Maasmechelen, Sunday 29th October 2023. Lars van der Haar of the Baloise Trek Lions raises his arms as he crosses the line, the victor of the second of 14 rounds of the UCI World Cyclocross Cup. In doing so, he makes it two in two for his team, shutting out Pauwels Sauzen Bingoal for a second successive race at cyclocross’ top level.
Eli Iserbyt has had a nightmare. He’s made numerous errors on the short, steep pitched sections of the course in the Limburg region of north-east Belgium and has lost the support of his key teammate Michael Vantourenhout, leaving himself surrounded by the enemy. He rides angry, powered on pure irritation as he so often seems to be, and perhaps he has cause to be annoyed: he’s arguably in the best form of his career; on good days, he’s thoroughly dominated the field, but errors and bad luck have cost him big wins (he lost ground at the first World Cup fixture in Waterloo because of a broken shoe). In previous seasons, he may have had enough grace to hang on despite an error or two, among a less stacked field.
Iserbyt always hits the ground running, every season. Knowing who is lurking on the horizon, ready to spoil the party, means the cyclocross specialists must maximise their time while they have the power to control their own destinies. Such has been the modus operandi of Iserbyt and his teammates for the past several seasons.
The Space Between
It’s the blessing and the curse of cyclocross in the current era that the yin and yang of generational talent are blazing the muddy trail – but it can’t be easy for the rest. The arrival of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert – and to a somewhat lesser extent Tom Pidcock – each season, fashionably late, and with an air of superiority that befits their 8 combined World Championships (9 if you include Pidcock), must be a real thorn in the side of the specialists: the likes of Iserbyt, his teammate and current (at the time of writing) European champion Michael Vantourenhout, and countless others who prioritise cross above all other disciplines.
The flip side, of course, is the; chance to test themselves against the best the sport has seen in many years and arguably the greatest rivalry it’s known in the modern era. And it's great publicity for the sport, with the fans counting down the days until late November or early December; whenever the prodigal sons choose to grace the off-road scene with their presence. It's drifting later and later as the years go by, but the quality does not diminish, far from it. Last year saw arguably the greatest season of competition we’ve had the pleasure of witnessing in several seasons, and there’s no reason to believe this year will be any different.
The long wait has, in the past, led to casual fans not tuning in until their arrival. The early season battles among the rest of the field playing out in front of an audience solely composed of the diehard. This year though, does feel different, so far. In previous seasons, Pauwels Sauzen Bingoal have been able to dominate the early part of the season with several options capable of winning races, and though the sport isn’t particularly geared towards team strategy, something about the lack of dynamics between the top teams in the past robbed the early season of some of its excitement.
There were ripples of change in the water last season, when erstwhile begrudging teammate of Iserbyt et al Laurens Sweeck jumped ship and moved to Crelans-Fristad; with no love lost between the former teammates, Sweeck won 5 races on his early-season revenge tour in 2022, yet he did so without a great deal of team support, meaning there still lacked a sense of depth in the field, and Iserbyt and Vantourenhout won 9 races between them before the return of Van der Poel and Van Aert in 2022.
Not so this season. With momentum distinctly in the camp of Sven Nys’ Baloise Trek team, there is at last a worthy rival to the Pauwels sauces’ early season dominion. And while Sunday’s winner Van der Haar has looked assured, and the strength in depth within the team has led to them with numerous cards to play throughout a race, it’s difficult to argue against the balance of power being down, in no small part, to Sven’s son Thibau.
Riding the World Cup at elite level for the first time this year, Nys has opted to join the off-road crew with the majority of the specialists, despite having just completed his first season on the road. He’s proven to be the thorn in Iserbyt’s side on numerous occasions already; an agitator, young enough to take risks, while his relative inexperience means the risks don’t always pay off, his level of talent ensures that when they do, he’ll be pressuring the experienced heads of Iserbyt and the rest all the way to the line.
The future of cross
With other cards to play, it becomes more of a team sport than ever before. Pim Ronhaar played the role of lone breakaway rider for a large portion of the race at Maasmechelen, with Joris Nieuwenhuis doggedly sticking to the wheel of Sweeck and Vantourenhout further back, and Van der Haar and Nys both free to attack when they felt they could. It adds a dimension not often seen in cross and it’s invigorated the racing thus far. Add to the Trek revolution, the likes of Felipe Orts, Kevin Kuhn and Cameron Mason all coming into the best form of their careers so far, the field is as deep as it’s been in some years and races are truly unpredictable once again, even without the infamous dynamic duo.
Consider the sport in the context of its homelands of the low countries, and it’s clear to see that Nys is the breath of fresh air the sport really needs. A wild card, yet also a talent capable of upsetting the odds and making serious waves among the big guns. A favoured son in the Belgian media and a personality capable of winning hearts and minds in the way his forebears Van Aert and Van der Poel have done (the latter hugely popular with cross crowds in Belgium despite his Dutch nationality).
Nys is key to reinvigorating the sport, and keeping it relevant, with one foot in the road racing camp but an upbringing deeply rooted in the off-road. Is he the future of cyclocross? It’s a big, generic label to slap onto one 20-year-old. But he has been the feather that has tipped the scales this season, towards balance, not just between the biggest teams in the sport, but between youth and experience, and crucially, between the early-season stalwarts and the lauded latecomers. For the fans, a reason to tune in every week and truly expect the unexpected. And going on today's performance, in which he executed a masterclass of cool, calm and collected cross riding to win solo at a brutal edition of the Koppenbergcross - a possibility of believing that maybe, just maybe, Nys can hope to challenge the big guns of the sport.