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Fem van Empel celebrates victory at World Cup Hoogerheide. Fem van Empel celebrates winning CX World Cup Hoogerheide.

Cyclocross gallery: A thrilling double feature to whet the appetite going into the World Champs

Dominance prevailed, but thrills and spills lit up the World Cup finale - a fitting prelude to next weekend's World Championships in Tábor.

Kit Nicholson
by Kit Nicholson 28.01.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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There were ‘double rainbows all the way’ in Hamme and Hoogerheide as the UCI Cyclocross World Cup drew to a dramatic close this Sunday; reigning world champions Fem van Empel and Mathieu van der Poel gave themselves the very best launchpad for next week’s World Championships, on paper at least. While their dominance prevailed on this late-season weekend, the racing was far more exciting than it might look on paper.

There’s something about extraordinary talent and dramatic rivalries that have the ability to alter the narrative and context in which they play. Someone like contemporary favourites Tadej Pogačar, Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, Marianne Vos, Annemiek van Vleuten or Lotte Kopecky turns up and wipes the board of all that came before them – sometimes even including their own previous performances, or lack thereof – such that we begin to lament the entertainment and future of the sport, even while we celebrate their phenomenal achievements.

We keep doing it with the Tour de France – which is perhaps not the best example, but let me run with it – in that we’re apparently already bored of the Pogi-Vingegaard rivalry, just as we sat in stunned silence at Pogačar’s dominant double-up in 2021 when we began to speculate just how soon he could break the all-time Tour victories record. But every year another name arrives in the peloton and at the very least adds promise to a future of entertaining Tours.

In cyclocross, last weekend’s bombastic Benidorm round of the World Cup had fireworks, but came with the bitter aftertaste of knowing that we were witnessing the last battle of the ‘Big Three’ this CX season (on the men’s side), and yet, this weekend there’s been no shortage of competition. And in the evidently always-more-exciting women’s races, it’s not been just the Dutch show, not on Sunday anyway, when Blanka Vas was the best of three young underdogs (Marie Schreiber and Zoe Bäckstedt also got their noses in front) who put the top favourites under pressure all the way to the line in Hoogerheide.

Sure, there’s half a lifetime of what might as well be described as franchise storytelling as far as Van der Poel and Van Aert are concerned, but while there have been some alarming displays of dominance in recent seasons and it would be a futile quest to present a real third man to the ensemble (no offence to young Master Pidcock), there’s always been a creditable adversary or two, or four, waiting in the wings. This season, we’ve seen Pim Ronhaar and Thibau Nys come of age, Joris Nieuwenhuis has found a new gear, while Eli Iserbyt, Michael Vanthourenhout and Lars van der Haar remain stalwarts.

The same can be said of this season among the women: focus too long on Van Empel, Lucinda Brand, Puck Pieterse and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, and you’ll be surprised by Vas, Bäckstedt, Schreiber, Manon Bakker, etc …

If these past two weekends in particular have had anything to say, it’s that there’s real depth and potential for drama, even when the result ends up as expected. To use the franchise idea again, it’s like a tentpole blockbuster: we know the hero will prevail, but we watch to find out how they do it, and it’s up to those they face and the conditions they find themselves in to provide the entertainment.

If we’re lucky, we’ll get just that and more next weekend in Tábor.

CX world champion Fem van Empel during X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
To kick off the weekend, Fem van Empel was back to maintain her 100% record in the X2O Badkamers Trofee on Saturday, one week out from attempting a World Championship title defense. There are two further rounds of the Belgian series after the trip to Tábor, Czech Republic, but it remains to be seen whether Van Empel will keep turning up or concede her streak in favour of a refreshed run at the Spring Classics on the road with Visma-Lease a Bike.
Lucinda Brand leads Manon Bakker during X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
Lucinda Brand is still wedged in second-tier favourite status, just a stitch behind a superior Van Empel, along with Puck Pieterse and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado (though neither raced on Saturday).
Annemarie Worst runs while carrying her bike during X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
Annemarie Worst has had a pretty consistent season with a handful of podium finishes and one smaller race win in Ardooie back in October. She raced to sixth in Hamme, where the mud made for a tricky race that included a great deal of running.
World champion Fem van Empel during X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
After a mid-season blip – if you can call a second and fourth place, and only winning by the margin created by a finishing-straight sprint a blip – Van Empel seems to have returned to her best just in time for the World Championships next weekend. The 21-year-old phenom rode away early in Saturday’s race, never to be seen again.
Dutch national champion Lucinda Brand chases in second during X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
Brand looked like best of the rest …
Manon Bakker racing for a podium finish during X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
… ahead of World Cup Val di Sole winner Manon Bakker, whose podium finish was all but assured when a charging Laura Verdonschot got sucked to the ground by the deep, sticky mud in the final lap.
World champion Fem van Empel during X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
With her gap almost unassailable, Van Empel’s thoughts had turned to Sunday’s final World Cup outing in Hoogerheide, and a reunion with some of her biggest rivals in Alvarado and Pieterse, the only rider to have beaten the world champion so far this season: “At the end, I was already thinking about tomorrow’s race. That one is very tough.”
Fem van Empel celebrates winning X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
That marks 16 wins in the 23/24 season. So far …
Lars van der Haar leads the elite men during X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
The sinking sun continued to shine as the elite men got underway, the mud no less problematic.
Michael Vanthourenhout leads the elite men out of the pits, bikes held aloft, during X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
The conditions of the course were at some of their worst just after the crucial pits, which made for some careful pit-crew positioning before and after grabbing a fresh bike, raising it aloft to traverse some of the deepest mud of the race.
Belgian national champion Eli Iserbyt leads world champion Mathieu van der Poel during X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
Eli Iserbyt is so consistent that sometimes it’s easy to forget about him, taking his presence for granted and therefore barely having cause to mention him, but the Belgian national champion looks to be building some great form towards the tail end of the season.
Michael Vanthourenhout leads the chase during X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
Michael Vanthourenhout (in the lead here) also continues to prove that last weekend’s win was no fluke, nor was it a product of lack of competition, briefly matching, then chasing – you guessed it – Mathieu van der Poel once the world champion had attacked.
World champion Mathieu van der Poel running with his bike during X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
Van der Poel went clear around the halfway point.
World champion Mathieu van der Poel speeds past in a blur during X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
Michael Vanthourenhout during X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
The European champion stuck with the leader until slipping off the pace, but Vanthourenhout was able both to keep Van der Poel under pressure and maintain his gap over teammate Iserbyt to hold onto second place.
Belgian national champion Eli Iserbyt during X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
Iserbyt’s job was to hold off Niels Vandeputte to seal a podium finish, 24 hours before attempting to hold off Joris Nieuwenhuis (did not race on Saturday) in the battle for overall World Cup supremacy.
Mathieu van der Poel celebrates winning X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
The champion back on top, but only with 16 seconds over closest challenger Vanthourenhout.
Winner Mathieu van der Poel shares a laugh with second-place Michael Vanthourenhout and and third Eli Iserbyt on the elite men's podium at X2O Trofee Hamme - Flandriencross.
What’s the joke?
A wide shot of the elite women's start at CX World Cup Hoogerheide as a huge crowd watches.
The final round of the UCI World Cup meant a return to Hoogerheide (a.k.a. the Grand Prix Adrie van der Poel), that is, the scene of last year’s World Championships, so happy hunting ground for Saturday’s winners.
World champion Fem van Empel leads Dutch national champion Lucinda Brand on the 'stairway to heaven' during CX World Cup Hoogerheide.
Speaking of Saturday’s winners, Van Empel was on the hunt for a 17th victory of the season, but her competition was more fierce, with Brand better able to glue herself to the world champion’s wheel than yesterday, and a handful of others getting in on the action over the rapid course.
World Cup leader Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado during CX World Cup Hoogerheide.
World Cup leader Alvarado had a bit of an off day as her back continues to bother her, made worse by a mechanical on the third lap, but it wasn’t all bad given her numerically certain overall lead.
Fem van Empel beating Blanka Vas in the sprint for victory at CX World Cup Hoogerheide.
By the final lap, Blanka Vas had caught back onto the two leaders, partly thanks to an overcooked corner by Brand, and the powerful young Hungarian took advantage of her rivals’ duelling on the run-in. She tried to take the lead on the drop down to the ‘stairway to heaven’, but had to settle for second wheel behind a wily Van Empel, who led the way through the off-camber section and onto the foot of the start/finish climb. Sensing the power on her wheel, the world champion did not hesitate once she hit the tarmac, accelerating hard. Vas didn’t or couldn’t respond quick enough, and despite at least matching Van Empel’s pace, there was not enough road for the 22-year-old, who was nevertheless able to celebrate her first podium finish since breaking her collarbone early in the season.
Fem van Empel celebrates winning CX World Cup Hoogerheide.
A world champion is as a world champion does. Confident.
Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado accepts the jersey and trophy of overall CX World Cup winner after CX World Cup Hoogerheide.
It was an anonymous 15th on the day for Alvarado, but it did little damage to her overall World Cup lead, which she wins over Puck Pieterse by 40 points. Her young compatriot also had an uncharacteristic off day, finishing eighth after slipping off the pace around the halfway point.
A wide view of the elite men's start at CX World Cup Hoogerheide, showing the moment of a crash deep in the pack as the race got underway.
Despite the absence of ‘Big Three’ members Van Aert and Pidcock, there was a palpable excitement on the elite men’s start line, which might have contributed to the first of many crashes of the race as a bunching-up in the pack sent a couple of riders groundward.
Two Crelan-Corendon riders pick themselves up off the ground after a crash on the startline at CX World Cup Hoogerheide.
Crelan-Corendon duo Mees Hendrikx (7) and Witse Meeussen seemed most affected by the incident (both were able to finish despite the holdup, finishing 21st and 41st respectively), though several others were delayed, including Michael Vanthourenhout.
European champion Michael Vanthourenhout during CX World Cup Hoogerheide.
Vanthourenhout racked up one of the fastest lap times of the day, setting an average speed of over 27 km/h. Unfortunately, he was way down at the time after suffering more than his fair share of bad luck, getting delayed by the kerfuffle at the start, then being taken out by a tumbling Ryan Kamp over the planks on the second lap, just as the pair were in poking distance of the large front group. That he went from deep in the 30s to 14th at the end of the race ought to factor as one of the rides of the day, and definitely marks the European champ as one to look out for in the podium battle next weekend.
Joris Nieuwenhuis leads the front group during CX World Cup Hoogerheide.
Joris Nieuwenhuis did the national champ’s jersey justice on home soil, leading the group early in the customary fast and furious start.
World champion Mathieu van der Poel runs the stairs during CX World Cup Hoogerheide.
Van der Poel was lined up on the second row alongside Vanthourenhout, but was quickly among the highest-ranked starters, he, Iserbyt, Nieuwenhuis, Nys and Ronhaar forming the lead group after three laps.
Mathieu van der Poel descends between two Baloise Trek Lions riders during CX World Cup Hoogerheide.
Thibau Nys (no. 13 , leading Van der Poel) looked on scintillating form on the Hoogerheide course where he won the U23 world title 51 weeks ago. The young Belgian prodigy was the only rider who could respond when Van der Poel attacked on lap 6 having already put his nose in the wind more than once. He reacted again when the world champion made his decisive move in the final lap, but Nys was unable to grab hold of the wheel this time. An unfortunate fall after the bridge then meant that he was re-joined by the chasers, leaving a statement runner-up finish in doubt.
World champion Mathieu van der Poel runs up the stairs during CX World Cup Hoogerheide.
Van der Poel on the ‘stairway to heaven’.
World champion Mathieu van der Poel celebrates winning CX World Cup Hoogerheide.
Win number zillion for the world champion, and a double weekend, as behind him Nieuwenhuis climbs to second having attacked his fellow chasers.
Head-on shot of Pim Ronhaar out-sprinting Thibau Nys and Eli Iserbyt at CX World Cup Hoogerheide.
The sprint à trois for the last remaining podium spot was won by Pim Ronhaar, devastating his self-flagellating teammate Nys who said afterwards, “I was really disappointed, but apart from that I gained a lot of confidence … It’s very nice to ride around with that feeling and I look forward to next week. But I think I should have been on the podium with these legs. I can only blame myself.”
Eli Iserbyt accepts the jersey and trophy of overall CX World Cup winner after CX World Cup Hoogerheide.
Despite the higher finish of second-overall Joris Nieuwenhuis, Iserbyt’s fifth place was enough to cement his second elite overall World Cup title.
World champion Mathieu van der Poel celebrates winning CX World Cup Hoogerheide.
A closer look at that unusual victory salute. Van der Poel explained afterwards that, should he win, “I had the honour of announcing the gender [for my cousin’s baby]. I had to do that if it was a girl, and give a thumbs up if it was a boy.” Congratulations, Mathieu’s cousin!

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