Puck Pieterse (Fenix-Deceuninck) graduated with honours, becoming the Dutch elite women's cyclocross champion in her first attempt out of the under-23s with a solo slog through the mud of Zaltbommel on Sunday afternoon.
In a race with knee-deep puddles and ankle-deep mud with speeds that could have better been measured in knots, the 20-year-old separated herself from her nearest rival in the third of five laps and never relinquished her lead.
By the line, Pieterse had splashed out a 26-second advantage ahead of Fenix-Deceuninck teammate Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado while European champion Fem Van Empel (Jumbo-Visma) was third at 39 seconds.
"I knew I would be a title contender, I've been on the podium all season," Pieterse told Wielerflits. "But of course, I still had to do it. Especially when the three of us attacked and I noticed that Fem and Ceylin really weren't bad today, it was difficult to determine where I should use my strength during the race."
The course included long sections of unrideable flat ground made soupy after heavy rain and an unrideable off-camber downhill turn off the dike. The route could have been worse, but the sections nearest to the river that were under half a metre of water were removed after overnight flooding.
The conditions made for a race that required maximum power, running strength and technical skills – all qualities the top three have in abundance. The podium trio separated from the rest of the contenders early, shaking world champion Lucinda Brand (Baloise Trek Lions) on the first lap and only continuing to open up their advantage. By the finish, fourth-placed Denise Betsema (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) was a mammoth 2:16 down.
After trading minor blows during the second lap, it was Pieterse who made the winning move on lap three of five, putting in an acceleration that neither Alvarado nor Van Empel could match.
In a race that was more a 10k run than a bike race, Pieterse motored around the course on the edge of the Waal River, only just out-pacing the passing cargo ships and ferries. Splashing through the puddles and expertly sliding down the mud-slick dike, she gained a comfortable enough lead on the final lap that she only had to avoid mistakes to seal her title.
Alvarado had slowly inched out a lead on Van Empel on the final lap and began closing in on Pieterse, but she ran out of time. Pieterse felt the pressure.
"In the last lap, I noticed that Ceylin came very close. I had half a minute lead, then I thought: something really crazy must be happening. But of course, you still have to go full throttle, otherwise, you will give up half a minute, especially on such a tough course. When I saw Ceylin getting closer and closer, I just ran for my life."
Alvarado was content with silver despite coming relatively close in the end to catching Pieterse.
"A second place is not bad in itself, is it," Alvarado said to Wielerflits. "Puck has earned it. She is riding very well this season. We fought for it. I was close, but it wasn't good enough."
Alvarado said she felt that Van Empel wasn't going to chase Pieterse down and decided to go for it on the final lap.
2022 winner and reigning world champion Marianne Vos trailed behind in the top 10, never getting into contention.
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