Fem van Empel (Jumbo-Visma) claimed her seventh victory of the World Cup series and wrapped up the overall title in Benidorm, edging out Puck Pieterse (Alpecin-Deceuninck) after a thrilling battle in Spain.
It was technically a four-way contest, as Shirin van Anrooij (Baloise Trek Lions) and Silvia Persico (Italian national team) joined the front for most of the race, but it always seemed like a two-horse race as Van Empel and Pieterse clearly had extra gears to move through.
Although they repeatedly edged away on the early laps, things settled down until the final lap, where Van Empel used those gears to issue a brutal seated acceleration on a dragging tarmac section. Only Pieterse could follow, and the pair scrapped it out - muscling shoulder to shoulder - on the way to the finish line.
European champion Van Empel lost the front when hesitating on an uphill section, but regained it when Dutch champion Pieterse went to fast into the corner that led to the late planks. Although Pieterse was able to bunny hop them, Van Empel remounted and had a gap, taking it through the final twists and onto the home straight, where she sat up and celebrated.
"I achieved my goal today. It was a very nice battle with four of us. Then with Puck and me, it was a fight until the end."
Pieterse congratulated Van Empel beyond the line and the pair smiled as they debriefed the race.
"Fem and I made really good race until the end. She was just a tiny bit better today," Pieterse said.
Van Anrooij crossed the line alone in third place at 13 seconds, while Persico, who'd already been dropped on the penultimate lap and was completely undone by Van Empel's attack, trailed home in fourth in what was nevertheless an impressive second World Cup appearance of the season.
Lucinda Brand (Trek Baloise Lions) overcame an early crash to finish as best of the rest at 53 seconds, just ahead of Annemarie Worst (777).
In the overall World Cup standings, Van Empel wrapped up her first elite series title, extending her lead over Pieterse to 45 points with only one round - and 40 points for the winner - remaining.
"I never expected this before the season," she said. "The goal was one or two World Cups but I surprised myself week-by-week."
How it unfolded
The penultimate round of the 2022-2023 World Cup took riders away from muddy northern Europe and down to the sunny south east coast of Spain, with a fast-rolling and dusty course. There were several technical elements - including a sandpit, planks, and stairs - but there was plenty of opportunity to lay down sustained power.
The race took shape from the very first lap. Marie Schreiber had the best start but it wasn't long before Van Empel and Pieterse punched their way to the front. As Schrieber slipped, van Anrooij and Persico got on terms with the front two to form the race's dominant quartet.
The rest of the field were still in the picture after the first lap but not after the second. Brand slipped out on a dusty corner, leaving Worst alone in pursuit, but the front four sailed away.
Van Empel and Pieterse ended laps 2 and 3 in the lead together, but were caught again by Van Anrooij and Persico on the early twists of the following laps. The quartet then settled in and the race lulled on laps 4 and 5 - the slowest of the race.
Behind, Worst threatened to use the lull to come back, but then faded, and was caught and passed by Brand, who herself dropped Zoe Backstedt (EF) in pursuit of the leaders.
On the penultimate lap, Pieterse made a concerted push and again dragged Van Empel clear. Van Anrooij responded after a while and clawed her way back, while Persico had to make up more ground and only got back on just after the start of the final lap.
From there, the writing was on the wall, and the big move came on a mid-lap tarmac section, when Van Empel put everyone under pressure with a big-gear seated acceleration. Pieterse was able to follow but the other two couldn't hold on.
Van Empel then hesitated on a small climb - where she'd been the strongest throughout - and Pieterse muscled her way through to the front. However, she was perhaps over-eager as she stormed into the tight corner that led into the planks, and gave up front position. As ever, she was quicker over the planks due to her bunny-hopping skills but Van Empel came out in the lead and prized open a small gap.
She made no mistake on the final corners that led to the home straight, and she celebrated as champion of the World Cup, two weeks out from the World Championships.
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