Racing Cyclocross gallery: Double rainbows
The first half of the Kerstperiode cyclocross calendar wraps up with sprints and surprises in our bumper gallery.
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.
Results Next races Diegem Superprestige (December 28) Azencross Loenhout (December 29) Hulst World Cup (December 30) Grand Prix Sven Nys (January 1) 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. 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. 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 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. In the men’s race it was the Wout and Mathieu show, as the pair quickly outclassed the competition. 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 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. 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. 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. 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). By contrast, Van Aert got away clean in the opening, only to hit traffic and bobbles exiting the beach section. 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. 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. 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. What can you do, but wave? 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. Just behind, Puck Pieterse and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado were locked in a duel of teammates. 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. 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. For the 11th time this year (and in her first 11 starts) Van Empel was the one to raise her hands at the finish. Made the trip to Gavere? Thanks for coming, but please, no outside food or drink allowed. 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. Van Empel isn’t used to another rider dictating the race, and was 15 seconds down at the end of the opening lap. Pieterse continued to turn the screws on the second and third lap spinning Del Carmen Alvarado off to go solo. 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. Speaking of rivals and respect. Traffic is hell even when you’re a World Champion. But again, it didn’t take long (less than one lap, in fact) for Van der Poel to get clear. Van Aert plows a lonely furrow in second on the long, leg-sapping climb. 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). 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 put up a valiant fight for fifth. 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. Speaking of roadies, Florian Vermeersch sighting on Wednesday at the Heusden-Zolder Superprestige round. 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. Van Aert had game face on for his first Superprestige round of the season. Eli Iserbyt wasn’t ready to let it go without a fight. As the season-long Superprestige series leader, he’s also chasing points. But Van Aert wasn’t to be denied the opportunity in a race Van der Poel skipped. 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. The feeling that never gets old. 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. 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 Schrieber comes just slightly undone. While Van Empel displays impeccable form. 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. Back on top. What did you think of this story?
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