ZONHOVEN, Belgium (VN) — If European cyclocross in the 2010s were distilled to its essence, three names — Sven Nys, Niels Albert and Kevin Pauwels — might be all that was left. (Maybe, if we count the semi-departed two-time world champion Zdenek Stybar, we could include a fourth.)
Going back to the beginning of 2010, Nys, Albert and Pauwels have combined for nearly 200 podium appearances. If we estimate that an ambitious racer might enter 35 or 40 races a season, that means that nearly 75 percent of all podium places since 2010 have been held by one of the three.
With the Nys-Albert rivalry in full blossom in recent weeks, most notably on Sunday in Zonhoven and last Thursday at the Koppenberg, and Pauwels still on the impressive form that netted him both GVA Trofee and World Cup titles last season, breaking the three-man bloc even once remains a formidable feat.
So while much media attention has been lavished on the Nys-Albert-Pauwels trio, others continue to post impressive results in relative obscurity. For those who follow cyclocross closely enough to look beyond the podiums, deeper into the results, that one of these names is Bart Aernouts will come as no surprise.
The amiable Belgian, who earned his first podium finish in a major series race this season with a third place in Zonhoven on Sunday, has been quietly producing some of the best results of his career in recent months. Aernouts has never failed to finish inside the top 10 in 10 races this season, and won the minor Nacht van Woerden race in the Netherlands in October. On Sunday, he finally broke through.
“I’m very happy to be on the podium,” Aernouts told VeloNews after Zonhoven. “For me it’s not easy to be on the podium every week. I know that riders like Sven Nys and Niels Albert are normally quite a lot stronger, so only when I have a good day and the track is good for me, is it possible.
“A few times a year I can do it, and I’m very happy with that. I know for me it’s not like it’s for sure every week, but a few times a year I can do that. That’s my moment and I try to take it.”
Aernouts turned pro in 2004 and since then has won legions of fans with his affable nature and ready smile. He has a fan club, largely based in the Kalmthout area where he lives with his wife and two children, called Komaanbartjes. This summer the 30-year-old left his long-time team, Rabobank, and signed with the AA Drink-Leontien.nl team. He also underwent successful surgery for iliac artery stenosis — a narrowing of an important artery in the groin area, a problem that disproportionately affects cyclists — something Aernouts called nothing short of a rebirth.
Aernouts told VeloNews that while his podium appearances remain relatively rare, he has been there enough to ride with poise when the opportunity for a big result presents itself.
“I think you have to learn that,” he said of his mid-race feelings when a podium spot is on the line. “A few years ago I would sometimes panic, thinking, ‘Oh, what am I doing? I’m in such a good position!’ But now that I’ve been here a few times I think I know how to stay calm and just go as fast as I can and don’t take any unnecessary risks. Just do what I have to do. That last few years, it’s not like I’m getting nervous in that position, but the first few times, I really did.”
Aernouts said he’ll focus specifically on races with a large sand component, something he regards as a major strength for him. Aernouts took a World Cup third in Koksijde last November and an impressive fifth place on the same course at the world championships in January.
But he acknowledged that his aspirations for repeating that success at worlds were tempered with realism about the course itself and the challenges of traveling to the United States.
“I know that on a track like the one in America, it’s maybe not the best one for me, so maybe this year the Belgian championships are a more realistic goal than the worlds,” he said.
But Aernouts added that he was excited about the possibility of returning to the United States for a major race.
“I really want to be part of worlds in America,” he said. “In Belgium it’s not so easy to be selected, but I’m going to do everything I can do be there. I’m looking forward to it. I raced in Las Vegas, and it was a different culture, but it was fun. I think now is the right moment for America to have the world championships, and I’m sure the American guys are going to go really fast there.”