Track, cyclo-cross, road racing… the Crystal Bicycle doesn’t care what type of bike or terrain one rides on, it’s all about distinguishing the best Belgian cyclist of the year. In 2020, the voters for the prestigious trophy awarded by the newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws rewarded the many accomplishments of Lotte Kopecky (Liv Racing) and Wout van Aert (Team Jumbo-Visma), versatile riders whose careers might still be young, but are already stellar.
Last year, Kopecky (Belgian National Champion for road and individual time trial - ITT) and Van Aert (ITT National Champion and 2nd in both the ITT and the road race at the 2020 UCI Road World Championships) flew their country’s black, yellow and red colours on many occasions. They often met with success, and, inevitably at such a high level of competition, they were sometimes frustrated by their rivals, notably on their home roads of Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields.
Luckily for them, the two Belgian stars already get a fresh opportunity as the UCI WorldTour and UCI Women’s WorldTour pelotons prepare to chase victory towards Wevelgem’s Vanackerestraat on Sunday (28 March), only five months after the Dane Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) and the Belgian Jolien D’Hoore (Boels Dolmans CyclingTeam, now Team SD Worx) dominated the 2020 edition held, exceptionally, in October.
Regrets from 2020
On that day, Kopecky was riding Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields UCI Women’s WorldTour for the fifth time and came closer to victory than ever: 2nd, only beaten by her compatriot D’Hoore after she opened up the sprint early.
Van Aert was also looking strong in his third participation in the race, claiming his best result (8th), but regretting that Mathieu Van der Poel’s tactics prevented him from doing better: “He would rather see me lose than win himself.”
D’Hoore was the first Belgian winner of the women’s Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields, a race born in 2012. Pedersen’s victory illustrated the globalisation at the summit of the Classics’ hierarchy. Belgians have been dominant in the history of the men’s Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields, with 49 victories (out of 82 editions) but Greg Van Avermaet, winner in 2017, stands alone as a Belgian among the recent winners.
Year after year, Belgian cycling enthusiasts hope to see their local heroes shine at home. Van Aert and Kopecky are back to embody these ambitions - alongside last year's winner D'Hoore, Milano-Sanremo's winner Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and many more Belgian stars - on routes that perfectly suit their abilities: lots of cobbles, wind-exposed roads and a fast finish in Wevelgem.
Two of the most in-form riders of 2021
These are similar challenges to those Kopecky overcame to take victory in Le Samyn des Dames at the beginning of March. It was a “confirmation” of her good early season condition and her first victory with the Belgian National Champion jersey on her shoulders after an impressive but frustrating run of podium places to finish the 2020 season: 2nd in Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields, 3rd at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and 3rd in the AG Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne (now the Oxyclean Classic Brugge-De Panne).
There are no doubts surrounding Van Aert’s shape either after his strong cyclo-cross campaign and his impressive return to road racing: 4th on the Strade Bianche, 2nd with two versatile stage wins (a bunch sprint to begin with and an individual time trial to cap things off) at Tirreno-Adriatico, and 3rd at Milano-Sanremo.
After this Italian campaign, Van Aert returns to Belgium to chase his first victory in a one-day race since he became a Monument winner last year in Sanremo. “Today, I gambled wrong”, he observed after victory escaped him last weekend on his return to the Italian Monument.
Wout Van Aert is well aware it's a very thin line between the perfect race to glory and a missed opportunity to win. But he can be confident he has some of the best legs of today's peloton and the same goes for Lotte Kopecky. It's now time for them to make the most of this second serving of Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields in the past six months.