“The ’cross background puts riders like Wout and Mathieu in an ideal position to fight for the win in the final of a Classic. They’re used to pushing top end power for an hour in a way most riders can’t,” says Merijn. “Explosive power is harder to develop than endurance. It’s also a mental thing: if you’ve learned to push yourself at a young age, it’s something that sticks with you. It’s very hard to pick up later if you haven’t got it.”
Some say cyclo-cross riders also have a better feel for the race. “You learn that riding ’cross – bike handling, positioning, timing,” says Wout. And with the constant micro-adjustments and anticipation, riders get better at gauging their effort, sensing when to push or hold back. “The racing is more instinctive, not just relying on power readings,” he says.
One of the added challenges in the winter discipline has been the increasingly technical courses. “It’s great for the spectators, but shifts the racing more towards interval efforts, less steady state,” says Wout. “I’m more of a power rider and this recent development tends to favour lighter, more technical riders like Mathieu.” Of course, Wout has amazing skills, but Mathieu is nimbler. “It means usually having to chase him coming out of the bends.”
Having Van der Poel as a rival meant there was never any room for complacency. In interviews, Wout’s trainer Marc Lamberts has said that it led to him forcing Wout’s development harder and earlier than he would if the Dutchman hadn’t been around. Wout would have had more time to grow into the under-23s. They pushed each other and now everyone else is suffering.
Fully recovered from his horrific 2019 Tour crash, Wout van Aert is the most exciting bike racer in the world. Domestique, sprinter, climber, time trials, cyclo-cross and Tour de France stage wins - he can do it all.
The Rouleur Longreads Podcast brings you selected long form articles from the magazine, especially recorded for Rouleur. Don’t stop what you’re doing – do it while listening to the world’s best cycling writing.
The latest in this series is ‘The Wout Factor’ by Olivier Nilsson-Julien, from Rouleur 20.7. Download the Rouleur app and use the code WOUTFACTOR to read the whole issue free of charge.
(Our latest issue is now available to order in its finest, print form, from the Rouleur Emporium. Remember, to save waste you won't find it in the shops.)
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