11 wins and counting: CX star Eli Iserbyt is having a season to remember

The Belgian has won 65% of the races he's started this season.

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With a total of 11 victories from just 17 starts, Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) is the most successful rider of the cyclocross season so far. At just 24 he has joined the ranks of the best riders in the world, although he is modest about that fact.

“I don’t see myself as one of the best riders in the world,” Iserbyt says. “I started when I was 13 or 14 years young. I regard myself as an athlete trying my best and that has stayed the case throughout the growth in my career. I still feel the same: an athlete doing his best.

“Everything around me has gone bigger. I do realize that, but no, I don’t have that feeling being the best in the world. I don’t think it’s necessary [to have that label]. I just try to win as much as I can. That’s my goal.”

Cyclocross is part of the culture of Belgium and more specifically the western part: the Dutch-speaking provinces that form Flanders. There is a race on television every weekend and the media actively covers the stars of the sport. 

“In Belgium I get recognized because everyone watches cyclocross in the winter time,” Iserbyt says. “In the summer as well but also a lot less because the races are not on TV. I also always try to be a bit inconspicuous,” he laughs. “Now with the masks that helps. No, seriously, it’s not over the top in Belgium. The fans are always supportive and acknowledge your results. But we also have this rivalry in Belgium but that’s typical for all sports here. You are supporting one club, rider, team and are automatically against the other.

“It’s also the charm of the sport here. In other countries like the Czech Republic or the USA they support everyone [in cyclocross] but here it’s more folklore. ‘Cross thrives under duels like [Sven] Nys / [Niels] Albert or [Wout] van Aert/ [Mathieu] van der Poel.”

Eli Iserbyt and Toon Aerts in an empty field at Boom 2020.

Like many sports cyclocross had to go without supporters from November 2020 until the end of the season. It created images of sad empty meadows without the traditional party atmosphere that is so linked with the sport in Flanders.

“If you ride well, you are in the focus and you don’t necessarily hear supporters, not consciously,” Iserbyt says. “When you are not in a great flow the supporters help a lot. Last year we were riding around an empty field and that’s not motivating. Like for example in Niel the supporters give me just that bit extra this year and it makes a huge difference for me.” He won that race in early November after a tight battle with Toon Aerts.

It’s a given that when a sport is regionally popular it draws in more participants. Whether it’s badminton in eastern Asia, ski jumping in Slovenia, or cyclocross in Flanders, seeing a sport draws in the new generation.

“When I was a kid, I saw cyclocross on TV,” Iserbyt recalls. “I played football on Saturdays, and Sunday was cross on TV. I had a small bike and within 10 minutes after the race finished, I was racing the little climbs near my home. When I was 11 or 12 years old, I raced for the first time and I was already on the podium against the older boys. The one thing that almost catapulted my entire career were click pedals. My dad really had to push me to use click pedals because I really didn’t want to.”

Eli Iserbyt in the UCI World Cup leader’s jersey at Tabor.

Iserbyt quickly made his way to the top of the junior and U23 categories, winning two consecutive Belgian titles as a junior and two U23 world championships, the first one at just 19. In the elite category he won the European title in 2020. A Belgian and a world championship are on his wish list but the ‘other three’ – Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, and Tom Pidcock – will soon be re-joining the CX ranks. Iserbyt is not annoyed that the media always talks about those three. He feels they will gradually leave the mud behind and that the current generation provides an exciting spectacle as it is.

“I won 11 races already,” he says smiling. “The season so far has been good with great wins and they are not worth less because they are not there. There is now more realization that we are the guys making the races in the upcoming years. I think we are at a high level and have reached a ceiling. Maybe when someone exceptional comes in from the youth it will grow further but they are not here yet.

“The riders like Lars [van der Haar], Michael [Vanthourenhout], Toon [Aerts] and also me are in great shape now and that’s great. Supporters see exciting races with multiple winners. I am not too happy with the latter, of course,” he adds with a laugh.

“I think the public also need this transition period because Van der Poel and Van Aert will race less and less ‘cross. That’s our chance but we shouldn’t be naïve either. These are guys who win anyways, and they are there to win. Maybe towards the future the significance for them becomes less like we saw with Zdenek Stybar. For now, the three will be at the start in full cross mode and don’t want to lose against us. That will make for some great races.”

Cyclocross is a sport where only a few countries define the races and at most 20 nationalities make it to the start line of the world championships or the World Cup races over the Christmas period. There is a thriving scene in countries like the USA, France, Spain, and the Czech Republic but the most important races are dominated by the Belgians and the Dutch – the countries where the sponsor money is.

“It would be nice to have more internationalization,” Iserbyt says, “but I don’t think more internationalization will result in more super-good foreign riders. It’s a sport with strong regional roots. It’s very specific and technical and it’s in the DNA of a Flemish rider. If you see other kids ride around you, you ride too.

“Our problem is that we are not an Olympic sport. All good British or French riders are leaving the sport. But even with an Olympic status I think the Belgians will still define the sport because it’s just so engrained in our culture. We are such a traditional sport. People always want changes because it’s been the same for 100 years. It’s the tradition that makes this sport so great. This is cross and it’s always been like this.”

Eli Iserbyt in time trial mode at the Baloise Belgium Tour 2021.

Despite the huge success of riders like Van Aert, Pidcock, and Van der Poel on the road, Iserbyt doesn’t really have road ambitions. He is a full-time cyclocross rider and – as one of the few – rides almost all of the races on the incredibly busy calendar with 16 UCI World Cups, the Superprestige and X20 classification races, and the three big championships.

“I am in a privileged position to be a good cyclocross rider in Belgium,” he says. “I am now 24 and this summer I did a high workload with longer endurance training for the first time. In the [road] races we ride in Belgium [in May and June] my body weight and height work against me. I would do well in [hilly] races like Tour de Savoie-Mont Blanc. Maybe we can focus on a race like that this summer but I am never really peaking towards the road season. The cyclocross season requires a very long peak period mentally and physically and I need those months after to relax again, to loosen a bit.”

His calendar is already full with two races a weekend, sometimes some on weekdays as well, plus some long travel hours to the USA, Czech Republic, Italy, and France. It means Iserbyt’s weeks during the season are predictable and uneventful.

“I do an easy spin on Mondays and then a long, four-hour endurance ride on Tuesdays,” he says. “On Wednesdays we have a 2.5-hour dedicated cross training for the upcoming weekend’s race, so sand before Koksijde for example. My days until the end of February are just very boring,” he says with a laugh. 

“After training I am just on the couch and my girlfriend knows this. I just rest as much as I can. Mentally it’s hard because it’s very repetitive but the rest is so important for me. I could go out shopping or grab a coffee … although I have an amazing coffee machine at home already,” he jokes. “But seriously, it’s just better to eat and drink well and hope you don’t get sick.

“I don’t see my friends during the season because they work during the week and party on the weekends. It’s a sacrifice that’s easy to make when the results are there.”

Iserbyt on his way to a win at the Jaarmarktcross at Niel.

There are three defining teams in men’s cyclocross now with Iserbyt’s Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal (also home to Michael Vanthourenhout and Laurens Sweeck), the Baloise Trek Lions with Lars van der Haar and Toon Aerts, and Tormans with Quinten Hermans and Corné van Kessel. Unlike road cycling, and despite the team structure, cyclocross is mostly an individual sport.

“It’s what I like about it, that it is an individual sport,” Iserbyt explains. “You do take the other riders on the team into account but until three laps to go it’s individual. After that you need to start thinking. In the past this hasn’t been going super in our team because we have three strong characters who also want to win.

“I think it’s a drive for many crossers that’s its an individual sport and that you want to win. You have to learn to deal with the team element. So far, we have been doing well this season. It’s also a luxurious position to be in when you have three top riders like we have.”

While Iserbyt is riding almost all of the bigger races on the calendar, he tries to focus mainly on a good result in the UCI World Cups.

“It doesn’t mean I slag off the other races like Superprestige or X20,” he says. “My short-term goal is to win as much before ‘the other three’ come in. Then I need to balance my efforts during the Christmas period. The Belgian championships [early January] are important. It’s a sand race but I need to become all-round and also win on sand [Iserbyt won in Koksijde two days after this interview – ed.]. I have won titles in other categories but not elite just yet so that’s a big goal this year.”

It was a mudfest at the very wet and iconic Koppenbergcross 2021, won by Iserbyt.

Back in mid-October, Iserbyt came in second at the World Cup on this season’s World Championships course in Fayetteville, Arkansas. His best result at an elite world championship was seventh place in 2021. He is ambitious for this season’s rainbow race, scheduled for the end of January 2022.

“We saw two completely different races in two days,” he says of the Fayetteville World Cup in October. “The recon was warm and dry and race day was wet. It will all come down to the weather. If it’s dry and fast it’s for the interval and puncheur riders like Van der Poel. When it’s wet and slower the strong men like Van Aert have advantage. I prefer the faster, dry course. It’s great for a world championship that it comes down to the weather what kind of race we will get.

“The climb is really weird. We have never seen this is in a cross race before. It starts gradually with 1 to 2% false flat and then up to 15%. It’s like a ramp. I think they will change a few things. The lap might be too short when it’s a fast race.

“It’s a great course and the organization was really great. We thought before that it would be in the middle of nowhere but the location is really great with many opportunities. I think we now only do maybe 5% of what can be done with cyclocross courses,” he says. “Much more is possible, as Fayetteville shows.”

There’s still a few months before Iserbyt returns to Arkansas for Cyclocross Worlds. In just a few weeks, though, he’ll start facing off against Van Aert, Van der Poel, and Pidcock for the first time this season. Regardless of how those encounters turn out, it’s been a wonderful season for Iserbyt already.

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