Cyclocross gallery: Double rainbows

The first half of the Kerstperiode cyclocross calendar wraps up with sprints and surprises in our bumper gallery.

Joe Lindsey
by Joe Lindsey 27.12.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos and Kristof Ramon
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Halfway through the annual Kerstperiode calendar of cyclocross racing, things are settling in a bit, but only just. Through four races so far, we’ve seen confirmation and consternation, sprints and surprises. All the big names have wins so far, but some more than others, and none more than the reigning World Champions, Fem van Empel and Mathieu van der Poel.

But are they going in opposite directions? Van der Poel has been untouchable in his brief return to the sport, simply riding away from the field early in each race to coast to victory. Not second-row starts, getting caught in traffic, or his own penchant for occasional unforced errors has been enough to unseat him. Even his redoubtable rival, Wout van Aert, confessed after the Antwerp World Cup round that it had been necessary to ride conservatively for second. His current form, he said, made it impossible to challenge a dominant Van der Poel for the win.

For her part, Van Empel’s perfect season has come to an end, with a loss at the Gavere World Cup round to her own rival, Puck Pieterse, even as the comfortable gaps she won by earlier in the season have started to shrink. Although she’s yet to lose a sprint, twice now in the past two weeks she’s been forced to contest one. That may bother her little; her carefully planned season is constructed around one major goal: defending her rainbow jersey, and even with a single loss now marring her string of firsts, you’d be foolish at this point to bet against her.

Next up: a second half of races that spans the gritty night ‘cross in Diegem on Thursday to the Grand Prix Sven Nys next Monday to ring in the New Year. Van Empel has no race plans on her web site as of now, but Van der Poel’s Zolder absence marks the only race he’ll miss, while Van Aert is back in action Saturday at the World Cup in Hulst, as is Tom Pidcock.


Next races

Lucinda Brand and Shirin van Anrooij battle for the early lead in a sandy section at the Zilvermeercross.
We start you off with last Friday’s Zilvermeercross in Mol, where it was the Baloise-Trek Lions show with former World Champion Lucinda Brand and Shirin van Anrooij at the head of affairs.
A Cyclocross Rads rider plows a sandy furrow past a quiet bike pit.
Zilvermeer’s sandy parcours made for a relatively quiet day in the pits, especially as compared to some of the other, muddy races on the weekend.
Lucinda Brand shoulders her bike to run in a sandy section.
It was Brand, who excels in both sand and off-the-bike sections, who got clear for the win, the third so far of a season that started only in mid-November.
Laura Verdonschot leads a line of riders in a portage section in the sand at Zilvermeercross.
Laura Verdonschot was briefly in second before Van Anrooij passed her back, but the Belgian held on for third and is displaying impressively consistent form in a string of top-five finishes.
Wout van Aert leads Mathiu van der Poel in a sandy beach section at Zilvermeercross. The two are framed in front of a line of fans, looking out from the bike pit with numbered stalls.
In the men’s race it was the Wout and Mathieu show, as the pair quickly outclassed the competition.
Mathieu van der Poel leads Wout van Aert in a sandy section of course.
But with Van der Poel on a transcendant level of form, nothing would get in the way of the World Champion’s run.
Van Aert fights to keep his bike upright and moving forward in the sand. He's leaning to his right to countersteer the bike as the front wheel slides.
Van Aert has admitted he’s entering this cyclocross season with his lowest level of form. That’s relative of course, and even an undercooked Van Aert is strong enough to finish well clear of the best of the rest.
Wout van Aert casts a sidelong glance at Mathieu van der Poel post-race. They're both standing with arms crossed waiting for the podium.
For the umpteenth time, no, Van Aert and Van der Poel aren’t really friends. “How can we have good feelings for each other and then go out and fight each other in a race,” Van Aert told l’Equipe once.
Van Aert and Van der Poel share a fist bump on the podium. Van Aert has an unreadable expresion while Van der Poel is slightly smiling.
But the rivalry between the two riders, born just four months apart and possessed of highly similar skillsets on the bike, is also marked by clear respect.
Joris Nieuwenhuis leads Mathieu van der Poel and Pim Ronhaar off the beach section in Antwerp World Cup.
On to Antwerp. Van der Poel had a bit of a rough start on lap one of the World Cup race, getting tangled up behind a crash that dropped him well back on the opening lap, along with Tom Pidcock (blurred at right).
Wout van Aert fights his bike and traffic in the sand at Antwerp.
By contrast, Van Aert got away clean in the opening, only to hit traffic and bobbles exiting the beach section.
Tom Pidcock rides in traffic at Antwerp. He has a faraway look in his eyes.
Pidcock has been something of a slow starter in most of his races this season, and Antwerp was no difference. But this time, he never seemed to get back on track, caught up in a pack of riders fighting for top-10 spots.
Mathieu van der Poel is all alone on the beach in front of line of speedboats.
Van der Poel, meanwhile, quickly made his way to the front and off it, with a blazingly fast third and fourth lap that saw him put nearly 40 seconds into the chase by the halfway point.
Michael Vanthourenhout dismounts on the beach. He gets off to the right side of the bike, which is different than the majority of riders, and is one of the only top crossers to do this.
Even without his European Champion jersey (and the stunning custom-painted Ridley he’s sadly NOT riding in this picture), Michael Vanthourenhout is instantly recognizable even at a distance for his distinctive drive-side dismount/remount technique.
Wout van Aert waves to the crowd at the finish in Antwerp as he looks up at the time board.
What can you do, but wave?
Fem van Empel leads Lucinda Brand on the beach in the early laps of the Antwerp World Cup.
Fem van Empel hadn’t raced in a week but seemed to pick right up in Antwerp where she left off in Herentals. She’s still sporting bandages from a hard training crash two weeks ago.
Puck Pieterse and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado shoulder their bikes in the sand.
Just behind, Puck Pieterse and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado were locked in a duel of teammates.
Sanne Cant leads a line of riders on the beach section.
The fierce early pace strung out the field behind, and even searching for the firmest, fastest lines along the water’s edge didn’t make much of a difference to the leaders’ dominance.
Lucinda Brand rides up the beach. She's al alone now.
Brand fought hard and kept it close-ish, but a blistering second half by Van Empel, who closed with her fastest lap of the race on the sixth and final ronde, was the difference.
Fem van Empel raises a hand in victory at Antwerp.
For the 11th time this year (and in her first 11 starts) Van Empel was the one to raise her hands at the finish.
Stacks of beer cans sit atop stone bollards at the entrance to the Gavere World Cup venue.
Made the trip to Gavere? Thanks for coming, but please, no outside food or drink allowed.
Puck Pieterse leads Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado on a long, grinding grass and mud section at Gavere.
It was Pieterse who struck out hard and fast on the opening lap in Gavere. Only her teammate, Del Carmen Alvarado, was able to match her infernal pace.
Fem van Empel chases, solo.
Van Empel isn’t used to another rider dictating the race, and was 15 seconds down at the end of the opening lap.
Pieterse rides clear of Del Carmen Alvarado.
Pieterse continued to turn the screws on the second and third lap spinning Del Carmen Alvarado off to go solo.
Fans at Gavere. ONe holds a large banner aloft that reads "Femtastic" and shows a cartoon Van Empel riding her bike in the superman position (legs out behind) with her tongue out.
Despite the support, Gavere was not Van Empel’s day; instead, Pieterse’s powerful performance put her rival on the second spot on the podium for the first time this season.
Fem van Empel hugs winner Puck Pieterse at the finish. Van Empel faces toward the camera and her eyes are closed.
Speaking of rivals and respect.
Mathieu van der Poel pushes his bike up a muddy section in traffic at Gavere.
Traffic is hell even when you’re a World Champion.
Van der Poel carves a muddy corner just before a runup.
But again, it didn’t take long (less than one lap, in fact) for Van der Poel to get clear.
Wout van Aert is alone chasing in the mud.
Van Aert plows a lonely furrow in second on the long, leg-sapping climb.
Tom Pidcock shoulders his bike in a muddy running section.
Pidcock continued his pattern of slow-ish starts and a methodical, if not always consistent, ride through the field. He’s yet to really go toe-to-toe with Van der Poel or Van Aert, but he also has three podiums in four races (including a win in Namur).
Baloise-Trek coach Sven Nys shouts at one of his riders.
Sven Nys’ Baloise-Trek team has been at the front almost every race this year, but even his best riders haven’t yet matched Van der Poel or Van Aert.
Lars van der Haar climbs a muddy section. He's shown in close-up, with warm soft light behind him.
Lars van der Haar put up a valiant fight for fifth.
Tim Merlier grins or grimaces as he climbs a muddy section at Gavere.
Kerstperiode is also a time when road racers show up for a little offseason adventure. Cyclocrosser-turned-sprinter Tim Merlier was on hand in Gavere and finished a respectable 17th.
Florian Vermeersch climbs out of the saddle.
Speaking of roadies, Florian Vermeersch sighting on Wednesday at the Heusden-Zolder Superprestige round.
Zdenek Stybar climbs past speed-blurred fans.
Multiple-time former World Champion Zdenek Stybar was also out, riding his final races in his Jayco-AlUla road team kit. he’s out of contract and reportedly plans to retire at the end of the cyclocross season.
Wout van Aert sits patiently behind Niels Vandeputte in a line of riders.
Van Aert had game face on for his first Superprestige round of the season.
Van Aert pushes the pace with Eli Iserbyt just behind.
Eli Iserbyt wasn’t ready to let it go without a fight. As the season-long Superprestige series leader, he’s also chasing points.
Van Aert descends a tricky section in the trees.
But Van Aert wasn’t to be denied the opportunity in a race Van der Poel skipped.
Van Aert races past a red retaining wall and iron railing in a service section of the Zolder circuit racetrack.
Whether in a city center like Diegem or a motorsports track like Circuit Zolder, cyclocross is a sport that often takes place in the margins, with courses that seek out quieter corners rather than the racetrack itself.
Van Aert raises his arms in victory as he crosses the line solo.
The feeling that never gets old.
Fem van Empel leads Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado up a singletrack climb in the woods.
With Monday’s World Cup winner Pieterse and Lucinda Brand sitting out the Zolder round of the Superprestige, it fell to Del Carmen Alvarado to battle Van Empel.
Sanne Cant drops in to a deeply rutted, sandy drop. Kristyna Zemanova is close on her wheel.
Zolder’s rutted drop-ins wouldn’t be out of place in a World Cup XC course, but Sanne Cant and Kristyna Zemanova do it on 32mm tires and no suspension.
Marie Schreiber sticks out her right leg to keep balance on a sandy, rutted descent.
Marie Schrieber comes just slightly undone.
Fem van Empel rails a descent, shown slightly overhead, next to a line of fans.
While Van Empel displays impeccable form.
Van Empel checks behind her in the sprint, but Del Carmen Alvarado has already shut it down.
She never quite shed Del Carmen Alvarado, and while Van Empel had the upper hand in the sprint she still checked behind her to be sure.
Van Empel raises her arms as she crosses the line just ahead of her rival.
Back on top.

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