Although it is just September, heavy rains overnight turned south-central Wisconsin into something resembling Belgium in December for Sunday's World Cup Waterloo. As with many slick, muddy Belgian cyclocross races, the World Cup finale to the weekend at Trek Headquarters became a race of minimizing mistakes and not letting the course get the best of you.
Coming into Sunday's race, two riders many expected to excel in the slop were last Saturday's Jingle Cross World Cup winner Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen - Bingoal) and the man of the 2018 U.S. World Cups Toon Aerts (Telenet Baloise Lions).
On Sunday, Iserbyt also learned that when you do make mistakes in cyclocross, it is important to put them in the past and keep your eyes forward.
Thanks to Iserbyt's early aggression on a course with mud getting deeper by the lap, the young Belgian and Aerts quickly got off the front. After an 11-minute Lap 1, Iserbyt and Aerts had a 10-second advantage on Daan Soete (Pauwels Sauzen - Bingoal), Gianni Vermeersch (Creafin - Fristads) and Michael Vanthourenhout (Pauwels Sauzen - Bingoal).
After having to fight off both Iserbyt and his teammates at Jingle Cross, Aerts appeared set for the mano-a-mano duel with Iserbyt. However, at the end of Lap 2, the battle turned on its head when Iserbyt got tangled up with a course stake at the top of Trek Factory Hill and then slipped out on the second off-camber turn of the descent. Aerts capitalized on Iserbyt's mistakes and led by 16 seconds with 4 laps left to go.
Aerts had some troubles of his own in Lap 3, including slipping and falling on the log stairs, but the Belgian Elite National Champion still led by 13 seconds midway through the race.
The mud of cyclocross, they say, reveals a person's true character, and on Sunday, Lap 4 showed it was Iserbyt who had the most to show in Waterloo.
"It's hard on this track to ride together. It's not like you can get behind one another," Aerts said about the conditions. "It's really every guy for himself, especially with all the ruts and stuff. The best guy will be in front."
In nearly a blink of an eye, at least relatively speaking on a course forcing riders to ride 11-plus-minute laps, Iserbyt erased Aerts' advantage in the early part of the lap, and he caught his rival at the barn flyover after smoothly powering up the long slog from Pit 1.
Although just a first-year Elite, Iserbyt has years of experience winning races at the Junior and U23 levels, and once in the lead, he turned up the throttles to get the lead to stick. The move worked, and Iserbyt quickly put Aerts on the ropes.
Aerts essentially allowed Iserbyt to cement his lead when the Belgian National Champ got caught up in the barrier fencing at the bottom of the second off-camber descents. Iserbyt rode up the hill while Aerts had to run, giving Iserbyt a 12-second advantage by Pit 2. At the end of the lap, Iserbyt's advantage grew to 21 seconds.
There would be no Neffian comeback for Aerts. Iserbyt took control of the race and the course to stay as perfect as one can in the conditions to come away from Waterloo with a U.S. World Cup sweep and a strong start to his 2019/20 season.
"I wasn't expecting this because I know Toon is really good in this kind of race. I still can't believe it," Iserbyt said about his win.
Toon Sets the Tone
Rain started falling in Waterloo during Saturday’s afternoon amateur races, and then really kicked into high gear overnight. With amateurs racing on a course that had puddles in places, the World Cup Waterloo track was a sloppy mess come Sunday’s Elite Men’s finale to the three days of cyclocross racing.
In fact, one could say that Wisconsin felt like a little slice of Belgium for the large contingent of international racers, albeit one with fewer frites and warmer temperatures than your typical winter Belgian race.
Coming in Sunday’s race in Waterloo, Eli Iserbyt and Toon Aerts were two riders many spectators had their eyes on. With Jolanda Neff (Trek Factory Racing CX) taking second in the Elite Women’s race, Aerts entered the race hoping to score a win for Trek in front of the home crowd.
After Jim Aernouts (Telenet Baloise Lions) helped lead out the holeshot, Iserbyt wasted little time taking control of the front of the pack as the riders contended with each other and several inches of mud.
Sensing his Jingle competitor’s aggression, Aerts quickly moved up, and at the Segafredo Run-Up, it was Aernouts, Iserbyt and Aerts leading the way.
Iserbyt kept the pressure on through the series of two off-camber descents and climbs, and when the riders were clear of the Sven Nys nose wheelie wall, Iserbyt and Aerts were off the front with Gianni Vermeersch leading the chase.
Vermeersch finished fourth at Jingle Cross after coming up short in a sprint, so he entered Sunday’s race looking for podium redemption. Vermeersch showed a sense of urgency knowing that Iserbyt and Aerts had breakaway potential, but he was unable to match their blistering pace. Soete soon joined last Sunday’s C1 winner to make it a chase of 2.
In part because they did not have much say in where their bikes were going in the mud and in part because rubbin’ is racin’, Iserbyt and Aerts jockeyed for every corner and sought to take each other's lines when off the bike. The result was a good, tight battle in the first couple of laps.
"Keeping my balance and staying on my bike was really tricky. The bike went all over the place, and I just had to follow the bike. I didn't choose my lines, but the bike chose them for me," Iserbyt said about racing in the mud.
One 11-minute lap into the 6-lap race, Iserbyt and Aerts had a 10-second lead on Soete and Vermeersch, who in turn were a few seconds ahead of Michael Vanthourenhout.
The last technical feature on the World Cup Waterloo course is one of its most iconic in Trek Factory Hill. The feature has taken different shapes over the years, and for the World Cups, it has featured a series of two switchback descents and a steep climb up and away from the Trek factory. The mud obviously brought an added degree of difficulty to the switchback corners, and in Lap 2, Iserbyt fell victim to Trek Factory Hill's treachery.
On the first switchback, Iserbyt's bike got stuck on a course stake, forcing him off the bike. Then after remounting to hit the second, he slipped and fell. Aerts was fully committed to a strong run at that point, and he seized the opportunity to open a gap. After the 2 riders had been wheel-to-wheel for a good lap and a half, Aerts now led by a full 16 seconds.
Iserbyt had his troubles in Lap 2, but Aerts had troubles of his own in Lap 3. Felipe Orts (Cyclocross Team Teika - GSport - BH) showed the log stairs were rideable in the mud, but for others, the feature proved a bit more challenging. Aerts slipped and went down while running, marking the first of his mistakes from that lap. Aerts then slipped and fell on one of the seemingly innocuous corners before the Secret Bar, setting him back yet again.
Despite his two mistakes, Aerts still held a 13-second lead midway through the race. Iserbyt followed in second, while Vermeersch and Vanthourenthout dropped Soete and locked
horns handlebars in a battle for third. However, with the course a sea of mud, a lot of cyclocross was left to race.
"Eli had some troubles, so I gained some seconds really fast. But after a lap, I had to go full gas to make a bigger gap, but Eli was coming closer really fast," Aerts said after the race.
Eli for the W
One section on the World Cup Waterloo course Iserbyt had dialed was the long climb from Pit 2 to the barn flyover. With an efficient pedal stroke, he glided through the mud on a section where many other riders were forced into full grinder mode. Iserbyt's smoothness paid dividends, as he erased Aerts' lead and pulled to his wheel off the barn flyover.
Not content with a catch, Iserbyt powered past Aerts and led into the series of technical off-cambers. He stayed on the gas via foot up the Segafredo Run-Up and emerged with a gap on Aerts. It was something he learned from his U23 days when he was a 2-time world champion.
"I really wanted to get past Toon as fast as possible," Iserbyt said. "If I could close the gap, I really had to make a statement and show that I was faster. I know it from the U23 races, if you can close a gap, you can go over the other rider. That was my idea, and I made a gap immediately."
After riding solo off the front, Aerts was now on the ropes. And Sunday's course was not one you wanted to be redlining on. Aerts could only hang in there for so long.
At the bottom of the second off-camber descent, Aerts lost his wheel and crashed into the barrier fence. He dismounted and ran up the hill while Iserbyt stayed on his bike and extended his lead. Iserbyt slipped a bit before Pit 2, but not even that brief mishap could keep him from extending his lead. His advantage was up to 12 seconds when he exchanged his bike in Pit 2, and then it grew to 21 seconds at the end of Lap 4.
With Aerts no longer posing a threat, Iserbyt's biggest opponent the rest of the afternoon was the muddy course. He kept things upright (mostly) and extended his lead to 53 seconds at the bell.
Iserbyt's advantage grew to over a minute as he coasted down the lone paved stretch on the course and embraced a little American cyclocross tradition by high-fiving the fans in the finishing straight as he celebrated his second win in two U.S. World Cup tries.
"I came here thinking a top eight in the GC would be very good because last year I was seventh in Waterloo and eighth in Iowa. That was really good at the time," Iserbyt said about his win. "This is very good, but I know I'm on my highest level right now. I really trained for this because Mathieu and Wout are not here in the USA. From last week, I knew I was really good."
Aerts held on to take second and head back home with the second position in the World Cup overall.
"It was the first time we've had a World Cup in the U.S. with this kind of weather," Aerts said after the race. "It was hard because we don't have all our materials and stuff over here, but we have some good mechanics who did a great job today. It wasn't easy for us but also not easy for those guys. I'm thankful for everyone who was involved in the success of my team and other teams."
Vermeersch and Vanthourenhout took their battle for third into the last lap, before Vanthourenhout got the upper hand to take the third podium spot. Vermeersch again took home fourth, leaving him still looking for a World Cup podium finish.
Next up on the World Cup schedule is World Cup Bern on Sunday, October 20 in Switzerland.
For more from Waterloo, see the results and photo gallery below.