Iserbyt uses head as well as legs to return to winning ways at Waterloo Cyclo-cross World Cup

Eli Iserbyt with time to take congratulations from the crowd at the Waterloo UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup men's elite race 2021
Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) with time to take congratulations from the crowd at the Waterloo UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup men's elite race 2021 (Image credit: Snowy Mountain Photography)

Eli Iserbyt didn’t have to think long to respond to questions about what made the difference in his strong, solo victory Sunday in the opening round of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup in Waterloo, Iowa. The Belgian spoke right away about riding the hills well, changing tyre pressures and having help from Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal teammate Michael Vanthourenhout. 

The changing course conditions during the elite men's race due to rain made it what Iserbyt called a true cyclo-cross race, and “that’s something I really like because it’s not only pedalling it’s actually using your head.”

They were also conditions that helped him secure his first World Cup victory in more than 20 months. It was two seasons ago that Iserbyt moved to racing in the elite ranks of the World Cups full time, finishing only behind the consistent Toon Aerts (Baloise Trek Lions). To reach that second-place overall, Iserbyt won both World Cups in the US in 2019, Waterloo and Iowa City, and also took victories in Bern, Switerzerland and Nommay, France. But an abbreviated 2020-2021 season yielded an unexpected drought.

“Last year I didn’t win a World Cup. All the little things like last week [in Belgium] wasn’t good as well for me, so I really wanted to have a bit of a revenge from last week,” he said in the media mix zone after Sunday’s win. 

“It’s World Cup, and it’s 16 races, so a victory is very important. It’s still a long way to go. The World Cup is my main goal for the season.”

After winning the first trio of Ethias Cross C2 races in Belgium to start this season, Iserbyt was fifth October 2 at Berencross Meulebeke, well behind Vanthourenhout who took that win. Then he came third at the C1 in Gieten to begin the Superprestige series, with the race won by Toon Aerts. 

Sunday to start a three-race swing of World Cups in the US, Iserbyt rode away from Vanthourenhout in the closing laps for a solo victory. Quinten Hermans (Tormans-Circus Cyclo-Cross Team) was third to make it a Belgian sweep of the podium.

“There was a very good atmosphere, and yeah, I was a bit nervous before the race,” he said. “In the first lap there was some rainfall and then I think everyone had to adapt to it. Toon Aerts did a really hard crash on the pavement. I know when you have a crash like that it is not normal to come back again, so I knew he was out of contention for the victory. Quinten [Hermans] had a big crash as well I think. 

“Richard [Groenendaal], our team director, told us beforehand it was just a matter of not making mistakes and it’s better to go a little bit slower and not making fast mistakes. I really kept that in mind on the sections of the race where you could really push hard, like on the uphill, and I think that made the difference. The brown path that was ridden from the other races was getting very slippery, just like ice so it was good for me. I’m not a very big guy so I could really manage my bike very well. I think I changed tyre pressure five or six times in the race. Back down, back up, back down. I changed the bike three or four times. It was really a cyclo-cross race and I’m very happy to have such a race in a World Cup.”

Iserbyt said he rode on the grass as much as possible for the grip, rather than the worn dirt trail that had become saturated with afternoon rain, with conditions continuing to change throughout the race.

“So I think I rode all the different lines I could ride, in the descents, the uphills, in the corners. Then I really like adapting in the race. I was not riding 100 per cent til 35 or 40 minutes so I could really see the lines and adapt to them and then it was just full gas. But I think we had an hour and 10 [minutes] – it was one lap too much, but I’m very happy to take it home,” he said after race, laughing as he noted the race was one lap longer than he would have liked.

The equipment changes during the nine-lap race were an element of the race Iserbyt enjoyed, from bike changes to switching tyre pressures, giving him no time to settle on a steady rhythm.

“It was raining, then it was drying up, then it was raining more. I yelled six or seven times the tyre pressures to the guys. I started on 1.2 [bars, or 17.4 psi], then I went to 1.1, one bar, then 1.15, and just adapting to the course. I changed bikes three or four times. It was a real cyclo-cross race.”

Teaming up

Eli Iserbyt and Michael Vanthourenhout on the barriers at the Waterloo UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup men's elite race 2021

Teammates Eli Iserbyt and Michael Vanthourenhout on the barriers at the Waterloo UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup men's elite race 2021 (Image credit: Snowy Mountain Photography)

Vanthourenhout was at the front of the race on the early laps with Hermans, but once the tumble moved Hermans backwards, the two Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal teammates worked together at the front.

“Michael is really riding very good. We know each other very, very well. I think we’re together five or six years. We live close to each other. We play PlayStation together. We do a lot of things together. We talked to each other and decided that we would go head to head for 30 minutes til Quentin came back, I think to six seconds, and I decided to go faster,” Iserbyt said. 

”He said he was a little bit less in the uphill and he said I could go, so I really picked up the pace. Michael was better in the corners I think, but in the uphill I was really the best guy today. I’m very happy that he is still in second spot.He did a really good race.”

Iserbyt has won junior and U23 titles in cyclo-cross at Belgian nationals and the European Championships. He has also won the U23 world title and the U23 World Cup title. So when he took the elite European Championship last year as a U23 rider that was not a huge surprise. Still just 23 years of age, he said he wouldn’t mind defending it, but the elite World Cup crown is his main goal for the season.

“It’s not a must, but it’s a must,” Iserbyt said with a slight laugh about his European title defence. “I put it like this, the Belgian Championships and the Worlds are more important. The European Championship is great to win, but it’s not a must to win. World Cup is more meaningful for me this year and to show I’m good the whole year.”

Next on the ‘to do’ list for the World Cup campaign will be the second round in Fayetteville, Arkansas on Wednesday. Iserbyt was eager to head South to see the venue, which will be used for the 2022 World Championships.

“I saw a little movie of the course and I think it’s pretty nice. They really did a good job. We go there [Monday], and I think we’ll have a look at the track. It will be really fast race there again, so it’s a matter of preparation and being 100 per cent again because [today] was really a fatiguing race.”

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Jackie Tyson
Production editor

Jackie has been involved in professional sports for more than 30 years in news reporting, sports marketing and public relations. She founded Peloton Sports in 1998, a sports marketing and public relations agency, which managed projects for Tour de Georgia, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and USA Cycling. She also founded Bike Alpharetta Inc, a Georgia non-profit to promote safe cycling. She is proud to have worked in professional baseball for six years - from selling advertising to pulling the tarp. She has climbed l'Alpe d'Huez three times (not fast). Her favorite road rides are around horse farms in north Georgia (USA) and around lavender fields in Provence (France), and some mtb rides in Park City, Utah (USA).