Fem Van Empel (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) made it four wins from four in the cyclocross World Cup, with another devastating and victorious last lap attack in the women’s race at Maasmechelen.
Fellow under-23 riders Puck Pieterse (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Shirin van Anrooij (Baloise Trek Lions) traded blows with the World Cup leader throughout the fast race but were distanced on the final lap.
As she did the previous weekend in Tabor, Van Empel powered away from her rivals in the closing moments of the race to take victory.
Pieterse’s search for a maiden World Cup race victory continues as she settled for second while van Anrooij was narrowly beaten into third. All three riders will compete in the under-23 category at next weekend’s European cyclo-cross championships and lead a new generation of young cyclocross riders.
The Dutch riders now face the dilemma of whether to move up to the elite category early for the end of the season world championships next year or stay in the under-23 ranks.
Van Empel admitted that her fourth World Cup victory was the hardest yet with Pieterse able to bunny hop the barriers on the final section of the fast and dry course.
“I think this is the hardest race I have ever raced this season, it was a hard battle,” said Van Empel.
“I had a good starting loop, it was a bit chaotic in the race and then Puck (Pieterse) overtook me.
“I saw a gap on the last steep section and luckily I could overtake Puck and it was then full gas to the finish. I just hoped that Puck was not sitting in my wheel but it was enough to win.”
World champion Marianne Vos (Team Jumbo-Visma) was swamped at the start and then struggled with the pace of the leading group, eventually finishing sixth.
A race-long battle
The cyclo-cross World Cup headed to Belgium for the first time this season with Maasmechelen used as a ‘cross venue for the first time.
Fem Van Empel (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) had won the opening three World Cup rounds with her latest coming after a stinging last lap attack in Tabor last weekend. Van Empel along with fellow under-23 riders Puck Pieterse (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Blanka Kata Vas (Team SD Worx) all missed Saturday’s Superprestige race at Ruddervoorde, won by Denise Betsema (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal), choosing to focus on the World Cup series.
A warm weekend in Belgium resulted in a fast and dry course around the Maasmechelen former mine turned nature reserve, which included a mixture of terrain and challenges.
Sprinting away from the start fastest was Hélène Clauzel (AS Bike Racing) who went into the first steep bank first, while Vos was swamped further back causing the world champion to lose time.
Van Empel was in close attendance and on the first full lap took the lead with only Pieterse able to follow as the World Cup leader swept around the course. After showcasing her bunny hopping skills on her way to second in Tabor last weekend Pieterse powered through the sand section and then jumped the barriers to pull out a slender lead at the end of the opening lap.
Shirin van Anrooij (Baloise Trek Lions) led the chase behind along with Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado (Alpecin-Deceuninck) pulling back up to Van Empel as Pieterse continued to grow her advantage.
Taking part in her first World Cup event of the season Vos was struggling with the fast early pace and was in the second chasing group 12 seconds back.
Not panicked by the early attack, the World Cup leader gradually pulled back Dutch rival Pieterse just before the planks on the second lap, and this time the leading group stayed together.
The three under-23 riders Van Empel, Pieterse and van Anrooij powered along the fast course putting pressure on Alvarado, who was eventually dropped on the third lap. After winning at Ruddervoorde the previous day Betsema caught Alvarado 10 seconds behind the leading trio by the midway point.
Last year’s under-23 European cyclocross champion van Anrooij hoped to defend her title next weekend in Namur and contributed towards the pace of the leading group. Paying for her earlier effort van Anrooij was put under pressure by Pieterse as the three youngsters traded blows.
The experience of 29-year-old Betsema saw the three-time World Cup race winner close the gap to the leading trio to six seconds. However European road race and time trial champion Van Anrooij attacked with three laps remaining, quickly taking a gap of four seconds over Van Empel and Pieterse who were calm in their response.
World Cup leader Van Empel looked in control as she powered back across the gap to Van Anrooij on a steep bank as the trio regrouped.
Pieterse was the first rider to make a mistake, almost sliding out in a dry but dusty off-camber section, but quickly powered back to prevent Van Empel from establishing a gap.
Coming into the penultimate lap the relentless pace of the front three resulted in Betsema losing time, chasing alone 17 seconds behind.
The three leaders took the last lap bell together with nothing to separate them and the three often swapped the lead.
Searching for her first World Cup elite win, Pieterse powered to the front hoping to use her skills to establish a winning gap which put Van Anrooij under pressure. Van Empel was equal to her rival’s pace and the pair went side-by-side fighting for the lead position into the sweeping bends.
The three Dutch riders continued to swap positions on the tight circuit with Van Anrooij also fighting for the lead.
World Cup leader Van Empel wanted to lead into the final section and used her speed to force a gap over Pieterse coming into the sand section, with her lead then continuing to grow to the finish line.
Taking her fourth World Cup in as many rounds Van Empel was delighted with her victory, celebrating three seconds ahead of Pieterse while Van Anrooij took her first elite World Cup podium in third at six seconds.
On her first World Cup outing of the season world champion Vos finished in sixth, 1:13 behind the winner.
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