It’s easy to think that the job of a man like Sven Vanthourenhout, the Belgian national team coach, would be simple. This is a nation with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to selecting riders for events like the World Championships and the Olympics – think Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Jasper Philipsen, Arnaud de Lie, Jasper Stuyven, Tiesj Benoot. Winning should be relatively straightforward. But at what point does having so many superstars coming from one nation become a hindrance, rather than an advantage?
We’ve seen it on the women’s side of the sport with the Dutch national team especially – the Olympic road race in Tokyo is perhaps the most prominent example of when they seriously got things wrong. Austrian rider Anna Kiesenhofer ended up winning the race solo when she reached the Fuji Speedway course after a long range attack that the Dutch team failed to chase down in time, despite having the fire power to do so in the group behind. When Annemiek van Vleuten crossed the line in second place, she even celebrated thinking she’d won. Afterwards, there were conflicting comments from the Dutch team, with the likes of Marianne Vos saying they had underestimated Kiesenhofer’s power, yet the likes of Anna van der Breggen commenting that they didn’t know she was up the road at all. Year on year, there are head-scratching tactics from the team in orange, often because each rider on the team wants the chance to win themselves. It’s a classic case of too many cooks.
We’ve seen rumbles of a similar conflict emerging on the Belgian men’s team in the past, too. At the World Championships in Leuven two years ago, Jasper Stuyven was the home nation’s best finisher in fourth place – a solid result, but more was expected from the team of eight experienced and decorated riders that they brought to the event. Afterwards, in an interview with Sporza’s Extra Time Koers program, Evenepoel said it was a “missed opportunity” for him to take the world title and criticised team management for going all-in with Van Aert and Jasper Stuyven.
“The best rider in the race behind Alaphilippe? It’s hard to say, but I could have become world champion,” Evenepoel said. “We had a team meeting on Friday afternoon. I found that the instructions that they gave were unclear, after which I spent a night filled with doubts.” He continued to add: “I got on with my job without complaining, as I would at Deceuninck-Quick-Step. But I said what I thought to Sven Vanthourenhout; it was a missed opportunity to go seek the world title.”
A few weeks later, Van Aert responded to these comments when speaking to the media after a recon of Paris-Roubaix. He said: “It touched me. I expected to hear criticism because we didn’t win but that it came from someone on the team is not smart and only serves to add fuel to the fire. It’s a shame, and I regret it. Remco issued more criticism on TV than in the team meeting.”
Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
Since that day when it all went wrong on the roads of Flanders, there certainly appears to be better harmony in the Belgian team’s ranks – though it’s hard to know if this has simply been circumstantial based on the parcours of World Championship events since then. Last year in Wollongong, for example, Evenepoel attacked with 72 kilometres of the race still remaining and rode solo to the finish line, taking the rainbow bands with a gap of over two minutes to Christophe Laporte in second place. When the Worlds came to Glasgow a few months ago, Evenepoel was vocal about the fact that the city centre circuit wasn’t particularly suited to his strengths and he was distanced in the closing stages of the race. This meant the road decided that Van Aert would be the team’s leader, though even he couldn’t respond to Mathieu van der Poel’s attack as he rode away to take the jersey for the Netherlands, finishing in second place.
The course for the Paris Olympic Road Race can, to an extent, be compared to that course in Glasgow. It spans 273 kilometres and includes 2,800 metres of climbing, and there will be three 18.4km finishing circuits with a cobbled climb each lap. The circuits are longer than those in Glasgow, but the repeated short climbs are of a similar nature to the Scottish course and should lead to the same cohort of riders fighting for the medals. A key difference when comparing the Olympics to the World Championships however, is that the peloton will only consist of 90 riders under the new Olympic quota system, compared to the field of almost 200 usually seen at the Worlds.
Belgium has qualified four places for the elite men's road race, and coach Vanthourenhout confirmed at a press event last week the two riders – most likely Van Aert and Evenepoel – will take part in the individual time trial. This leaves open two spots for Belgium to fill for the road race and there are plenty of riders who will be vying for them.
Vanthourenhout is left with two routes to go down when it comes to making this selection. The first is that rather than opting to take another two riders who have a realistic chance of winning the race, he could choose reliable domestiques. These are the likes of Tiesj Benoot or Yves Lampaert or Victor Campenaerts or Tim Declercq – riders who will, without question, sacrifice their own chances for their team leaders when it is required of them. This means being attentive to early breakaways or putting themselves on the front of the peloton to close gaps, even if it will lead to eventually being distanced from the front group themselves.
Image: Thomas Maheux/SWpix
The other option Vanthourenhout has is to fill those two remaining spots with riders who could win the race alongside Van Aert and Evenepoel. When looking at the published long list and reflecting on the past season, these two riders would most likely be Jasper Philipsen and Arnaud De Lie. Both of these riders are sprinters who have also proven themselves to have the climbing ability to make it over some tough ascents – if they come to the finish line in a reduced bunch, then these are two riders who will be in with the best shot of a medal. However, this is a risk.
If De Lie and Philipsen are saving themselves for the end of the race, who is left from the Belgian team to control things early on? Neither Evenepoel or Van Aert will want to sacrifice their own chances to chase down moves and there’s also a chance that the climbs will end up being too difficult for the likes of De Lie and Philipsen, meaning that their spots on the squad could end up being a waste altogether. If these four men take to the start as a team, then they will be a team of four winners, something that rarely works out in the sport of cycling.
The reality is that these are four men who race on different teams all year long. To ask them to go from rivals to teammates in the blink of an eye is always going to throw up conflicts – it’s happened time and time again in the past. Should Vanthourenhout hedge his bets and select a squad of four champions or call in some loyal domestiques to support Van Aert and Evenepoel? The fact that only one rider gets the gold medal and the accolades and that the Olympics only come every four years makes the stakes incredibly high. We’re still months away from the riders taking to the start line in Paris, but the tension is already building. We’re glad we aren’t making these calls.
Cover image: Thomas Maheux/SWpix