Van Aert primed to shed nearly man championship tag at worlds
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Paris (AFP) –
Wout van Aert can round off a superb season by being crowned men's world road race champion on home turf and shake off his tag of championship nearly man, giving Belgium a record-extending 27th rainbow jersey in male events.
In all, 11 titles are up for grabs in the eight days (September 19-26) of wheel-to-wheel combat in Flanders, a cycling hotbed, which should draw massive crowds as Belgium plays host for the 10th time but first since 2002 and on the championships' 100th anniversary.
The fairytale ending for them would be for Van Aert to take the men's road race honours on the final day of competition and follow in the footsteps of fellow Belgians like Eddie Merckx (1967/71/74) and two-time champion Freddy Maertens (1976/81).
The 27-year-old took silver in last year's time-trial and road race and in the Tokyo Olympics road race -- the latter after three stage wins in the Tour de France.
Van Aert will face stiff competition for the road race on September 26 -- a 268.3 kilometres ride from Antwerp to Leuven -- from defending champion Julian Alaphilippe.
Van Aert, though, landed a psychological blow ahead of the end of season showpiece by winning the Tour of Britain with the Frenchman in third.
"It is very rare to have the opportunity to have the world championships at home," said Van Aert, who is bidding to become the first Belgian road race champion since Philippe Gilbert in 2012.
"It is imperative to take full advantage of that.
"My target is to change the colour of the medals this year."
Van Aert will hope to start that process in Sunday's time-trial and would make history if he were to do the double as no rider has done that since the event was introduced in 1994.
Barring his way in the time-trial is 2020 victor Filippo Ganna of Italy and Switzerland's recently-crowned European champion Stefan Kung.
"The route is very flat so it will be based round strength," said Van Aert, who would be Belgium's first time-trial world champion.
"The fact it is longer than last year (14.6km further than 2020) is better for me than a rider such as Filippo Ganna who prefers shorter distances."
- 'So much bigger' -
The road race, though, is the biggest prize of all and Alaphilippe is confident of his chances of successfully defending his title having opted out of a tilt at Olympic glory in order to do so.
"Fire in the legs for the end of the season, it will pay off," he posted on his Instagram account during the Tour of Britain.
Maertens had a five-year hiatus between his two world titles but for British great Mark Cavendish it would be a decade since his triumph in Copenhagen.
The 36-year-old showed in the Tour de France he is no busted flush with four stage wins but if he falls short his younger team-mate Ethan Hayter -- a silver medalist in the Madison track trace in Tokyo -- is in fine fettle after a runners-up spot behind Van Aert in the Tour of Britain.
For Cavendish's former team-mate Bradley Wiggins, however, there is only one name who fits the bill in being crowned world champion.
"For me, there has to be one clear favourite and that is Belgium's very own Wout Van Aert," Wiggins told Eurosport.
The women's road race on September 25 -- a 157.7km ride from Antwerp to Leuven -- should also be a fascinating encounter.
It pitches Austria's surprise Olympic champion and mathematician Anna Kiesenhofer up against Dutch silver medalist Annemiek van Vleuten.
The Dutch rider will hope this time to deny the Austrian a memorable double gold -- and also avoid a repeat of her Tokyo misery when she raised her arms on crossing the line thinking she had won.
Kiesenhofer admits her life has been turned upside down since Tokyo but treasures her gold medal.
"This Olympic gold medal is so much bigger than my PhD," she told Cyclingtips.com.
"This was harder. If you count the number of people with a PhD in the world and those with a gold medal."
© 2021 AFP