HEUSDEN-ZOLDER, Belgium—The heavy rain let up and the course had dried out a bit overnight for the second and final day of the 2016 Cyclocross World Championships that kicked off with the U23 Men's race. The start grid had 55 riders vying for the rainbow jersey. With their engines primed and fueled with adrenaline, it was a matter of waiting for the start.
When it was go time, it was Team USA’s Curtis White who took the race onto the course. In the back of the group riders tangled on the first u-turn where Katie Compton got hung up yesterday. When asked after the race about his leading the field from the start grid, White said "The crowd was amazing, I knew I wanted to have a really good start, just to stay out of the chaos of the first couple of corners. Hopefully I put on a good show for people. It was exciting stuff."
White led the U23 procession for the first half lap until the Belgians went to the front and looked poised to slip into team time trial mode. The three Belgians—Daan Soete, Daan Hoeyberghs and Quinten Hermans—took a leading group of eight that included their countryman Thijs Aerts, Italy’s Gioele Bertolini and France’s Clement Russo through the opening lap.
The chase group behind the leaders had dropped White but contained his American teammate Logan Owen as well as World Cup winner and pre-race favorite Eli Iserbyt of Belgium, and wasn’t too far off the leaders. During the second lap, this second group split, and Iserbyt was able to bridge, creating a leading pack of 13. The group would string out on the flats but would group together at each of the course’s more technical corners, climbs and descents. These top riders would be leaving the rest of the race behind, with Owen and 2015 Junior World Champ Simon Andraesson oh-so-close to joining them.
Soete took to the front near the end of lap 2 and took the race across the line in 16:54, leaving the 12 chasing by fewer than 10 seconds. By the time the race hit the bottom of the sandy run-up, the lead group was back together with riders jockeying for position at each turn.
Spaniard Felipe Orts was up among the leaders and had a go at setting the pace before Sieben Wouters of the The Netherlands made the first seemingly significant move of the day. The Dutchman decided to try his luck at riding off the front, a strategy that worked so well for his countryman Jens Dekker the day prior.
With Wouters on the front, the leading group, heading towards the end of the lap, broke apart a bit when Russo had tumble on one of Zolder’s short, steep drops letting the lead group shuffle some and opening small gaps.
For his part, Wouters was committed to the go-it-alone strategy and led the field through the end of the third lap. But the leading group of 13, still led by Wouters, would regroup, riding loosely single-file, with Owen now dangling in the final spot.
Then it was Wouters’ turn to hit the deck. He did it in a similar fashion as Russo, coming off a steep drop to a left-hand turn onto the pavement. His bike went out from under him and he tumbled into the metal crowd barriers as his bike flew over his head. He got up quickly, got his chain back on and mostly recovered, slotting into second place, but he was surrounded by Belgians and surely shaken from the fall. The pace he had been setting, which was starting to break the leading group apart some, slowed.
Just when it seemed Wouters might have been gaining his composure, Hermans took to the front and attacked. The move put pressure on the leading riders. Hermans’ countrymen Aerts and Soete didn’t chase, leaving Wouters to respond. Wouters did, with the Belgian pair glued to his wheel. "The coach told us before the race that when one of us is off the front, not to chase. That’s normal not to chase your own guys down," Hermans said after the race.
Adam Toupalik from the Czech Republic had made the move up, after just dangling off before Hermans’ go at the front, and he came around Aerts, Soete and Wouters in an attempt to get on terms with Hermans.
With 2 laps to go, there was a splintering group of 10 riders. Toupalik made the junction with Hermans and they attacked off the front, opening a gap of seven seconds ahead of Iserbyt, Wouters and Bertolini, who was leading the chase.
Behind the driving pace, riders were now rapidly falling off the pace, including Owen. "I was having trouble riding that hill. I wasn't strong enough to ride it. It was a little disappointing," Owen said after the race regarding the climb that follows the sandy run-up.
Iserbyt was the rider to make it to the leading duo of Toupalik and Hermans in the wooded section heading to the flyover prior to the finish, with Bertollini closing. Toupalik, seeing the group coming back together, took to the front, and holding off the Belgian duo of Iserbyt and Hermans before they started trying to best him with a series of 1-2 attacks.
Through the lap’s final sections Toupalik led the Belgian pair by riding the climb after the run-up, while the Belgians ran. This gave Toupalik a small gap and the confidence the title was within reach.
As they rounded the corner before the finish, Toupalik put in a surprising, aggressive sprint, opened up a gap, looked back, and then threw his arms in the air in victory.
But there was still one lap to go.
(See the video of the one-lap-early sprint here.)
Perhaps he heard a bell on the prior lap, perhaps he didn't read the lap countdown properly or perhaps he was lost in the excitement of leading the World Championships, but Toupalik thought he had won the race.
As he rolled past the line, arms still raised, the Belgian duo raced past him, as did Bertolini. After the race Toupalik said, "Somebody told me 'last lap, last lap' so I was pushing. I just celebrated, but then [Hermans] and [Iserbyt] went passed me and I thought, oh, something’s wrong. So I had to catch back up to the two guys and attack again."
Hermans, who seemed poised to benefit from the mistake said "I knew it was one lap to go. But I think [if Toupalik] would have just ridden fast through the finish line it would have been very difficult to catch him."
Toupalik started racing again and it seemed as if he had gone from being perhaps the strongest rider in the race with a chance to win, and a very likely podium spot for sure, to fourth, at best.
Then it looked like he might win, again.
In full flight, Toupalik caught and passed Bertolini when Bertolini hit a rut at the bottom of the flyover and fell. Then, shortly after that, Toupalik caught Hermans and Iserbyt and promptly sat on. Behind the trio fighting for the win, Russo too caught Bertolini and it looked there was a race for fourth on as well.
In the same spot he found himself the lap prior, Toupalik had to contend with two Belgians and again moved to the head of the race. Iserbyt responded quickly while Hermans came off the pace a bit.
Toupalik’s second move to the front came towards the final lap’s closing moments. The Czech rider took control before the sandy run-up. Toupalik ran the sand dune and remounted and started riding the following climb and it seemed the race was his, once again.
But he came off the bike and was forced to run, letting Iserbyt stay on him as Hermans was now out of the picture.
As leading the duo were back on their bikes everyone held their breaths, knowing there would be a sprint. Iserbyt was patient and let Toupalik lead it out, knowing the Czech rider had burned matches the last time through the finish as well as on the final lap, getting back to the front of the race.
Toupalik, hands in the drops, threw his bike side by side, and as Iserbyt, up on the hoods, kept his wheel and slowly came around Toupalik. The Czech rider's head dropped, knowing what might have been.
It was an incredible ride to get back to the silver medal, but the disappointment was palpable. "I figured it was all or nothing to attack in the last lap. Eli was strong in the sprint...Maybe I could have won without the mistake. But anything can happen in a race," he said after.
"I knew Adam’s focus was lost in the last lap," said Iserbyt post-race. "[S]o that was an advantage for us. I just tried to keep his wheel and take him in the sprint since in the final he was really strong. My only opportunity was the sprint so that is what I counted on. The sprint here was on the power–just shifted to my biggest gear and went full gas," he added.
Hermans, Iserbyt’s countryman held on for the bronze and their teammate Thijs Aerts was fourth. "I came to win," said Hermans, "so it is always disappointing. Just happy that Eli won, that it stays in the Belgian team. I did everything I could, worked hard in the last weeks [and] really looked forward to this race. I should be happy with third place in the World Championships. It’s pretty amazing." Russo took fifth and Spain’s Orts finished sixth.
“I knew I had to wait for the sprint because he was sprinting the lap before. It worked out good for me,” Iserbyt said in the post-race interview. “It was very incredible,” he added. “In the beginning of the race I didn’t have the best feeling because I have a cold, but 2 laps before the end I had power. I believed in it and am very happy with the win. In the last two laps in the harder sections I could ride faster than the other two so I started believing in myself.”
When asked about his year and becoming the World Champion, Iserbyt stated, “I can’t believe it. Last year it was a bit bitter for me but this year is good for me. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.” You can take a look at the bike Iserbyt rode to the win here.
Team USA's Owen finished 13th with his teammates White in 18th, Andrew Dillman in 27th, Grant Ellwood in 3rd, American National Champion Tobin Ortenblad in 35th and Scott Smith in 43rd.
Australia had Christopher Aitken finish in 42nd with his countryman Nicholas Smith in 45th. Canadians Trevor O'Connell and and Isaac Niles were 49th and 51st, respectively while Nicholas Barnes of Great Britain was 38th.
Don't forget to read up on the prior day's racing, the Junior Men's event, the first-ever U23 Women's race and the Elite Women's competition. You can also catch video highlights as well as a full-replay of the U23 Men's race here. And be sure to see our photo gallery from Sunday's first event below the results.
2016 Zolder Cyclocross World Championship - U23 Men's Results
|2||17||CZE19960509||TOUPALIK Adam||CZECH REPUBLIC||+00:01|
|13||30||USA19950325||OWEN Logan||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||+01:22|
|18||29||USA19950928||WHITE Curtis||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||+01:51|
|19||14||NED19950624||VAN DER MEER Gosse||NETHERLANDS||+01:52|
|20||40||ESP19940614||SUAREZ FERNANDEZ Kevin||SPAIN||+02:05|
|27||32||USA19940401||DILLMAN Andrew||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||+02:55|
|29||15||NED19970403||VAN DER HEIJDEN Maik||NETHERLANDS||+03:13|
|30||19||CZE19960513||SCHUBERT Stepan||CZECH REPUBLIC||+03:25|
|33||34||USA19960511||ELLWOOD Grant||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||+04:04|
|35||31||USA19940929||ORTENBLAD Tobin||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||+04:20|
|38||35||GBR19940722||BARNES Nicholas||GREAT BRITAIN||+04:55|
|43||33||USA19940121||SMITH Scott||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||+05:41|
|47||18||CZE19960703||SIREK Adrian||CZECH REPUBLIC||+06:02|