Unlike the ladies, the men’s U23 category is a battle that rages across the cyclocross landscape and culminates in the ultimate clash at the Cyclocross world championships, happening Sunday in Valkenburg. And a battle it should be.
Maybe. Much of the season has been a battle between British sensation Tom Pidcock, a mere 18 years old, and Belgium’s Eli Iserbyt, a relative oldster at 20 years. With luck they will be joined by the reigning U23 world champ, Dutch rider Joris Niewenhuis, or fellow Netherlander Sieben Wouters, or Belgian Yannick Peeters, or his countryman Thijs Aerts. We have two clear favorites, but real potential for a huge slugfest.
Pidcock has to come in as the favorite. He won at Namur, the most comparable course (I think?), and has the best record of anyone in the game, with a perfect record against everyone except Iserbyt. He has ten wins and the World Cup title to his name. The fact that he’s so young further underscores his status as a special talent, and he’s the reigning Junior world champ.
But there’s a good case for Iserbyt as well. He just got through beating Pidcock on Sunday at Hoogerheide, so he comes in on form and full of confidence. He’s beaten the Brit four times this season in nine battles, including at the European championships (albeit in a sprint that caused some minor bickering). There’s a chance the Belgian, who focuses primarily on ‘cross, has built his season a bit more carefully around this day than Pidcock, who races every discipline under the sun.
Creeping up from behind is Niewenhuis, however. After getting a late start to ‘Cross following his road season with the Sunweb Dev Team, the reigning rainbow and elder statesman (21) could have plenty to say Sunday. Niewenhuis finished almost a minute back of Iserbyt in Hoogerheide, though, so it’s tough to predict exactly where he will be in the evolution of his form Sunday. Wouldn’t put it past him, however.
From there, the cases for the win get a bit tougher, but you’re still likely to hear from a few more riders. Peeters was off to a strong season with top tens on a weekly basis from October until the end of autumn, but has not been especially competitive in the world cups and was fourth in the Belgian nats. Unless this course is uniquely suited to his strengths, he’s a long shot. Aerts has had the better run lately and is the Belgian champ now.
Wouters too was strong for much of the season but has tailed off in January and been eclipsed by his countryman Niewenhuis. Czech Adam Toupalik might force his way into the conversation after what’s been a strong season from start to finish. Toupalik would love to live down his one-lap-too-early celebration from two years ago and take the title. American Gage Hecht comes in as a teenager and probably won’t challenge for a win, but would like to build on his strong season and be a top contender in Europe next year.
My pick: Iserbyt. I’m not so sure that the course will tilt in anyone’s direction necessarily, and the hot hand is usually a good one. Especially when it’s a Belgian who’s built his season around this day.