Belgium are one of the pre-eminent cycling nations and will automatically head to Tokyo with a certain sense of status and expectation.
They have the defending champion in the men’s road race in Greg Van Avermaet but he’ll only have a minor role as Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel send those expectations to the skies.
However, Belgium’s Olympic pedigree is actually rather light. Before Van Avermaet’s triumph in Tokyo, you had to go back to 1984 for a cycling gold, while they’ve only won five medals this millennium.
While you sense that only a medal will do in the men’s road race and time trial – and maybe even two out of three colours would be a disappointment – there will be slightly lower expectations on the women’s side, while they’ll hope the return of the Madison can spark some success on the track.
Road races and time trials
Wout van Aert has arrived in Tokyo after a stunning Tour de France in which his three stage wins – a mountain stage, a time trial, and a bunch sprint – showcased his mind-bending versatility. You’d be hard-pressed to design a course he couldn’t win on, and that goes for the road race and the time trial. Van Aert will line up in both and arguably starts as the favourite in both. As for his form, it’s obviously sky high, but it’s interesting to note that he was subdued on the first few stages of the Tour, when Alaphilippe and Van der Poel were strutting their stuff. Van Aert, by contrast, finished the race with back-to-back wins, suggesting he has measured it perfectly.
Remco Evenepoel makes it two Belgian riders who could feasibly do the road race-time trial golden double. The 21-year-old super talent is highly motivated by the Olympics and has made it his season’s major target. He differs from Van Aert in that he’s much lighter, so even though he might not be expected to finish a race from a small group, he may have a better time absorbing the steeper climbs, and has repeatedly shown he can solo from long range. He missed out on the Belgian time trial title but the hillier Tokyo course TT should suit him, and there are few riders so aerodynamically efficient. His form is more of an unknown compared to Van Aert. He hasn’t raced since the Belgium Tour and has endured a complicated comeback from his 2020 injury, but he did win that Belgium Tour.
Greg Van Avermaet is the defending champion and has doggedly been wearing his golden helmet throughout the lost Olympic year. That said, he arguably sits towards the bottom of the Belgian hierarchy. He hasn’t won a race in nearly two years and was way off the pace at the Tour de France, so will be hoping for a rapid turn in fortunes.
Tiesj Benoot is a quality all-round rider who maybe still hasn’t quite worked out how to channel his talents. He burst onto the scene with fifth at the Tour of Flanders a few years ago but can clearly climb significantly better than most cobbled classics riders. He had to leave the Tour early due to a crash but if fit again will be a key support rider.
Mauri Vansevenant is a young bouncing ball of energy, who has lit up the Ardennes Classics in the past couple of seasons. He’s light, aggressive, and seemingly sprints everywhere out of the saddle. He thought the selectors were ‘crazy’ when they announced his name but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he had an impact.
Lotte Kopecky is the double champion of Belgium, with the road race and time trial titles to her name. She won’t do the time trial in Tokyo but is the clear leader for the road race. She has strong Classics pedigree, winning Le Samyn this year and placing top-five at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Gent-Wevelgem, Brugge-De Panne, and Nokere Koerse. However, she is more of a northern Classics rider, with a strong sprint but less uphill ability than the Tokyo favourites. The course may well prove too hilly and a medal of any sort would be considered a huge success.
Valerie Demey is a teammate of Kopecky’s at Liv Racing. As she did this spring, the 25-year-old’s sole aim will be to provide as much support as possible.
Julie Van der Velde is a former runner who rides for Jumbo-Visma after four years at Lotto Soudal. The 28-year-old is an all-rounder and will support Kopecky in the road race before taking Belgium’s sole slot in the time trial.
Lotte Kopecky (Madison, Omnium) is also competing on the track and that may represent a better shot at a medal. She’ll be riding the Omnium as well as teaming up with D’hoore for the Madison. The pair were world champions in 2017 but haven’t hit the same highs at international level since.
Jolien D’hoore (Madison) is similar to Kopecky in that she’s a strong road rider with Classics pedigree and a sharp sprint, but also a background on the track. She won bronze in the Omnium in Rio and was 5th in London, but the spot has gone to Kopecky this time. She’s retiring at the end of the year and will want to go out with a bang in the Madison.
Kenny De Ketele (Madison, Omnium) is a stalwart of the Belgian track cycling scene. He has four victories to his name at the Gent Six Day, and so the return of the Madison to the Olympic programme is a big plus. He was world champion in the two-up discipline in 2012 and was fourth when it was last in the Olympics in 2012. He is 36 so these could well be his final Games.
Robbie Ghys (Madison) is a rider who combines road and track, notably beating Remco Evenepoel to the line from the opening breakaway at the recent Belgium Tour. He’s 12 years younger than De Ketele but their partnership isn’t a new one; they won the Gent Six together in 2019 and were second the year before.
- Githa Michiels
- Jens Schuermans