The new Belgian national road coach, Sven Vanthourenhout – who will also remain as the national cyclo-cross coach – says that the future of Belgian cycling is looking bright thanks to Jumbo-Visma's Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep), but that he's not looking forward to the day when the likes of veterans Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team ) and Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal) are no longer on his list to represent Belgium.
Vanthourenhout attended the Kortrijk round of the X²O Badkamers Trofee cyclo-cross series on Saturday to catch up with a number of his riders.
"There are a lot of riders that I don't need to teach to win a race anymore, but one of my strengths is that I can tell a lot about how they're going without them needing to say much," Vanthourenhout told Sporza on Wednesday.
"Is the rider happy, or is there something on their mind? That's often a crucial factor. I try to be there for them at the times that are often forgotten – when they have a difficult period, for example, including when it's got nothing to do with the sport," he continued. "That might not be in my job description, but it's important."
Vanthourenhout will now have to juggle his new duties as the national road coach with his existing expertise in cyclo-cross as he heads into a season when both the cyclo-cross and road World Championships will be held in Belgium – in Ostend in January, and in various locations in Flanders in September, respectively.
"It's quite a sandwich," he admitted, although the likes of Van Aert will be expected to perform well at both events, and both he and Evenepoel, on the road, will have to shoulder much of the pressure on home soil.
"You could say that, but the puzzle [of selected riders] also has to be right," said Vanthourenhout. "The day will come when we win big with one of those two riders, but there's more to the national team than just Van Aert and Evenepoel. The riders they have alongside them are perhaps even more important, and it would be fantastic to see them perform, too."
Among them are 2019 Paris-Roubaix winner Gilbert and reigning Olympic road race champion Van Avermaet – riders soon to be approaching the twilight years of their careers, but who are still very much part of Vanthourenhout's plans for now.
"There is a generation – and I dare to call those riders by name, in Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert – who I'll have to disappoint in one, two, three or four years' time," he said. "That's going to be hard, and I've already been thinking about it, because a conversation like that is never going to be easy."
But already, Vanthourenhout will be building his national teams around Van Aert and Evenepoel, and Van Aert, in particular, has impressed the 39-year-old national selector – a former professional cyclo-cross rider who also rode on the road for teams such as QuickStep-Davitamon and Domo-Farm Frites.
"Wout has become a great gentleman, on and off the bike. He handles everything really well, and his injury has also played a role in that," said Vanthourenhout, referring to Van Aert's crash at the 2019 Tour de France, at which he injured his thigh, which prevented him from racing for six months while he recovered.
"He started from scratch, and that made him realise that there's more to life than just cycling, which has really helped him," he said. "He works hard and is very conscientious. Does he listen to me? I think so, but I don't know whether he always does anything with it. He doesn't have to."
Vanthourenhout also recalled a story from back when he was still a rider, and Van Aert was close to the start of his career as a 'cross rider.
"Wout won't remember, but when I was still a rider and he was still riding for the Telenet team under Hans van Kasteren, he once sat next to me on the plane. He was in his first year as an under-23 rider at the time.
"When I got off the plane, I said, 'He's going to be something special.' I noticed that from the questions he asked then, and the interests he already had at that age. You don't see that very often – except perhaps now from Remco Evenepoel," said Vanthourenhout.
"Things are looking good for Wout van Aert; he's doing things the right way – with his team, the people he has around him, who he is as a rider and as a person… I hope, for him, that it all stays that way in the years to come."