Midway through the Elite Men’s World Cup race in Namur, we knew it would be the Race of the Year. Course changes combined with epic weather conditions led to one of the most action packed races ever. At the front there was a truly epic battle between Toon Aerts and Mathieu van der Poel. Further back, the World Cup leader, Eli Iserbyt, would literally be carried off the course. A last lap battle for third made the race even more exciting. All of this combined easily made it our choice for Race of the Year.
Senseless course changes?
Heading into the race, the talk was about some major changes the organization of the race made to the course. They added some more technical features to what was an already challenging course. This year, they added a steep cobbled climb preceded by a technical downhill. The downhill ended with a set of steps that organizers tried to smooth over with sand. Before the race even began, riders were divided, with Mathieu van der Poel saying the changes “made no sense”.
While no one could predict the cold, wet conditions on race day it had an impact on the new features. The sand would erode during the Elite Men’s race, leaving the steps exposed. It also resulted in a hub deep puddle at the bottom, before the cobbled climb.
A knockdown, dragged out battle for victory
Like the previous round in Koksijde, Mathieu van der Poel had to start from the third row due to a lack of World Cup points. Despite the conditions and technical course, van der Poel was able to reach the front of the race during the first half of the first lap. As he reached the front, an on-form Toon Aerts immediately latched on and the two began a duel that would define the race.
Aerts got away from van der Poel during the third lap, building a lead of 10 seconds. During that time, van der Poel suffered a rear tire puncture. He quickly got a new bike and take off in pursuit of Aerts.
Meanwhile, just behind the leading duo, drama unfolded as the World Cup leader, Eli Iserbyt suddenly disappeared from the front of the race. Suffering from hypothermia, Iserbyt entered the pit to grab a jacket. A few moments later, Iserbyt entered the pit in tears and was literally carried off the course by his mechanics.
In between the views of Iserbyt’s demise, van der Poel made contact with Aerts and the two continued to battle it out. Midway through the race, Aerts once again got away from van der Poel after putting pressure on the World Champion. Unfortunately, moments later, Aerts front wheel got stuck in the mud and van der Poel regained contact.
A bit of deja vu occurred one lap later as van der Poel got a gap on Aerts, only to suffer another flat. Aerts capitalized on this opportunity and seemed to hit van der Poel with a final blow, putting nearly 20 seconds into him. However, a mistake by Aerts during the penultimate lap brought the two riders back together for the umpteenth time.
The Final Lap
The drama continued as Aerts crashed hard during the final lap. This gave van der Poel the room he needed to storm away to victory. As Aerts attempted to recover, Tom Pidcock and Corne van Kessel suddenly came into view. Aerts did just enough to secure second place, as the battle for third heated up. In the end, van Kessel would get the better of Pidcock to take the last step of the podium.
A lasting impact on the World Cup overall
In addition to being an instant classic, and our European Race of the Year, the fallout from this race would impact the rest of the season. As we mentioned, Iserbyt’s DNF marked the end of his chances at the World Cup overall. He would finish second in the series and after a dismal rider in Zolder, would rebound to finish his season strong. Aerts fall during the last lap caused him to break four ribs and put the rest of his season on hold. He raced in Zolder in hopes to maintain his lead in the overall. Despite winning the World Cup for a second year in a row, Aerts never really got back to the form he showed in Namur.
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