"A new coronation would not change much in my prize list, but winning here is a matter of honor", immediately advances the Belgian Wout Van Aert (28), impressive throughout the winter.

"I'm not as nervous as before in relation to the World Cup but it remains an essential meeting", engages the Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel (28), sometimes bothered by his back in recent weeks.

Very clever who could predict the outcome of a world championship which seems promised to one of these two men, in the absence of the Briton Tom Pidcock who gave up defending his title to devote himself to the preparation of his season on road.

The two ogres seem on another planet compared to a competition, essentially Belgian, which should, barring a racing incident, be content with aiming for the bronze medal.

This season, in thirteen races, Van Aert has won nine times.

During the four other events he was ranked second each time, always behind... Van der Poel.

In their direct confrontations, he leads six victories to four since the beginning of this winter.

"I was stronger than Mathieu during the holiday period but since then he has come back very strong and has been quite impressive during his last two crosses", analyzes Van Aert.

Route designed by... Adrie van der Poel

If the most recent statistics seem to give an advantage to the Jumbo-Visma rider, other elements tend to tip the balance on the Batavian side, so much so that Van der Poel estimates that Sunday "it will be 50/50".

In the past, as part of the World Cup, the latter won five times in Hoogerheide where his rival never raised his arms in the Elites.

And the course, fast and technical, was designed by... his father, Adrie.

Van Aert sweeps away: "I have nothing against this course, on the contrary, I always like to ride there. The most important thing on Sunday will be the legs".

On paper, the Dutch route, embellished with obstacles such as fairly high planks, nevertheless seems to favor the local rider, who is more skilful technician than his Flemish opponent.

"But there were also boards in Benidorm (in the World Cup two weeks ago, editor's note), and they finished together", tempers Belgium coach Sven Vanthourehout while his colt is wary "of technical errors" .

"We take corners at high speed, which increases the risk of falling", explains Van Aert according to whom "Mathieu will undoubtedly leave very quickly and attack because it is in his nature".

No luck therefore for the other contenders for the podium who rely more on a tactical race.

"If Wout and Mathieu look at each other, we can try to take advantage of it. Otherwise, it will be very difficult", notes the European and Belgian champion Michael Vanthourenhout.

And whatever happens on Sunday, Van Aert and Van der Poel will continue to fight each other for the next few weeks, but on the road this time, where the two men have the same objectives in the spring: the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

© 2023 AFP