Ahead of the 2022 UCI Road World Championships, Cyclingnews is taking a deep dive into the key teams for the elite road races. Here, we put Belgium under the microscope.
Belgium is the most successful nation in men’s road race history at the UCI Road World Championships. They’ve amassed 26 rainbow jerseys, while on the women’s side they are the fourth-most successful nation with six wins.
However, the past two decades have been relatively barren for the Belgian teams, with only two gold medals and a total of five since the turn of the Millennium. Long gone are the dominant years of Rik Van Steenbergen, Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx, and Freddy Maertens.
On the women’s side, meanwhile, the cupboard is still bare. They haven’t collected a medal since 1982 and there hasn’t been a rainbow jersey since Nicole Van den Broeck’s triumphant ride in Barcelona nine years before that. Two-thirds of their rainbow jerseys came via Nicole Reynders between 1959 and 1966.
The Belgian men’s last three medals have been spread out across 16 years, which is some achievement given the depth of talent the country has turned out in that time. Philippe Gilbert’s win in Valkenburg a decade ago counts as their most recent victory.
- Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
- Stan Dewulf (AG2R Citroën)
- Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl)
- Quinten Hermans (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert)
- Yves Lampaert (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl)
- Pieter Serry (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl)
- Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo)
- Nathan Van Hooydonck (Jumbo-Visma)
- Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx)
- Valerie Demey (Liv Racing Xstra)
- Julie De Wilde (Plantur-Pura)
- Justine Ghekiere (Plantur-Pura)
- Jesse Vandenbulcke (Le Col-Wahoo)
- Julie Van de Velde (Plantur-Pura)
Few other nations in the peloton can boast a squad of left-behind riders which could feasibly compete as a standalone team in Wollongong, but Belgium have seen fit to leave a plethora of notable names back home.
Classics men Greg Van Avermaet, Dylan Teuns, Tim Wellens, Oliver Naesen and Victor Campenaerts join climbers Mauri Vansevenant and Ilan Van Wilder – plus sprinters Tim Merlier, Jasper Philipsen and Arnaud De Lie – in all missing the cut for the final eight-man selection .
Heading up that group in Australia, though, is one of the top favorites for the rainbow jersey in Wout van Aert. The 28-year-old has once again been one of the best riders in the world this season and will be racing to plug a rare gap in his palmarès on Sunday.
He can win from large groups, reduced sprints, solo moves, and can last over the hills as well – a perfect combination of strengths for the tough hilly finishing circuit. He’s in great form, too – the past month has seen him win the Bretagne Classic, take second at the Bemer Cyclassics and GP de Montréal, and finish fourth in the GP de Quebec. It will take some doing to get the better of Van Aert.
Fresh Vuelta a España champion Remco Evenepoel is his main lieutenant, with the pair hopefully avoiding a fall-out that tarnished their home Worlds last time out. The 22-year-old has stepped up several levels this season with Liège-Bastogne-Liège another new addition to his palmarès. If he races for the team and avoids getting caught up in media spats, he’ll be a key cog in the potential victory machine.
Next in line is Jasper Stuyven, a man who was inches away from a medal in his hometown of Leuven last year – yes, such is Belgium’s strength in depth. The 30-year-old is a top caliber Classics man but with the harsh hills on the menu throughout the day he is likely to serve firmly in a team helper role.
QuickStep-AlphaVinyl strongman Yves Lampaert is another Classics specialist who will be flogging himself at the service of his leaders, while Quinten Hermans – who last month said he wasn’t expecting a call-up – is a dangerous option to have in reserve on the hilly course.
While the men’s team has an overall favorite and a couple of other options should things go south for Van Aert, for the women it’s all about Lotte Kopecky if they’re to take the rainbow jersey for the first time in almost half a century.
In recent seasons, the 26-year-old has done little but improve, to the point where she’s enjoyed the best campaign of her career in 2022. She may not have won since her June national time trial title, but spring saw Kopecky take glory at Strade Bianche and the Tour of Flanders in addition to a second place at Paris-Roubaix.
As evidenced by her victory over fellow Worlds favorite Annemiek van Vleuten in Siena back in March, she has evolved far beyond the rider she was in seasons past and represents Belgium’s best chance at victory in the women’s race in years, even if her participation had initially looked in doubt following a hard Tour de France Femmes.
Of Kopecky’s five helpers in Australia, none are serious threats to win or medal as Evenepoel or Stuyven could be. The team will be dedicated to helping her break their country’s lean spell in the race. Teen talent Julie De Wilde is the next-strongest woman in the squad, the 19-year-old having put in several impressive rides throughout 2022.
She recently headed up a Plantur-Pura podium sweep at the women’s GP de Wallonie and was second at Dwars door Vlaanderen back in March. It won’t be her year this time around but she’s certainly a rider to take note of for the future.
The strength of the men’s squad comes through their depth, with perhaps only the French squad their equal in that regard. Year after year, others look to the Belgians to take control of the race, and that is unlikely to change on Sunday.
Few other nations can boast a series of helpers like Stuyven, Hermans, Lampaert and Van Hooydonck, and fewer still have a one-two punch like Van Aert and Evenepoel.
It looks like it will take some doing to derail the light blue train in Wollongong, with repeated attacks likely to be the order of the day to disrupt Van Aert’s best-laid plans.
While the Netherlands comes to the start of almost every major championship with the strongest squad in the race, it doesn’t always translate to the expected glory at the finish. Last year in Leuven and at the Tokyo Olympics things didn’t turn out their way despite boasting a plethora of favourites.
Again, they take the start in Australia in a similar situation, the potential for a muddled tactical race lurking below the surface of the powerhouse squad. For Belgium there will be no such dilemmas or recriminations as Kopecky enjoys sole leadership.
In a race such as the Worlds, which can be chaotic and unpredictable, there is value in having a defined team structure with a clear leader. Every woman in the Belgian squad will take the start in Helensburgh with a clear role and strategy in their head.
One worry among very few for the men’s squad is Van Aert’s sprint at the end of a long, hard race – assuming he’s in the lead group at the finish, of course. While the superstar has shown time and again that he can do it all, there have been several relevant examples of him just falling short at the final hurdle when he might, on paper, be expected to clean up.
At the recent GP de Montréal, Van Aert gave a glimpse of how he might be beaten in Wollongong, missing out in the sprint to Tadej Pogačar at the end of a 221km race with over 4,000 meters of elevation – a course similar to Sunday’s road race .
Despite being one of the best finishers in the world, a worn-down Van Aert won’t be a dead-cert to triumph in a finishing sprint even against non-sprinters. It’s something to keep in mind if his rivals can’t get away from him before the finale.
While the men have a plan B in Evenepoel and even something approaching a plan C or D in Stuyven and Hermans, it’s hard to say the same about the women’s squad. It’s going to be all-in for Kopecky on Saturday, barring a miraculous overperformance from one of her domestics.
That’s not to do down the squad, though, but not every nation can be like the Netherlands or Italy, those squads blessed with various leadership options. It’s worth remembering, though, that in Kopecky they have a real option for victory, which has been a rarity for some time.
It’s astonishing to look at the list of top riders Belgium have enjoyed in their colors over the years and remember that they haven’t taken home an elite road race rainbow jersey in a decade – far longer in the women’s case.
Nothing is certain at the Worlds, some of the longest days in the saddle all season. That’s true for Belgium as it is for any other nation in the race. The country does have legitimate hopes, rather than far-fetched dreams, of taking a rainbow jersey at the weekend, though.
In Van Aert, Evenepoel, and Kopecky, they have a trio of leaders that most nations would envy, and it would take a brave onlooker to bet against them taking home one medal, whatever color.