Nearly two hours after the women's U23 race concluded at the 2022 UCI World Cyclo-cross Championships, tears of frustration still come easily for bronze medalist Fem van Empel.
The 19-year-old former football player huddles with her mother in a corner, awaiting the start of the press conference and trying to steady her shaky voice.
"Top sport can be so hard," her mother sympathizes.
Just a few hours prior, a wintery sun shone warmly on the Fayetteville course as Van Empel, the defending champion, lined up alongside fellow compatriots Puck Pieterse and Shirin van Anrooij as the top three favourites for the U23 title.
Barring any surprises, the podium was set. The battle was going to be for the order in which these three Dutch women would cross the finish.
Van Anrooij was favoured for her diesel engine, Pieterse for her speedy climbing legs and superior technical skills, Van Empel for her all-around speed and experience in the rainbow bands.
"We had the pressure to be on the podium with all three of us after the season we've had," Van Anrooij said. "But [the three of us] just all wanted to have an honest race and a good battle."
The team tactic was simple enough. "Don't get into one another's way unnecessarily. And ride your own race," Pieterse elaborated.
"We knew beforehand that the three of us would be the strongest, but if a different rider would come in between us, we would have had to play a tactical game."
It was French rider Amandine Fouquenet who led the field of 23 riders off the pavement and into the woods. Pieterse and Van Anrooij followed in her wheel, but trouble arrived early for Van Empel.
Her Di2 equipped bike had gone into crash mode, her team staff explained later. This means that Van Empel had to manoeuvre her way through the rollercoaster of a course in a single gear until she could swap bikes in the pits. But she persevered.
As Fouquenet, her compatriot Line Burquier, and Luxembourgian Marie Schreiber failed to keep up with the pace driven by Van Anrooij, Van Empel steadily moved her way up to rejoin her two compatriots.
Pieterse ramped up on every uphill and descended at breakneck speed, but Van Anrooij held on. With just two and a half laps to go, Van Empel rejoined the front for the promised three-way battle to begin.
It was anyone's race at that point. Pieterse had burned matches trying to shake off Van Anrooij, who in turn had spent the first few laps of the race setting the pace, and Van Empel had spent so much time chasing. How much did she have left in the tank?
Neither Puck nor Van Anrooij would want to take the speedy Van Empel with them into the final. But it never came to that.
On the tricky and steep berm that had tripped up so many riders in the previous races, Pieterse came to a sudden halt, causing a pile-up.
"My rear wheel slipped," Pieterse told Cyclingnews. "It was really a dry part there and I wanted to cut it a bit differently there because [the other riders] kept passing me there on the inside so I thought 'I should sit more to the left. But that was no longer the ideal line and my rear wheel slipped away."
Van Anrooij ran to the rear wheel of Pieterse. Van Anrooij in turn took out Van Empel. By the time Van Anrooij got clipped back in and moving again, Pieterse had put some daylight into her.
"Whoever exited that corner first in the previous laps always got a gap, so I really drove it out of the corner. But Shirin came back quickly," said Pieterse.
As the two carried on, Van Empel was standing still, messing about with her bike after a dropped chain. Her fight for gold was over.
"I lost a lot of time [due to mechanicals] and I think that lost me the jersey today," commented Van Empel.
Much like the previous afternoon's elite women's race, the duel would be decided in the final few hundred meters of the race. Neither of them confident in their sprint, Pieterse and Van Anrooij entered the finale playing cat and mouse games.
"I was just stressed, to be honest," said Van Anrooij with a laugh. "I just wasn't really expecting to close the gap anymore. There was a really big gap after that bump but I was stuck there together with Fem, but I just rode as fast as I could. I ran up the stairs harder than I think I have ever run up stairs. And then I closed the gap and from then on, I was stressed. I didn't want it coming down to sprints and then it became one. I think I just waited a bit too long. I was close but not close enough"
Having learned from the sprints in the previous races, Pieterse knew she wanted to be in second position when the dirt turned to pavement.
"I couldn't let Shirin pass me. And I also knew that Fem was on the hunt. And with the sprint from Flamanville in the back of my mind, I also didn't want it to become a sprint," said the 19-year-old.
"When I had a gap, I just went all out. I didn't have really good legs anymore coming into the sprint, but I'm happy it worked out for me."
Rainbows for Pieterse, tears for the other two youngsters. The lower medals and an all-Dutch podium sweep as a small consolation.
The nailbiter of a race however showed the high calibre of this new generation of cyclo-crossers, and a future that is bright and very orange.
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