Competitive? Interesting? Superstar? Wout is All of the Above

Head back to September, and if we are being honest, most of us were hoping we would maybe get to see Wout van Aert racing some of the Spring Classics virtual Spring Classics taking place right now after his horrific crash at unlucky Stage 13 of the Tour de France last July.

Following his crash and leg injury, Van Aert spent much longer in the hospital than expected, and come the end of the summer, we caught a glimpse of him rehabbing his injury where he needed help walking. With his team canceling his start contracts and more or less saying they did not expect him to race cyclocross during the 2019/20 season, it seemed destined to be a Woutless ‘cross season.

We have seen Van Aert bury himself to the point of exhaustion before, but coming back from this injury seemed like a comeback too far for even one of the toughest riders out there. Wout, however, had other plans.

In a story that has been well-documented, Van Aert was spotted during some running and bike shouldering at the beach in late November, and about a week later, he announced he would be making his cyclocross comeback at Azencross Loenhout. With his archrival Mathieu van der Poel giving him the wide-angle-podium seal of approval, Van Aert came back in style, finishing fifth in that race.

Van Aert had a successful return at Loenhout. © Ethan Glading

He would then accentuate his comeback with a fourth-place finish at Worlds in Switzerland and a win at Krawatencross to cap off his season and complete one of the best stories in cyclocross this past season.

The epic battles between Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado and Annemarie Worst and Kerry Werner and Curtis White are two other memorable storylines to come out of the season, but at the end of the day, they were likely not as interesting as Wout’s comeback and impressive results. Heck, I would have been impressed if he was pulling top 10s during his return, much less winning races and nearly podiuming at Worlds.

Van Aert’s comeback taught us some things about him as an athlete and person that demonstrate why his apparent desire to continue racing cyclocross while chasing his dream of winning the green jersey at the Tour is very much a good thing we should enjoy every second of.

Wout is a Star

You know it’s not a CXHairs blog without a basketball reference, and where cyclocross is today is kind of reminiscent of the NBA after Michael Jordan retired … the second time. Not the third. Or the first. The second, in 1998.

Jordan’s star power was essential in helping commissioner David Stern turn the league into the international juggernaut it is today. Jordan rose to prominence at the tail end of the Bird and Magic Era and then still faced an impressive cast of future NBA Hall of Famers as he racked up six NBA championships. With other stars such as Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, and others at the end of their careers in the late 1990s, the NBA was left with a massive star-power vacuum heading into the 2000s.

And man oh man, was the NBA butt after Jordan retired. The play was anemic, the stars were kind of jerks—Portland’s entire team was nicknamed the Jailblazers—and people tuned out. It was only when LeBron James was drafted in 2003 and a new crop of likable megastars entered the league that the NBA was saved.

Sven Nys played the same role for cyclocross that Jordan did for the NBA. Well, except that Nys made cyclocross huge in the podunk country of Belgium, not, you know, the entire world. Nys’ superstardom was accompanied by a number of other stars to serve as his foils, and the sport’s popularity grew to heights not seen before.

When Nys retired, cyclocross in Belgium faced a similar star-power vacuum that the post-Jordan Era experienced. We have seen the effects, with decreasing interest in Elite Men’s racing in terms of both race attendance and television viewership. Yeah, Mathieu van der Poel is probably better than Nys ever was, but he is Dutch, and he has largely rendered European Men’s racing rather uninteresting.

Looking back, I think we caught a glimpse of Van Aert’s star power via the raucous cheers he received from the Belgie faithful when he won Namur back in 2017. Fans lining the steep run-ups and descents were cheering his every move and giving him a hero’s welcome during the last season he occasionally beat Van der Poel.

Since then, Van Aert’s star has only grown, even if he has struggled to beat his rival in the field. Prior to his major Spring Classics debut in 2018, Van Aert certainly had the potential to be something great, but to get to that next level of stardom, the #hype has to be real, so to speak. Van Aert’s epic third-place finish at the Strade Bianche in 2018 and then his strong showing at Milan-San Remo in 2019 showed that on the road, the young Belgian is very much the real deal.

Even though the 2019 Tour did not end how he wanted, Van Aert’s Stage 10 win helped him continue to become a household name in the cycling world and earn him new fans from the sport’s biggest event. I know anecdotally, friends of mine interested in road racing were watching his return to cyclocross only because of what he did at the Tour.

Wout’s star power was on full display during his return race at Loenhout. If we are being honest, crowds were noticeably small at Euro races this season, but at Loenhout, it sure seemed like every square foot of the venue was packed with Belgies. It certainly helped that the race was near a hometown race for Van Aert, but his return certainly helped create a buzz we have not seen at a cyclocross race in a long time.

The fans came out at Loenhout. © Ethan Glading

He then capped his impressive comeback season with a win at Krawatencross and in the process got us to actually care about one of the post-Worlds February races. The latter of those accomplishments certainly being an underrated feat.

Questions certainly remain about the extent to which Van Aert’s stardom can save European cyclocross. During the U.S. World Cups this season, we coined the term “Another Generic Belgian,” and unfortunately, while Van Aert is a big deal, his Belgian peers have largely elicited feels of “that’s nice,” even when they are doing well. While Nys was a superstar, he also had a strong cast of fellow stars to compete against that helped elevate the popularity of the sport in Belgium.

Van Aert also … kinda sorta has to be able to win races. If Van der Poel sticks with cyclocross and continues to lay waste to his competition in all the big races, the excitement will struggle to be there alongside the intrigue folks have about Van Aert.

Wout Likes Cyclocross

Prior to Wout signing with Jumbo – Visma, the collective cyclocross world spent a good amount of time musing about Van Aert’s last days racing cyclocross. After all, once the money and prestige of the WorldTour came calling, it seemed inevitable he would follow the path of most riders who started in ‘cross and then left for the road.

It turns out, at least thus far, we did not know Wout quite well enough.

One needs to look no further than his comeback from the Tour crash to see that the dude loves racing cyclocross. His team did not think he would race this year, and heck, I bet at some point he probably did not think he would either. And with the severity of the injury and the obvious potential he has to do great things in the Spring Classics and the Grand Tours, it would have made total sense for him to take his rehab through the winter and into the spring without risking it with the challenging demands of cyclocross.

Van Aert seems to really enjoy cyclocross. © Bill Schieken

While discussing his comeback, Van Aert gave a nod to the atmosphere at the Kerstperiode races—an atmosphere he contributed to just a lil’ bit this year with his comeback—and said this, “Cyclocross is still the best thing there is, and I just want to have fun this winter. I want to use the ’cross to get better.”

Van Aert was a main attraction during his cyclocross return. © Bill Schieken

After successfully finishing fifth at Loenhout, Van Aert kept with it, racing another race before toeing the line at Belgian Nats. He would race a total of seven races, including Worlds. That number, of course, would have been eight if Superprestige Merksplas was not canceled due to high winds.

There is certainly no guarantee Van Aert will continue to race cyclocross, but it seems likely that if he continues to excel on the road, his Jumbo – Visma team will be open to the Belgian star keeping busy during the fall and winter racing cyclocross and chasing that fourth World Championship. It is certainly a benefit to the discipline that its megastar wants to continue racing, even if it is on a reduced basis compared to his “younger” days.

Wout is a Competitor

One of the things that has been interesting about the rivalry between Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert is their contrasting stories and styles. Van der Poel has always had a leg up on Van Aert, being the son of a world champion and the grandson of at least the second-best road cyclist of his era in Raymond Poulidor. Van der Poel has overwhelming talent and a graceful style that make his incredible accomplishments seem easy.

Van Aert, on the other hand, is just a kid from Harentals, albeit one with incredible talent. Whereas MvdP is graceful, Wout always appears to be out there grinding on the bike race course. You always know how much he is suffering and how hard he is working because he wears every emotion on his face—a trait that does create an interesting contrast with his impeccable hair and dapper style away from racing.

Wout always wears his emotions on his sleeve. © Bill Schieken

We got one of our first real looks at how deep Van Aert was willing to go to win a bike race at Strade Bianche in 2018 when he completely shattered himself en route to a head-turning third-place finish at the race on the famed white roads of Italy. Closer to our ‘cross hearts, an underrated Wout moment was Bogense Worlds when he turned himself inside out to hold off Toon Aerts to take not the win, but just a silver medal.

Van Aert complete buried himself at Bogense Worlds to finish second. © 2019 Bill Schieken

Van Aert’s competitive nature was on display again during his comeback tour this winter.

Van Aert earning a spot on the Belgian Worlds team could have gone either way this year. Yes, he is three-time world champion, but at the same time, he barely raced this season and there were certainly arguments someone else deserved the spot more. Wout got his Belgian blue jersey, but only a few races into his comeback, he was not the podium favorite he has been in the past.

That proved no matter, as Van Aert took advantage of the thick course and let his mud legs guide him into a battle for third with Aerts. A flat in the penultimate lap ended his podium bid, but he still came away with a fourth-place finish that was incredibly impressive.

The crazy thing is, Van Aert was pissed! Up until that point, he had never not finished on a podium at Worlds, and he fully expected the streak to continue during what was probably his toughest challenge yet.

“I’m very disappointed,” Van Aert said after Worlds. “It’s the first time that I’m not on the World Championships podium. I maybe didn’t expect that it would work out today, but I was close after all. I secretly had hoped for a 9th podium on my 9th World Championships. It was a nice statistic I had.”

Athletes are often known to say the absolute blandest things possible in post-race interviews, so you gotta love to see someone of Van Aert’s caliber express disappointment after what was, by all measures, an incredible ride at Worlds. It definitely bodes well for the attitude he will hopefully be bringing back to the fields of Belgium this coming winter when he is a much healthier version of his triple-rainbow self.

Finally, Wout is Interesting

A few years back, our friends at the Slow Ride Podcast started the Anyone But Wout movement when he was winning world championships and dominating races here in the U.S. However, as Van der Poel quickly turned into the force majeure he is today, Van Aert morphed into an underdog and seemingly became more popular.

As editor of Cyclocross Magazine, I quickly learned Van Aert was pageview gold. It certainly did not hurt that he made a name for himself during the 2018 Spring Classics and 2019 Tour and had that headline-worthy falling-out with his team at the start of the 2018/19 cyclocross season.

Since I myself was much more intrigued by Van Aert’s trials and tribulations than whatever Van der Poel was doing, I started trying to get a grasp on why Van Aert was so much more interesting than the Flying Dutchman.

Wout has always been interesting. © Bill Schieken

In the end, I think a lot of the reasons have been covered in this blog post. Things come easily for Van der Poel, while Van Aert seemingly has to work that much harder for his successes. Van Aert is just a kid from somewhere, while Van der Poel is the wunderkind who makes everything look easy. And Van Aert is not afraid to let folks know how he feels and be a bit vulnerable in an athletic world that does not necessarily reward vulnerability.

All of these factors make Van Aert interesting as a person and an athlete, and to come full circle, they probably contribute to why the Belgian ‘cross faithful have embraced him as a star. As sports fans, we like our sports stars to be complicated, we like them to cause complicated feelings and emotions, we like when they are interesting.

(I was going to go into a long segue about the recent death of Kobe Bryant here, but I will just leave it at RIP Kobe for the sake of a modicum of brevity. Bryant was certainly one of the most complicated and interesting sports stars in recent years, and his passing brought out emotions from peers and the public rarely seen for a former athlete)

Van Aert capped his comeback season with a win at Krawatencross. As we discussed on The Media Pit, even those of us tasked with following cyclocross find it challenging to get excited for the post-Worlds races, but Van Aert’s outing in his final race of the 2019/20 season provided a memorable and emotional afternoon when Van Aert let fans inside how he was feeling about his accomplishment.

“When I crossed the line, a lot went through my mind. This is the confirmation that I can still do it,” he said via his team. “It might not be my biggest victory, but it certainly feels like it. Especially in front of my home crowd. It went through my mind all week: this race and the dream to win here. It is a nice reward after all I have been through in the past months. This is very emotional.”

As a journalist, I read that as was like, “Damn, that’s great copy,” and as a fan, I thought it was super interesting to get a small look inside what the win at really a nothing race meant for the three-time champion. In either case, I was interested in hearing more, and with Van Aert no doubt poised to come back stronger from his injury, there will be many more opportunities for the interesting, competitive, cyclocross-loving superstar to help the sport grow in the years to come.


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