my list, and that's what I want to reach in the coming years."

Long-term rival Mathieu van der Poel

Since he began racing, van Aert has developed a healthy rivalry with Dutch cyclist Mathieu van der Poel, in both cyclo-cross and on the road.

Van der Poel, himself a three-time cyclo-cross world champion, pipped van Aert to the junior world title in 2011.

The long-standing competition between the pair has pushed both men on to new heights.

"From the moment I got on my bike, Mathieu has always made it difficult for me," van Aert told Belgium's Het Nieuwsblad newspaper. "He has always motivated me to beat him and that's how I got better myself," he added.

For his part, van der Poel paid tribute to his competitor in the same interview, saying during the coronavirus pandemic, he had missed "our competition and being together with colleagues.

"I have been racing against Wout for a long time and we have certainly lifted each other to a higher level over the years."

Tokyo 2020?

With nearly everything a road cyclist could wish for already on his palmarès, except perhaps a Grand Tour jersey or overall win, is there more to come from van Aert? Almost certainly.

The postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games to 2021 opened a new door for last year's Flandrien of the Year (best Belgian cyclist) award winner. "For me personally, it increases my chances of being selected, because it gives me more opportunities to show myself," he told his team's website after the news was announced.

It seems certain that Belgium will name Remco Evenepoel to take one of the team's two available time trial spots for Tokyo. That would leave van Aert competing against some stellar names for the last spot: more experienced and decorated cyclists like Thomas de Gendt, Yves Lampaert, and Victor Campenaerts would all figure to be in the consideration.

However, one thing working in van Aert's favour is that the two time trial athletes will have to form part of the country's five-man road race team too. With van Aert's all-around ability, and a parcours that includes climbing Mount Fuji, choosing a non-climber for the second spot might be a risky decision to take.

Whether or not he makes it to Tokyo, it is only the start for this young talent. Watch this space.