Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal's Eli Iserbyt says that reigning cyclo-cross world champion Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) gives him "the drive to train harder", and although the 22-year-old Belgian is yet to find the answer as to how Van der Poel can be beaten, Iserbyt defiantly says, "My time will come."
Iserbyt chose to make the step up to the elite ranks from the under-23 level at the start of the 2019/20 cyclo-cross season, and immediately set out his stall by winning the first three rounds of the World Cup series and the first rounds of both the DVV Trofee and the Superprestige series.
However, that was without going up against either Van der Poel or three-time 'cross world champion Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), with the latter missing the first half of last winter's cyclo-cross season while he recovered from his crash at the Tour de France.
Van der Poel had similarly ridden a full road season, and delayed his return to the cyclo-cross circuit in order to recover sufficiently from his efforts on the road. When he did – at the fourth round of the Superprestige in Ruddervoorde, in Belgium – he quickly reestablished himself at the top of the pecking order.
"I've also asked myself a lot about how you can beat him," Iserbyt said during a Dutch-language interview on Facebook Live with team-sponsor Shimano on Monday when asked what it might take to topple Van der Poel. "Nobody really knows what to do.
"At the European Championships, I briefly stayed with Van der Poel," Iserbyt recalled of the race in Silvelle, Italy, last November, where he finished just three seconds down on the Dutchman, and afterwards called it a "missed opportunity".
"But there's still a big difference between riding along and riding away," he said, according to Sporza.be. "But I'm not really worrying about it. My time will come. He gives me the drive to train harder, and to exhaust myself even more during training."
Despite being somewhat overshadowed by Van der Poel's return – and later in the season by Van Aert's comeback – Iserbyt could still be happy with his first full year in the elite ranks, having finished his season at the top of the overall standings in the DVV Trofee.
His second cyclo-cross season at the top level will reveal whether Iserbyt – still just 22 years old – has improved against the likes of Van Aert and Van der Poel, who are both 25, although Iserbyt doesn't think he's about to join them on the road any time soon.
"For the real Classics, I'm still about 15-20 kilograms too light," he said, according to Het Nieuwsblad. "So that would mean that I'd have to look at being a climber, and that would be pretty tough, so I'd prefer to stick to 'cross."
With the delayed 2020 road season set to run until late October due to the coronavirus pandemic – and with it yet to be seen how deep into the road season Van der Poel and Van Aert will go this year before beginning their cyclo-cross campaigns – Iserbyt has accepted that the 2020/21 'cross is likely to be affected, and likely won't start in October.
"There are still going to be road races happening in September and October, so I don't think we're really likely to start until November," he said.
"We have to be flexible and not whine," added Iserbyt. "We should be happy that we were able to finish last season, and will hopefully be able to start the new season without any problems."