When fans headed to the Cauberg on Sunday, they were hoping for a memorable duel between Belgian star Eli Iserbyt and British phenom Tom Pidcock to cap a season where the two competed on a regular basis.
The two represent the old and new guard of the U23 field. Pidcock has had a meteoric rise in the sport, winning Junior Worlds last year and the U23 World Cup series this season, while Iserbyt has been at the top of the U23s for years now after winning the rainbow stripes in 2016.
On Sunday, Iserbyt played his role in the expected showdown, while Pidcock learned that no rider is immune from adversity. After having trouble clipping in at the start for the second straight week, Pidcock was in a hole early and unlike at Hoogerheide, was unable to recover. Pidcock's plight is one Iserbyt can relate to. The young Belgian finished 17th last year at Bieles, and was looking for redemption in 2018 in Valkenburg.
Iserbyt withstood an early onslaught by defending champion Joris Nieuwenhuis (The Netherlands) and then took control of the race in the second lap. Iserbyt got his first lead when Nieuwenhuis pitted at the start of lap two, and then he got his decisive gap when Nieuwenhuis was delayed by nearly 15 seconds changing his shoe in pit two.
Riding for redemption, Iserbyt would not be stopped on the muddy, rutted course in Valkenburg. He re-took his spot atop the U23 field and claimed another title for a Belgian national team looking for a fresh start under new coach Sven Vanthourenhout.
"It’s really great with the new coach," said Iserbyt. "Sven will be really happy. I’m happy and my team is happy, so it’s a good day today."
Another rider looking for redemption was Gage Hecht (United States). Hecht finished a flat-marred fourth at U.S. Nationals in Reno and was looking to bounce back and finish his second U23 season with an impressive result at Worlds. Hecht rode inside the top ten all afternoon and finished the race in ninth. It was his best finish at Worlds since his fourth place in the Junior race in 2015.
The Defending Champ Starts Fast
Somewhat lost in the hype over Iserbyt and Pidcock was defending champion Nieuwenhuis. Nieuwenhuis had a slow start to his season, and when he was racing, he was struggling to crack the top ten. A title at Dutch Nationals and a third at Hoogerheide did give him some confidence heading into Sunday's race at Worlds.
He rode that confidence to a fast start. Nieuwenhuis and French rider Antoine Benoist quickly got off the front and push the pace on a muddy, rutted course that had tacked up a bit after Saturday's slippery, wet day of racing.
Last week at Hoogerheide, Pidcock's shoe came unclipped during the holeshot, causing a large pile-up and forcing him to chase back from near DFL. On Sunday, Pidcock again had trouble staying clipped in at the start, and he dropped back from his prime start spot. Ten seconds in, the young phenom was already in a hole.
With the leaders driving a hard pace at the front, the first selection occurred quickly. Iserbyt and Yan Gras (France) joined Nieuwenhuis and Benoist at the front midway through the first lap. By the end of the first lap, Iserbyt was free of the two French riders, and it was him and Nieuwenhuis off the front. With Pidcock already 31 seconds back, it appeared fans may have to settle for a Dutch vs. Belgian battle ahead of the one expected in the Elite Men's race later in the day.
"I knew it was really hard," said Iserbyt about the first lap. "Joris had a really fast start. I knew from the previous races that he is better at the beginning than the end, so I just wanted to keep a good tempo."
The Second Lap is the Pits
Nieuwenhuis' time solo at the front ended when he crashed in one of the rutted turns. Once Iserbyt made contact, he wasted little time attacking.
On Saturday, both the pit and riding lanes were a muddy slog, and there was no apparent advantage to either. Sunday, the riding lane tacked up a bit while the pit lane remained a muddy mess. Nieuwenhuis went to the pits early in lap two for a new bike after crashing, while Iserbyt stayed on course. Skipping the pit paid off for Iserbyt, and he picked up a good five seconds on his Dutch rival.
Nieuwenhuis' equipment issues reared their head again by the time he reached pit two. This time it was a shoe malfunction. He had to stop and replace his shoe while Iserbyt rode away cleanly. It cost him nearly 15 seconds and gave Iserbyt a 20-second lead by the end of the second lap.
Iserbyt crashed at the switchback downhill during the third lap, but he still gained five seconds on Nieuwenhuis by the end of the lap. With Pidcock languishing and Nieuwenhuis' attention turned to battling Gras for second, Iserbyt was in control of the race.
Iserbyt said the conditions favored him, and he took advantage of a course that was faster than Saturday. "When I did the first lap this morning it was really good for me. Yesterday it was too slippery to keep a high wattage. Today it was better to have a big gear and push on the pedals. That’s really my kind of racing."
He was not challenged the last two laps. After a disappointing 2017 Worlds, he was back on top of the U23 field.
"The second world title is always the harder one," said Iserbyt about his win. "It confirmed my good shape. I knew from the beginning of the week, I knew I had a good chance to win. That made it more beautiful for me to finish it off."
After Gras made contact with Nieuwenhuis, the two engaged in a multi-lap battle for the second podium spot. Nieuwenhuis was able to dig deep in the last lap and get away to take second. Gras took third in what was a career ride for the Frenchman.
After his tough season, Nieuwenhuis was content with his finish. "On the podium when they handed the jersey over to Iserbyt, I was like, ah, that is a shame because last year winning the jersey was such a great feeling. But I am happy with second place because it was not my best season. I worked toward today and had a good day, so I have to be happy with second."
Gage Hecht got out to a strong start and worked his way into the top ten after starting the first lap around 13th place. He moved up to as high as eighth and finished the afternoon in ninth.
"It’s pretty amazing," he said about his finish. "Pan-Ams was a pretty amazing win because it’s the biggest race you can do on American soil as of right now, as far as championships go. This though is a really spectacular thing. You’re really competing to see who’s the best in the world. It was really cool to be a part of this event, and to get a top ten in it, I’m kind of shocked."
Grant Ellwood (United States) finished 29th, Spencer Petrov (United States) 34th, Denzel Stephenson (United States) 36th, Maxx Chance (United States) 39th, Nicholas Diniz (Canada) 45th and Eric Brunner took a DNF.
Full results are below.