Mathieu van der Poel has high expectations for the return of Wout van Aert. The world champion thinks his Belgian rival will finish in the top five at the Azencross in Loenhout on Friday.

"It is a good thing that he is there again," Van der Poel told Thursday after his victory at the World Cup cross in Heusden-Zolder about Van Aert's return to Het Nieuwsblad . "I think he will immediately be in the top five tomorrow."

25-year-old Van Aert makes his comeback in the Azencross after being out of circulation for months due to a major crash in the Tour de France. In July, during the time trial in Pau, the Belgian hit a crush barrier with his hip, sustaining a deep flesh wound and requiring surgery twice. Last month he took a major step in his recovery.

Earlier this week, Van Aert announced that he would not want to turn it into an old-fashioned fight with Van der Poel in Loenhout. "It is not the intention to go for a result. I do not expect much from it myself," he said Monday. "I want to use the cross to get better. In terms of results, it will probably be a lost year."

Van Aert and Van der Poel were pretty well matched in cyclocross in recent seasons. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the Jumbo-Visma rider was crowned world champion. At the start of this year he finished second behind the Dutchman at the World Championship in Bogense, Denmark.

Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel during the World Cup at the start of this year. (Photo: Getty Images)

"One of the most difficult detours to drive alone"

Van der Poel recorded his thirteenth victory of the season on Boxing Day. The European champion drove away halfway through the race and was no longer overtaken by the competition. Yet he did not have it easy in Heusden-Zolder.

"This is one of the most difficult routes to drive alone, because as a leader you are never out of sight," he said. "A group that runs in the chase always keeps you in sight. Moreover, you can work together here in the intermediate lanes and as a leader you can't."

Van der Poel also had some problems with his back. "Because of the many bumps in the course I got some shocks on my back. In addition, my tubes were pretty hard. I got a stiff back from that, but due to some stretching, it did relax."

The men's competition of the Azencross starts on Friday at 3 p.m. The last two years Van der Poel took the win in Loenhout and Van Aert finished second.