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Eli Iserbyt abandoned midway with hypothermia. Toon Aerts got straight off his bike at the finish and went to the medical tent. Tom Pidcock lost a podium slot in the final lap as his frozen body finally abandoned him.
To say the conditions at the Namur World Cup Sunday were biblical would be as far from an understatement as you can get.
Van der Poel took victory at Namur, but any racer that finished with mind and body intact was a winner. The perfect storm of plummeting temperatures, heavy rain, and a hard course made even harder for 2019 combined to make the Belgian race almost as much about survival as about victory.
“I no longer realized what I was doing: it became dangerous,” Eli Iserbyt told Het Nieuwsblad after the race.
Iserbyt started the day as series leader, but succumbed to the conditions mid-way through the race and abandoned, frozen. He had already stopped to put on extra clothing, but it wasn’t enough. He finished the day in second place in the World Cup rankings having been pushed down a slot by Aerts.
“In the second round I got completely bad and then I stopped to put on a thermal vest,” Iserbyt said. “That helped a bit, but then it got cold again and I just couldn’t continue. I stopped, and that was the right choice because at the end I was no longer driving around alert. I didn’t realize what I was doing and I can be happy that I didn’t fall in those many descents. ”
Pidcock lost his chance at a first-ever World Cup podium position in the last lap when his body shut down, frozen. He crashed and snapped his seat post while placed third, leaving Corne van Kessel to take his podium slot.
“That was agonising and also the coldest I’ve ever been,” he said on Twitter. “I’ve just stopped shivering. So close to a World Cup podium. The last lap I just couldn’t function anymore.”
Iserbyt and Pidcock are relatively light and lean by ‘cross standards, built as much like a road climber as a burly ‘crosser. Without the body mass, their bodies had to fight hard to keep warm. Once coated in frozen mud, they were even further on the defensive.
The day of the race started with the mercury plummeting and drizzly rain. The already-muddy course was challenging enough, but as the women’s race got underway the rain fell heavier and heavier, and deep puddles accumulated at the base of descents, and small streams formed on the hills. The rain stopped for the men’s race, but the ground had been softened and the damage had been done. With every lap of the men’s race, the course became more treacherous.
It wasn’t just the featherweights that struggled however with the flooded course and frozen temperatures however.
Solidly-built Belgian champion Aerts tips 72kg on the scales but suffered. The big Belgian was put out of contention by a heavy fall as he battled van der Poel in the final lap. Having fallen into icy mud in the preceding lap, Aerts was on borrowed time as his body shut down in the final minutes of the race. He fell as he descended a muddy bank and crashed hard into the barriers, hitting his face.
“I hit a hole down the descent and fell into a cold pool of water,” Aerts told Het Nieuwsblad. “Because of that cold, I made that mistake in the final lap and fell. It was a competition with constant changes, and because of the cold and pain I can’t even think about what happened.”
Much was made of van der Poel’s uncharacteristic moment of weakness at the Yorkshire worlds when he dropped out of the lead group, frozen and bonking. He was able to put the memory behind him Sunday.
“Don’t bring back Yorkshire, please,” Van der Poel said in the post-race television interviews. He was bundled in a hat and jacket but still shaking with cold.
“When I just started racing I was really cold over here, too. It reminded me about that. Normally you’re cold on your hands and feet but during the race, I started getting cold throughout my body; that says enough.”
Fingers had been pointed at organizers before the race even started that the course was too demanding. Namur has long been known as one of the hardest in elite ‘cross, with steep off-camber sections and twisting descents through woodland that often become heavy with mud.
For 2019, the course had been made even more difficult with the addition of a cobbled climb and new descent. The descent had been formed by packing out a set of stairs with sand and grit to make a smooth surface. As the rain fell, the sand washed away and the stairs became more prominent.
Namurs new course is interesting….. https://t.co/fzNJSryLmt
— Tom Pidcock (@Tompid) December 18, 2019
“This is a hell of a job,” Adrie van der Poel said of the course.
Adrie, father of Mathieu, is a former cross world champion and spoke to Het Nieuwsblad as the race unfolded.
“Everything they have brought in does not offer any added value. It is only dangerous, looking for sensation and has nothing to do with cyclocross. That you can turn something so beautiful into something ugly, you really have to be a specialist.”
Aerts agreed with van der Poel senior, saying “that one passage was dangerous, especially due to the formation of tracks.”
Whether the course was ‘ugly’ or dangerous or not is open to debate. Either way, combine it with a truly Belgian winter’s day and it made for a race that will not be forgotten in a long time.
“Now I can’t tell much about the cross itself, but I think and I hope we can think about it later and tell stories about it after our career,” said Aerts. “You have become a crosser for this.”