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Eli Iserbyt overcomes Toon Aerts in tense battle at Besançon World Cup

Iserbyt extends lead in World Cup standings after searing, crash-riddled battle with Aerts.

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Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) came out top in the Besançon cyclocross World Cup after an intense race-long battle with Toon Aerts (Trek Baloise Lions).

The result puts Iserbyt’s overall World Cup total at 285 points, with eight rounds remaining. Aerts is in second place on 205 points. Lars van der Haar (Trek Baloise Lions) and Quinten Hermans (Tormans Circus) remain locked together in equal third place on 175 points.

With Hermans and European champion Van der Haar not riding Sunday, the race was expected to be between Aerts and Iserbyt and that’s the way it developed from the first lap.

“I found good legs today. I think Toon did as well,” Iserbyt said. “The crowd was amazing. I just tried to follow and look for opportunities in the last two laps. With the crowd today it was easy to get excited but you have to stay calm and make your own race. When Toon crashed I knew I had to make the most of it.”

The big story this week has been a developing row about accusations that start money is being paid to Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers), and Mathieu Van Der Poel (Alpecin Fenix). Start money is paid for the other season-long series, such as the Superprestige, but not paid for World Cups, so the suggestion that these three-star riders are being financially incentivized has inflamed tempers in the other cyclocross teams.

Meanwhile, the rivalry between Aerts and Iserbyt seemed to be intensifying.

Last week Iserbyt won in Koksijde, but today’s race suited Aerts’ riding style. On the opening lap, Aerts pushed the pace, perhaps trying to mirror his team-mate Lucinda Brand’s tactics from the women’s race earlier in the day, and like Brand, he got a gap. But Iserbyt was alert to the danger. Along with his teammates Ryan Kamp and Michael Vanthourenhout, Iserbyt closed the gap to Aerts.

As Aerts and Iserbyt began to pull away, a series of mishaps hit the other Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal riders. Kamp and Vanthourenhout both broke their rear derailleurs and Laurens Sweeck damaged his shoe, prompting a busy few minutes in the pits.

In the middle of the race, Iserbyt and Aerts tested each other, and tried different lines on the technical sections, plotting where they might make a race-winning attack. Aerts looked strongest on the running sections and the steep road climb. Iserbyt looked more comfortable on the tight slippery corners and technical sections.

Overall Aerts looked strongest but Iserbyt was equal to every attack. Behind, as the two leaders punched each other, their team-mates Ronhaar and Michael Vanthourenhout were riding together, nearly a minute behind.

With three laps completed, the rain came down even heavier and Iserbyt looked very cold, rubbing his hands and legs as he pedaled through the finish line. Being a smaller rider Iserbyt is sometimes prone to suffering in cold conditions. Three years ago in one of the wettest and coldest Namur races in recent memory, Iserbyt had to abandon the race, unable to ride his bike.

On the penultimate lap, Aerts sprinted up the stairs and got a gap. Iserbyt suffered under pressure, his head down, shoulders rocking.

Aerts stretched his gap over the top of the big staircase but then he lost his footing on a tricky descending turn, fell into the mud and almost took out Iserbyt as clambered to his feet. Iserbyt, though seemingly exhausted, saw the opportunity and went very deep to try to make the most of the situation. With a lap to go Iserbyt led by four seconds.

Aerts gave everything to try to close down the World Cup leader but Iserbyt was running on emotion. A born racer, his dogged determination had given him the lead and he wasn’t going to waste it. Even sliding out on the final run-up couldn’t stop the Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal rider from taking the victory.

On the final lap, Ronhaar escaped from Vanthourenhout on the final lap to claim third. While the Trek Baloise Lions team may be disappointed with Aerts’ result, they will be delighted to see their U23 protégé take a breakthrough podium spot in an elite race.

Next weekend the UCI World Cup series was slated to return to Belgium for the Scheldecross in Antwerp, however, concerns about the Omicron variant of COVID-19 have forced the cancelation of this race.

This classic race takes place on a beach overlooking Antwerp’s harbor and ’cross fans will be eagerly anticipating the return of Tom Pidock (Ineos Grenadiers) and Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma). Can these two toppers, as the Belgians refer to star riders, compete with Iserbyt and Aerts on their first weekend back in the field?

UCI Cyclocross World Cup Besançon Men’s Elite Results

1. Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal): 1:03:47
2. Toon Aerts (Baloise Trek Lions): +:10
3. Pym Ronhaar (Baloise Trek Lions): +1:44
4. Michael Vanthourenhout (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal): +1:57
5. Corne van Kessel (Tormans Circus): +2:19