The European season starts this weekend in Eeklo in what has become a tune up race before the Europeans head to the United States. Last year Mathieu van der Poel dominated the headlines, and for good reason. Things may change a bit this year with his lengthy road and cross season, combined with his focus on road worlds. There are plenty of riders looking to reach the top step of the podium in his absence. Here are our riders to watch:
Our rider of the year last year, Aerts has suddenly become the man to watch. With Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel both starting their seasons late (or not at all), Aerts becomes the instant favorite. Last year, he won the World Cup and finished second overall in the Superprestige and DVV Trofee. While van der Poel dominated every race he started, Aerts was a podium finisher in virtually every race. Out of the 37 races he started, he finished outside the top three only six times. He also managed to pick up the Belgian National Championship along the way. The real question this year is how will he perform now that he’s the heavy favorite. We should know after the first two rounds of the World Cup and some of the early season Belgian races.
Much like Aerts, Vanthourenhout was a podium contender in every race last year. While he wasn’t as consistent as Aerts, he finished on the podium 13 times and was outside the top ten only seven times. He was in the mix for third at the World Championships in Bogense, but bobbled in one of the final turns and had to watch as Aerts rode by. Vanthourenhout excels in muddy conditions, especially if there is running, so once we get into the latter half of the season he should shine.
As the lead group got whittled down at last year’s World Championships, there was one jersey that stood out in a sea of of Belgian and Dutch riders. It was the jersey of Spain’s Felipe Orts. He would end up fading back to 12th, which still left him as the second non Dutch/Belgian rider. As one would expect, Orts races in Spain a lot. The current Spanish National Champion took home overall honors in Spain’s Copa de España de Ciclocross by winning virtually every race in that series. He competes in all the European World Cups as well as the DVV and Superpestige series. His success at World’s shows he has what it takes. How he translate that success at the bigger European races this year remains to be seen.
If you have followed cross closely the past few years, Iserbyt’s name is not new. He has blossomed in the U23 ranks and began competing in some elite races last season. He was second in the U23 race at worlds and picked up third place in the Elite race at the Belgian National Championships. In the other elite races he competed in he was often found in the lead group and rarely finished outside the top-five. He will become a full-time elite racer this year and it will be interesting to see what effect a full season has. If he has the same success as last year, and gets used to racing at the highest level of the sport week in and week out, he can be a bonafide podium contender.
Mathieu van der Poel / Wout van Aert
The most dominant riders of the past few years are on the list for two very different reasons. Wout van Aert’s season is in doubt after a nasty crash in the Tour de France. If van Aert races cross this season it is likely that he won’t start until around the Kerstperiode in late December. Whether he races or not this year, he will be severely missed. He was a big fan of racing in the US and racing as much as he possibly could. If he does return, it will be interesting to see what kind of form he has since he still isn’t back on the bike.
Van der Poel was simply dominant last season. He won all but two races that he entered. He won the World Championship, Dutch National Championship as well as the DVV and Superprestige overall. The only reason he didn’t win the World CUp is because he skipped the first two rounds. Van der Poel is currently targeting the road World Championships which take place in mid-September. Assuming he takes some rest, that puts him back on the dirt in mid-October. The real question is, how his long road and mountain bike season will affect him. Based on what we have seen, it shouldn’t affect much at all.
Did we miss anyone? Let us know in the comments below.