Just racing age 22, Belgium's Lander Loockx (Group Hens - Maes Containers) faced a tough task if he wanted to get his first career win as a professional.
Loockx quickly got off the front of Friday night's race at Jingle Cross, but opposing him were seasoned veteran Steve Chainel (Team Chazal Canyon 36 Nitro) and decorated young Spanish rider Felipe Orts Lloret (Teika UCI Team).
When Orts Lloret suffered a flat tire in the latter third of the race, the front of the race dropped to just Loockx and Chainel.
The two riders stayed even entering the bell lap before Loockx attacked right before Mt. Krumpit. Chainel, who has had podium success in the past under the Musco lights in Iowa City, regained the Belgian's wheel and the two entered the long finishing straight together.
Loockx got the first kick in and held his advantage to take the win under the lights and kick off his professional career in style.
"Felipe and Steve are very strong riders, and I am just a first-year professional rider, so it's my third race and I've already won one. I'm really happy," Loockx said about his win.
Three Then Two to the Line
Dry conditions on Friday afternoon at the Johnson County Fairgrounds turned a bit moist as temperatures dropped and the humidity rose. Even with the slickening conditions, the Elite Men's race got off to a fast start. Tobin Ortenblad (Santa Cruz / Donkey Label Racing) and Maik van der Heijden (Parkhotel Destil Prolions OBCT) helped lead through the long starting stretch.
Within the first third of the lap, a group emerged at the front, with Orts Lloret leading the way and Ortenbald, Chainel, Loockx and Van der Heijden following close behind. By the time riders descended Mt. Krumpit, Orts Lloret, Chainel and Loockx were off the front with others left scrambling to keep up.
One lap into the 10-lap race, the trio of leaders had a 12-second advantage on a chase that swelled to 7—Van der Heijden, Ortenblad, Lukas Winterberg (Focus Bikes), Scott Funston (Hold Fast Project), Grant Ellwood (Pivot - Maxxis p/b Stan's NoTubes) and Ross Ellwood (Alpha Bicycle - Groove Subaru).
In the second lap, the lead trio extended its advantage to 18 seconds on third, while the chase dropped to 4. The chasers were now Winterberg, Funston, Van der Heijden and Grant Ellwood.
Not much changed at the front as the race entered its middle third. Ortenblad and Swartz threatened to rejoin the chase in Lap 4, but they could only get within about 5 seconds before the others upped the pace again. In the fifth lap, Van der Heijden broke free from the chase and threatened to drop Winterberg and Funston. The Swiss rider and young American, however, erased his advantage to make it a chase of three once again.
The front of the race first started to change in Lap 6 when Chainel and Orts Lloret opened up a small gap on Loockx on the top of the Mt. Krumpit run-up. The Belgian, however, bounced back and joined the French and Spanish riders with four laps to go.
The Lap 6 bend was the prelude to a Lap 7 break, as Orts Lloret suffered a flat and dropped off the pace of the leaders. As he rolled to Pit 2 with a flat, Chainel and Loockx sped away.
Chainel and Loockx battled to a standstill for the next two laps, and at the bell, the two were together with one more lap under the lights left to go.
Loockx was the early aggressor, attacking before Mt. Krumpit to lead into the run-up. "I wanted to start first on Mt. Krumpit because that was not my best part of the lap," the Belgian said.
The Beligan accomplished his mission, and the two riders stayed together off the descent, through the barriers and into the barns. Still together, the race was going to come down to the second-straight sprint of the evening.
Loockx led the sprint out and had the strongest kick to take the first win of his professional career.
"I didn't want to start too fast because tomorrow is the World Cup, but we had three guys at the front and I was good," Loockx said about the race. "Then Orts Lloret was dropped, and I was feeling the strongest, I think. I was very confident in my sprint, so I am really happy to win."
"I waited to sprint. Then on the sprint, I lost one meter, then in my head, I was like, 'I am finished,'" Chainel said about the final kick.
Chainel took the narrow second.
"I wanted to win in my first cyclocross race of this new season. You know, I am 36 years old, and I don't have a lot of chances during the season to ride for the victory," Chainel said. "I am disappointed today because my legs were so good and technically, I think I was really good. The feeling was perfect, and I don't know why I waited the last lap. I was afraid about I don't know, but I was afraid."
After his unfortunate flat, Orts Lloret held on to take third ahead of Saturday's World Cup. The Men's race kicks off at 3:00 p.m. CDT in Iowa City on Saturday.
A photo gallery and full results are below.