BRUSSELS (VN) — In the wake of Klaas Vantornout’s (Sunweb-Napoleon Games) huge upset win at the Belgian national championships on Sunday, Belgian national team coach Rudy De Bie will have some difficult decisions to make about exactly who will pack their bags for Louisville, Kentucky, and who will have to watch the cyclocross world championships on TV.
According to UCI rules, Belgium, as the world’s top-ranked country, can send six riders to the championships. The team gets an additional slot for outgoing world champion Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) and, depending on what happens in the final round of the World Cup in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, next Sunday, may earn one more. Albert leads countryman Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb) by 16 points in the World Cup overall, but Pauwels can take the title if he wins the race and Albert misses the podium. Since the winner of the World Cup earns an automatic trip to worlds, Belgium could take as many as eight riders to Louisville next month.
So, who can American fans look forward to cheering against at Eva Bandman Park?
UCI rules require teams to enter their three top-ranked riders in the championship race, which means that Albert, Sven Nys (Crelan-Euphony), and Pauwels are sure to make the trip. Vantornout, who was a lock for the team before winning a national title anyway, will certainly be there as well. But the Belgian Cycling Federation’s rules give De Bie wide latitude to decide who makes the team outside of those few.
VeloNews spoke to De Bie after Sunday’s championship race about how he would make the selection. He said that the nationals results in Mol had little effect on his decision.
“It’s practically always the same names who come in front,” said De Bie. “So for myself I already decided it before this race. There won’t be any big surprises.”
In all likelihood, should Belgium take only seven men to the world championships, at least two will come from their next three ranked riders: Rob Peeters (Telenet-Fidea), Tom Meeusen (Telenet), and Bart Aernouts (AA Drink-Leontien.nl). This is where the problem with making the decision based solely on UCI ranking arises, however. Two-time world champion and Belgian favorite Bart Wellens (Telenet) missed significant time last season while he was recovering from a life-threatening infection, and, since UCI ranking is computed from a calendar year’s worth of results — a year that includes all of Wellens’ missed time — he is ranked only 23rd.
Wellens, in fact, is even ranked behind both U23 Wietse Bosmans (BKCP), who is certain to be part of the country’s espoir squad, and Dieter Vanthourenhout (BKCP). Vanthourenhout, who did not finish the race in Mol on Sunday, is not likely to factor into the decision, however.
De Bie declined to name the riders he favors, saying only that he expects to notify them of their selection soon, but his remark that there would be no surprises suggests that Wellens is almost certain to get the nod. Despite a season of mixed results, barring serious illness or injury in the next week, leaving the established and popular rider off the team would provoke massive public outcry in’cross-crazed Flemish country.
But with four possible riders and three open slots, Wellens’ inclusion means De Bie must omit one of three riders ranked above him.
Meeusen rode to a rather anonymous 10 place in Mol, sporting a cap that read “DOPE FREE!!!” in reference to his role in a doping investigation that forced him to miss the seventh round of the World Cup in Rome a week ago. Peeters, meanwhile, finished second at last year’s world championships and has had the most consistent showing of the trio this season. Aernouts is another established, popular rider.
Additionally, Peeters, Wellens, and Aernouts all have experience traveling to and racing in the United States, which means Meeusen is very likely to be the odd man out. And, indeed, reports in the Belgian press also suggested that, although De Bie said he had decided before Sunday’s race, the top seven from the national championship would be the team for Louisville.
Would Meeusen then be in line for an eighth position if Pauwels upsets Albert in the World Cup overall? De Bie told VeloNews that he would only begin to consider options after the end of next week’s race.
“I think Niels Albert will win the World Cup race,” said De Bie. “But if there’s an eighth spot, that’s a decision we will make after the World Cup race in Hoogerheide.”
De Bie also noted that he had been impressed with the eighth-place ride of Jim Aernouts (Sunweb) in Mol. Aernouts’ UCI ranking is unimpressive, but the 24-year-old is in the midst of a transition from the U23 to elite ranks, and earned only a single World Cup selection for Belgium. Cyclocross’ premier series is so rich with UCI points that his limited opportunities there likely cost him hundreds of points and, as a result, his UCI ranking vastly understates his potential to post good results at worlds.
Though Meeusen appears to be clear of suspicion of doping himself — his role in the investigation is reportedly only as a witness and not a suspect — should De Bie decide that any involvement in such an investigation disqualifies him from the team, giving a young, rising talent like Aernouts a chance to prove himself might be an attractive option.
Other riders whose names may float into contention could be Sven Vanthourenhout (Crelan) and Jan Denuwelaere (Style & Concept). Denuwelaere was a disappointing 11th in Mol and rode to only 28th in his World Cup debut last week in Rome. But he won a hard fought bpost Bank Trofee race in Essen, Belgium, in December, and is another young rider who is ready to grow. Vanthourenhout, on the other hand, is a loyal lieutenant to Sven Nys, a favorite to take the title in Louisville.
But the discussion is moot if Kevin Pauwels fails to overtake Niels Albert in the World Cup in Hoogerheide. Undoubtedly, more than one Belgian will be quietly cheering for their soft-spoken compatriot Pauwels as they battle it out on Sunday.
Updated: De Bie on Monday named the seven-man Belgian squad and as predicted, the team includes Niels Albert, Sven Nys, Klaas Vantornout, Kevin Pauwels, Bart Aernouts, Bart Wellens, and Rob Peeters. Dieter Vanthourenhout, Jim Aernouts, and Jan Denuwelaere are the team’s reserves.