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Eli Iserbyt king of the sand at Koksijde World Cup

Iserbyt triumps after late battle with Toon Aerts, stretches lead in World Cup standings.

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Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) won big on one of the sport’s most famous circuits Sunday.

After last weekend’s excursion to Tabor, Czech Republic, where Lars van der Haar took his first World Cup win since 2017, the UCI World Cup came back to Belgium, and one of the most iconic courses in the sport.

The Duinencross World Cup at Koksijde has been on the calendar since 1996, when Mathieu van der Poel’s father Adrie took the victory. Koksijde has also hosted the World Championships twice, in 1994 and 2012.

Today the home fans witnessed their hero Iserbyt continuing his dominance of this season’s World Cup. Iserbyt beat teammate Laurens Sweeck and Toon Aerts (Trek Baloise Lions).

“I said beforehand: ‘If I win here, I can retire,’” Iserbyt joked afterward. “It was a dream from a young age to win here in Koksijde, we have an apartment here and I’ve been coming here since I was eight.”

The result puts Iserbyt’s overall World Cup total at 245 points, with Aerts in second on 176 points and van der Haar sharing third place with Michael Vanthourenhout (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) on 175 points. Vanthourenhout was absent today, suffering from a heavy cold.

The Koksijde course is based around a military airbase a kilometer inland from the North Sea coast. Besides the high sand dunes, there is a holiday village with chalets, an outdoor swimming pool, and a children’s playground. The course, which has changed little over the years, starts and finishes on the airport runway, then loops into the dunes and through the holiday village.

Riding in the sand is a skill all the top riders train for. The Belgian and Dutch teams know training locations in sandy forests, mostly near Antwerp.

The sand is as brutal on equipment as it is on the riders. Drivetrains suffer especially, and mechanics always strip their bikes down completely after Koksijde. Today’s race was made more complicated by heavy rain showers that fell just before and during the race. While wet sand is slightly easier to ride on, the downpours meant the other parts of the course became muddy. Tires designed for sand don’t grip well in mud.

On the first lap, Quinten Hermans (Tormans Circus) took an early lead. Van der Haar, Aerts, Vincent Bastaens (Deschacht Hens Maes Containers) and Iserbyt gave chase, with Corne van Kessel (Tormans Circus) acting as policeman for Hermans. On an innocuous bend, the slippery conditions sent van der Haar and Sweeck sliding to the ground, but both were quickly back on their bikes.

The front of the race came back together on the second lap as the five leaders reassessed their strategy. A lap later more riders rode up to the group, including Sweeck.

Perhaps worried about the possibility of getting pushed out of position in such a large group, Aerts pushed on, gaining a small gap and stretching the group out behind him. Iserbyt and Hermans gave chase, with Sweeck, van Kessel and van der Haar a little further behind.

On the fifth of seven laps, Van Der Haar towed his trio up to the front of the race, only for Iserbyt to accelerate on a section of muddy singletrack and go clear with Aerts.

For half a lap it seemed that the Aerts-Iserbyt duel would go all the way to the finish.

But Koksijde has two sandy hills which are sometimes rideable, sometimes not. It was on these sections that Iserbyt showed his quality by staying on his bike, where Aerts came to a halt and jumped off to run. Iserbyt’s momentum proved decisive. Over the final two laps, he gradually stretched his lead. Aerts gave one last desperate chasing effort on the final lap and paid for it in the sprint, as Sweeck swept to a strong second place.

“I didn’t expect it in the beginning,” Iserbyt said. “It was a hard race. I was happy I had some good sections, I’m proud of that.”

With seven races completed, Iserbyt’s commanding lead in the overall World Cup looks virtually unassailable. However, he wisely isn’t taking anything for granted. “There are still nine races, a long way to go,” he said.

If experience pays off at Koksijde, it’s interesting to note that between 9th and 12th places there were four U23 riders: Mees Hendrikx (IKO Crelan), Niels Vandeputte (Alpecin Fenix), Toon Vandenbosch and Anton Ferdinande (both Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal). Britain’s Cameron Mason (Trinity Racing) finished in 16th, just ahead of Ryan Kamp (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal). These are surely the next generation of superstars.

Next weekend the World Cup moves to a new venue in Besançon, France, before returning to Belgium in early December for the Scheldecross in Antwerp.

UCI World Cup Koksijde Elite Men top 5

1. Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal): 57.00
2. Laurens Sweeck (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal): +:04
3. Toon Aerts (Baloise Trek Lions): +:07
4. Quinten Hermans (Tormans Circus): +:14
5. Lars Van Der Haar (Baloise Trek Lions): +:17