Eli Iserbyt (Belgium) and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado (Netherlands) will be hoping to defend their European titles this weekend when the Col du Vam hosts its first international cyclo-cross event, the UEC Cyclo-cross European Championships.
The man-made mountain and cycling venue in the north of the Netherlands was created three years ago and will host the best cyclo-cross riders from across the continent over two days of competition.
The asphalt Col du Vam has an average gradient of 10% with a cobbled section towards the top which competitors will race up from the start. Making its mark on the World Tour women’s peloton earlier this year the climb was the scene of a gruelling final stage of the Healthy Ageing Tour when riders tackled 18 accents of the mountain in bleak conditions.
Starting the weekend of racing will be the junior women, with the category only having one previous European Championship event in 2019 when Dutch rider Puck Pieterse was the victor. Last year’s event was cancelled due to Covid-19 and Pieterse is now an under-23 rider, so a new champion will be crowned.
Junior world road race champion Zoe Backstedt heads a strong Great Britain team although Belgium's Xaydee Van Sinaey is among her possible challengers. Under-23 world champion Ryan Kamp will be hoping to bring a home victory for the Netherlands in the under-23 men’s event and is also the reigning European title holder.
Finishing Saturday’s events is the elite women’s race, where home country rider Alvarado will be hoping to defend the title she won last year. She will have to fend off the challenge from eight compatriots and Hungarian Kata Blanka Vas, who has opted to race among the elite, rather than in the U23 category.
The junior men begin Sunday’s races with a new champion crowned after last year’s event was also cancelled due to COVID-19. Dutch rider David Haverdings will be one of the favourites having won his last five races this season.
The under-23 women compete second on Sunday with Pieterse the defending champion, having won last season’s event also held in the Netherlands. Pieterse will face competition from fellow Dutch rider Fem Van Emple while French rider Line Burquier could also challenge.
Concluding the championships is the elite men when defending European champion Iserbyt will be hoping to keep his title. Iserbyt will be one of 11 riders from Belgium and there is every chance the nation could swarm the head of proceedings and fight it out for the title.
With no protection against the elements and the relentless climbing of the Col du Vam races are likely to become a war of attrition. No previous cyclo-cross elite events have been held on the course so there is an unknown element when trying to ascertain how the races will unfold.
The course starts with a fast sprint on the asphalt and straight into the cobbled climb of the Col du Vam through the finish before descending down the grass on the other side and then straight back up.
With few natural features, the course continues with sharp kicks up the grassy bank adjacent to the Col du Vam climb and quick descents back down before an asphalt section links to the far side of the course.
After circling a woodland area riders travel back across the course to the other side towards the start. Competitors tackle a steep ascent before then passing the start and climbing the Col du Vam towards the finish at the top of the cobbled section.
A pleasant day on Friday is forecast followed by a cloudy Saturday which could make racing fast and the course run well with the climbs rideable. However, rain showers overnight are forecast on Saturday and into Sunday which could make the grass climbs softer and possibly muddy.
With eight wins to his name already this season Iserbyt goes into the men’s event as firm favourite on Sunday afternoon. The 24-year-old, from Belgium, won last weekend’s World Cup round at Overijse and the gruelling race on the Koppenbergcross on Monday.
Iserbyt finished ahead of Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal teammate and fellow Belgian Michael Vanthourenhout in last year’s European championships. The pair repeated that pattern in last weekend’s World Cup round but Vanthourenhout could reverse the result on the Col du Vam.
Toon Aerts is also another contender for the nation, particularly if the Col du Vam course fragments in the rain and allows his running ability to be showcased. Aerts ran away from his rivals on the sand dunes of Zonhoven to win earlier this month and was European champion back in 2016.
If that list weren't already long enough, there's also another Belgian rider searching for honours. Quinten Hermans won a wet World Cup round at Fayetteville and was challenging at Overijse before a crash that led to a broken shoe and the loss of vital time.
Dutch rider Lars van der Haar, who finished third in last year’s European Championships, will be hoping to stop the Belgian domination, along with countryman Corne van Kessel.
The riders from the Netherlands, however, are on the front foot when it comes to the elite women's race with a strong team of nine that will be looking to dominate on home turf.
All eyes will be on the battle between fast starting Denise Betsema, world champion Lucinda Brand and 20-year-old Hungarian Vas, who will be looking to upset the Dutch after clinching her first elite World Cup win at Overijse last weekend.
Betsema has won four races this season including the World Cup round at Zonhoven while Brand has two victories, also winning one World Cup round in Fayettville.
The outcome could be determined by how firm the ground of the Col du Vam course remains after the two races prior to the elite women on Saturday afternoon. Last weekend at Overijse saw Brand claw her way back to Betsema on the tough muddy terrain before beating her rival in a sprint for third, but both were 33 seconds behind victor Vas.
Reigning European champion Alvarado missed the early World Cup rounds due to illness and on her return finished on the podium at Zonhoven but has yet to record a cyclo-cross win this season.
Yara Kastelijn, who won the European title in 2019, and Annemarie Worst, who won in 2018, also feature in the stellar Dutch team.
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