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Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Michael Vanthourenhout and Tom Pidcock during CX World Cup Benidorm.

Cyclocross gallery: All-star cast shows up for blockbuster racing in Benidorm

The stage was set for a thrilling double feature as the World Cup headed to Spain, and the last outing of the ‘Big Three’ lived up to billing.

Kit Nicholson
by Kit Nicholson 21.01.2024 Photography by
Kristof Ramon, Cor Vos
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As I watched Wout van Aert cross the finish line (with no saddle!) an hour after Fem van Empel overcame Puck Pieterse in the first of two fantastic battles, I was reminded of the immortal words of The Office’s Andy Bernard, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”

Dominance is one thing, a maybe not terrifically exciting thing, but when the dominant individuals bring up the level of their rivals and/or all turn up on the same top form on the very same day, you’re in for a treat.

That’s close to what happened in Benidorm this weekend. For two hours on Sunday afternoon, the world’s best cyclocross riders swapped the icy cold of northern Europe for the dusty warmth of the Costa Blanca and delivered some spectacular racing. 

There were a few exceptions, as there always will be. Shirin van Anrooij, third here last year, was sadly absent after injury brought her CX comeback to a premature end, and her Baloise Trek Lions teammates Pim Ronhaar – my 23/24 season MVP – and Joris Nieuwenhuis seemed a little off-colour despite strong starts in this 13th round, but everyone else in the all-star ensemble showed up and raced like they’d never get to race again.

Benidorm will be remembered as one of the most exciting, if not the very best race of the season, and that goes for both elite races, thanks in large part to the start lists. It was the last of big showdowns to which all the top names promised to show up: Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado would defend her tight grip on the World Cup leader’s jersey despite still nursing a back injury, alongside season-long rivals Puck Pieterse and Fem van Empel, not forgetting Lucinda Brand; while on the men’s side, the ‘Big Three’ were all there for the last time before Van Aert and Tom Pidcock turn to skinnier tyres, along with all the usual suspects, including Michael Vanthourenhout who was one of a very small number who chose to race back home in Zonnebeke on Saturday – and an even smaller number who lined up having already lifted a trophy this weekend.

Both start lists were enough to provoke a popping-candy thrill through your bones, even though there was still a very good chance that both elite races would have a familiarly predictable outcome – Fem van Empel and the so-far unbeaten Van der Poel would repeat their 2023 performances and take victory in the World Cup’s second-ever visit to Benidorm. However, a combination of the dynamic course, the great conditions, intense rivalries and good old-fashioned human failings that often come out when operating at or close to breaking point, made for a blockbuster event that might even begin to thaw the hearts of the most jaded followers of the sport.

These might just be the good old days. Long may they last.

The elite women's start at CX World Cup Benidorm.
After weeks and months in the mud, rain and snow, the UCI Cyclocross World Cup returned to the sunnier climes of Benidorm on the Costa Blanca for the second time after last year’s successful maiden voyage.
World champion Fem van Empel during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Fem van Empel was back to defend her 2023 title, this time in the rainbow jersey and with a truck-load of podiums in her back pocket. Along for the ride were two of this season’s biggest and most consistent competitors in Puck Pieterse and World Cup leader Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado.
Sanne Cant and Hélène Clauzel during CX World Cup Benidorm.
15-time (fifteen!) Belgian national champion Sanne Cant and her French equivalent Hélène Clauzel broke out their freshly minted national jerseys to race the penultimate World Cup round.
World champion Fem van Empel during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Van Empel, Pieterse and Alvarado had created a significant gap in no time.
Dutch national champion Lucinda Brand during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Lucinda Brand – recently crowned Dutch national champion for the third time in her career – led the charge in the chase group that floated between 20 and 30 seconds off the leaders from the first lap to the last.
Marie Schreiber during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Marie Schreiber was the subject of one of the photos of the day on her way to eighth.
World champion Fem van Empel leads Puck Pieterse and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado during CX World Cup Benidorm.
The three leaders kept driving through the fast and dusty terrain.
World Cup leader Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Alvarado has been nursing a recurring back injury in the past few weeks, just as Pieterse and Van Empel have been recovering from training injuries. The World Cup leader looked to be racing conservatively in the early laps, at least once she knew the podium was in reach and therefore a consolidation of her standing was eminently possible, but as the race wore on, it became clear she was not going to sit up.
Puck Pieterse during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Despite Alvarado’s tenacity throughout the course, Puck Pieterse and Van Empel were more closely matched on the climb where the difference could be made, making the two of them look like better bets by the end.
Blanka Vas during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Blanka Vas was hard to spot in her trade team kit, but she raced hard and ended a strong fifth, her best World Cup result of the season.
Zoe Bäckstedt during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Zoe Bäckstedt is a powerful starter, and the 19-year-old stuck with the chasers on the fast and furious course until ultimately finishing tenth.
Puck Pieterse leads world champion Fem van Empel during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Pieterse went into attack mode in the closing laps, distancing Alvarado …
World champion Fem van Empel celebrates winning CX World Cup Benidorm.
… but Van Empel had the brains and brawn to beat her compatriot with a crafty dive through one of the last corners, putting her on the front foot on the short finishing straight where Pieterse was unable to pass her.
Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado in the World Cup leader's jersey at CX World Cup Benidorm.
Alvarado was forced to chase after Pieterse attacked on the final climb, but third was enough to confirm her overall lead with one round still to go.
Laurens Sweeck during CX World Cup Benidorm.
In the men’s race, it was Laurens Sweeck who smashed the start, as is so often the case.
Pim Ronhaar leads a chase group during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Pim Ronhaar also nailed a solid first few laps, as did local (Spanish) rider Felipe Orts. But both struggled a little with the pace as the race went on.
World champion Mathieu van der Poel during CX World Cup Benidorm.
At the other end of the scale, Mathieu van der Poel had a very unfortunate start with a dropped chain in one of the first corners, which forced the world champion to chase from somewhere around P28.
Wout van Aert leads Eli Iserbyt through a corner during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Meanwhile, Wout van Aert was keeping the pressure on at the front, the tantalising chance of a first World Cup win of the season dangling before him, not to mention a first victory over Van der Poel.
Dutch national champion Joris Nieuwenhuis during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Joris Nieuwenhuis has had a spectacular season so far, but he didn’t seem to enjoy the pace, dust, or warmth of Benidorm, finishing 13th after an attritional hour on the tools.
Tom Pidcock during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Tom Pidcock made his return to CX after illness, and brought some brilliant form with him.
World champion Mathieu van der Poel leads Wout van Aert during CX World Cup Benidorm.
The ‘Big Three’ was ultimately reunited after Van der Poel’s extraordinary chase.
Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Michael Vanthourenhout and Tom Pidcock during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Michael Vanthourenhout and Thibau Nys made it a group of five at the front, briefly.
Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert during CX World Cup Benidorm.
An iconic pair.
World Cup leader Eli Iserbyt and Spanish national champion Felipe Orts during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Like Alvarado, Iserbyt had the dual purpose of racing for a result and defending his lead, which he managed to do with fourth on the day as second-place Nieuwenhuis was unable to better his rival – the gap is within the scope of being overturned though ….
Lars van der Haar during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Wout van Aert and Michael Vanthourenhout during CX World Cup Benidorm.
A coming together of the front and chase group in the penultimate lap brought ten riders into contention, but a flurry of activity – including a poorly timed crash for the world champion – led to Van Aert and Vanthourenhout going clear after the crucial road climb.
World champion Mathieu van der Poel during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Van der Poel said later that he’d misjudged the integrity of a rather solid pole that he thought would provide a safe guide through a corner, but instead sent him sliding across the sand and left his shoulder a little bruised.
Tom Pidcock during CX World Cup Benidorm.
All things considered, Pidcock had a pretty good race, chasing from third row at the start, up to the lead group and eventually finishing ninth.
Wout van Aert and Michael Vanthourenhout in the lead during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Neither Van Aert nor Vanthourenhout – who had to get up at 4am to catch a flight to Spain after winning Exact Cross Zonnebeke on Saturday – packed their poker faces.
Thibau Nys during CX World Cup Benidorm.
Thibau Nys enjoyed one of the races of the season, riding hard with the best of them to land on the podium.
Wout van Aert celebrates winning CX World Cup Benidorm.
Van Aert attacked Vanthourenhout on the final climb, giving the Visma-Lease A Bike rider a reasonable gap, but then the barriers approached and after a moment intended to limit risks by dismounting and running the planks, Van Aert found himself on the ground, his sunglasses gone, and as he flung himself onto his bike for the second time, he kicked his already dislodged saddle into the fence. This bizarre sequence of events brought Vanthourenhout within a few seconds of the lead and left Van Aert to race the final few-hundred metres with no seat. He managed it though, and perhaps it even made his signature celebration all the easier.
Mathieu van der Poel with reporters after CX World Cup Benidorm.
Van der Poel’s race was over as soon as he hit the dirt, but it was still a remarkable chase that brought the world champion to fifth across the line.
Wout van Aert smiles after winning CX World Cup Benidorm.
Finally.

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