The leaders of the elite men's race during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.

Cyclocross gallery: Drama in the dunes

Van der Poel maintains his perfect record as cyclocross hits some of the most iconic events of the season.

Kit Nicholson
by Kit Nicholson 07.01.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos, Kristof Ramon
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Road racing has begun in the Southern Hemisphere, but mud, rain and dirty sand dunes still reign in Europe. For at least a month longer anyway, before gritty conditions of a different variety take centre stage during the Spring Classics that alight the early road season.

There’s been barely any let-up since the rammed Kerstperiode over Christmas and New Year, and arguably the races we’ve seen this week have been some of the most appealing of the lot. Even relative newcomers to CX can’t fail to recognise the spectacle of events like Duinencross Koksijde (a.k.a. “Cyclocross of the Dunes”) and the iconic Zonhoven with its magnificent sandy bowl that fills with fans and frites once or twice a year.

Sure, there were some familiar names topping the standings at the end of each hour of racing – arise Fem van Empel and the transcendent talent of Mathieu van der Poel – but the parcours of these events alone are worth tuning in for, never more so than Zonhoven where the first entry into the iconic ‘Pit’ always elicits a stirring roar from the crowd gathered in its base and the surrounding slopes. And between the two headline events was the mudfest of Gullegem where the season’s most plucky underdogs, or those due a change of luck, got their chance.

It’s been a solid few days of racing to well and truly bring the festive block to a close before the various National Championships next weekend, then the last two rounds of the World Cup, before we finally head to the World Championships in Tábor, Czech Republic at the start of February.

The elite women run up a sand dune early in X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross as a large inflatable duck looks on.
At Duinencross Koksijde, the elite women race onto the first significant dune of the race, Lucinda Brand leading, but Fem van Empel coming up the outside, all under the watchful gaze of a mahoosive inflatable duck.
Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado runs with her bike on her shoulder during X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado continued her consistent run on Thursday’s celebrated Duinencross.
Belgian national champion Sanne Cant runs around a corner in the sand during X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
Sanne Cant also continues to ride high in the top 10 after a steady build throughout the season.
CX world champion Fem van Empel rides through the sand during X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
But Fem van Empel was also on the start line and looking sprightly despite continuing to rehab her various crash injuries, dominating her rivals in the technical and power sectors.
Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado during X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
Alvarado entered a battle for second with Brand.
CX world champion Fem van Empel mounts the bridge during X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
The world champion didn’t have a perfect race, taking an unfortunate tumble while trying to remount a bike in the pits, but Van Empel still held almost 40 seconds over her nearest rivals by the finish.
CX world champion Fem van Empel sits up to celebrate victory at X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
The Dutchwoman took her 14th win at Koksijde to cap off a busy racing block. Van Empel will now take a break from competition, heading out to a Visma-Lease a Bike training camp in Spain before returning to the start line for the World Cup in Benidorm (21 January), where she’ll resume her build towards a World Championship defence.
Lucinda Brand and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado sprint for second place at X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
The battle between Brand and Alvarado was fierce, culminating in an all-out sprint for the line, where Brand edged her compatriot to take silver.
Team staff and helpers wash bikes behind the pits during X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
The combination of sand and mud made it another busy day for the pit crews at Koksijde.
The large inflatable duck that announces the X20 Badkamers sponsor behind the start line at X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross, Wout van Aert and Thibau Nys out of focus in the foreground.
The series sponsor’s mascot, a giant rubber duck, watches as the elite men line up on the start line.
CX world champion Mathieu van der Poel sits relaxed on his top tube on the start line of X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
Mathieu van der Poel was a picture of ‘chilled’ as he awaited starting orders.
Mathieu van der Poel corners through sand during X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
As always, it did not take long for the world champion to take over from early charger Laurens Sweeck and forge a path ahead of his rivals in front of a huge Koksijde crowd.
Thibau Nys during X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
Thibau Nys didn’t have a wonderful day in the sand …
Dutch national champion Lars van der Haar grabs hold of a barrier to pull himself through the sand during X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
… but the young prodigy’s teammates enjoyed another action-packed day out. Lars van der Haar showed for the nth time that he has the skills and power to compete, if not with Van der Poel, then most certainly with Wout van Aert, with whom he battled for much of the race alongside Gianni Vermeersch. There was a particularly impressive dune climb that he completed on the pedals where everyone else, including Van der Poel, had been forced into a run.
Wout van Aert during X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
Wout van Aert did as Wout van Aert (circa. 2023/4 season) does and rode a steady race, sticking with a small group until he found an extra gear towards the end. He was unable, however, to keep Pim Ronhaar from slipping off the leash and riding into the gap between Van der Poel and the Van Aert group.
CX world champion Mathieu van der Poel during X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
Van der Poel vs. Ronhaar.
Pim Ronhaar during X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
I’m running out of superlatives for this young man. All I can say is I am delighted that this relative underdog – a status we can no longer attribute to Ronhaar as one of the most successful riders of the season – has arisen as one of the most watched men in the elite field.
Wout van Aert, Michael Vanthourenhout and Lars van der Haar crest the bridge during X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
European champion Michael Vanthourenhout stayed with Van Aert, Van der Haar and Vermeersch before slipping back into eighth by the finish.
CX world champion Mathieu van der Poel accepts high-fives from the crowd as he wins X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
Van der Poel meanwhile, stayed clear for another dominant victory, leading Ronhaar home by 1:20. 23 seconds after the young Baloise Trek Lions rider was Wout van Aert whose late surge looked set to threaten Ronhaar’s runner-up finish, but the 22-year-old held on for another fantastic result.
The Canyon Inflite bike of X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross winner Mathieu van der Poel hanging from a bar in the podium area after the race.
The winning bike.
Wout van Aert after X2O Trofee Koksijde - Vlaamse Duinencross.
A familiar expression on Van Aert’s face, but the Belgian keeps asserting that he’s less interested in beating Van der Poel in the mud and sand than he is doing the same over the cobbles in a few months’ time.
Inge van der Heijden leads the elite women during Hexia Cyclocross Gullegem.
The weekend brought the cyclocross world to Gullegem for a very very muddy day out. Inge van der Heijden looked in her element from the start, but Zoe Backstedt was closely marking her wheel.
Aniek van Alphen during Hexia Cyclocross Gullegem.
Aniek van Alphen had a great race, showing again that mud is happy hunting ground for the 24-year-old.
US national champion Clara Honsinger during Hexia Cyclocross Gullegem.
Clara Honsinger was making only her second European appearance of the season after a strong North American racing block. She followed up 5th at last weekend’s GP Sven Nys with 6th in Gullegem.
British national champion Zoe Backstedt during Hexia Cyclocross Gullegem.
It was soon clear that Zoe Backstedt was the one to beat.
Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado leaves the pits carrying her bike during Hexia Cyclocross Gullegem.
Meanwhile, World Cup and Superprestige leader Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado had a bad day in the mud, eventually pulling out after suffering lower back pain that would also rule her out of Sunday’s Zonhoven World Cup, where she might have come close to sealing the World Cup lead once and for all.
Zoe Backstedt gives a thumbs up as she wins Hexia Cyclocross Gullegem.
It was a big win for 20-year-old Backstedt, her first since taking the U23 European title, and the first elite victory in mainland Europe of her career.
Lander Loockx leads the elite men's field in the first lap of Hexia Cyclocross Gullegem.
Lander Loockx of TDT-Unibet led the men’s field into the mud in the first lap.
Gianni Vermeersch, Thibau Nys and Michael Vanthourenhout run with their bikes down a steep muddy ramp during Hexia Cyclocross Gullegem.
Michael Vanthourenhout (far right) soon moved up along with Thibau Nys and Gianni Vermeersch, the latter two briefly getting tangled up over a muddy dike.
Joran Wyseure leads Gianni Vermeersch into splashing mud during Hexia Cyclocross Gullegem.
Joran Wyseure and Gianni Vermeersch briefly went off the front in the opening lap, along with Felipe Orts, with Thibau Nys and Vanthourenhout chasing furiously.
Zdenek Štybar during Hexia Cyclocross Gullegem.
Zdenek Štybar continued to build towards a home World Championships with 25th in Gullegem, carrying a light-hearted approach with him which came in handy after being sent base over apex in a pitted corner.
European champion Michael Vanthourenhout covered in mud during Hexia Cyclocross Gullegem.
Vanthourenhout rejoined the front at the end of the first lap, and by the half-way point, the European champion was solo with a decent gap.
British national champion Cameron Mason enters a muddy puddle during Hexia Cyclocross Gullegem.
After a characteristically steady start, Cameron Mason found his way to the chase group before attacking through his favoured terrain. As the race progressed, the field became ever more scattered, lone rider chasing lone rider through the muddy sludge, Mason pursuing Vanthourenhout, himself being chased by Wyseure, then Nys, then Loockx, Orts, Adams, Vermeersch, etc.
Joran Wyseure during Hexia Cyclocross Gullegem.
Joran Wyseure had both to chase after the Brit ahead of him, and keep Nys at bay.
European champion Michael Vanthourenhout celebrates winning Hexia Cyclocross Gullegem, covered in splashes of mud.
Up front, Michael Vanthourenhout held on to take victory by 15 seconds, regaining the top step for the first time since the European Championships, where incidentally, Mason also finished second. Since then, Vanthourenhout has had a run of consistent finishes punctuated by bad luck, including a dislocated shoulder in Kortrijk that seemed to set the Belgian back a little. That said, he’s only finished outside the top 10 once in the eleven races he’s finished since then.
Cameron Mason and Joran Wyseure clasp hands in mutual congratulation on the podium after Hexia Cyclocross Gullegem.
Mason and Wyseure, two of the season’s foremost underdogs, congratulate one another on the podium.
Thibau Nys hangs his head as he crosses the line in fourth at Hexia Cyclocross Gullegem.
He fought hard, but Thibau Nys just missed out on the podium.
The huge crowd in the famous pit during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
Sunday saw the annual pilgrimage to Zonhoven and its iconic ‘Pit’, the arena-like sandy crater that turns the enthusiastic thrill of the massed crowds into a resonating cacophony of noise. It’s one of the races of the season and this year marks the anti-penultimate event of the UCI World Cup (Benidorm comes in two weeks, then Hoogerheide hosts the finale on 28 January).
Puck Pieterse leads Laura Verdonschot up a steep climb during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
Puck Pieterse was busy from the gun, but her early push was stalled by a rear wheel puncture after the first passage of the sandpit arena.
Lucinda Brand during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
Lucinda Brand saw an opportunity to get ahead and surged into the lead, powering around the fast course solo while Pieterse was forced to chase from low down in the top 10 positions after a bike change.
Zoe Backstedt during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
Zoe Backstedt was still looking good after Saturday’s victory in the mud, the young Brit leading the chase after Brand ahead of Inge van der Heijden and Marie Schreiber (the Luxembourger was forced to DNF later in the race after a couple of hard and fast crashes).
Inge van der Heijden during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
Inge van der Heijden’s strong weekend went from good to better on her way to a career-best elite World Cup finish.
Puck Pieterse during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
Pieterse steadily picked her way through the competition until she found herself lodged between Van der Heijden and leader Brand.
Under-23 World Cup leader Leonie Bentveld during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
With Backstedt up ahead, Leonie Bentveld was a key player in the race within a race, not only going after another top result among elite competition, but also defending her U23 World Cup lead from Backstedt who is breathing down her neck with two rounds to go.
Lucinda Brand during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
Despite Pieterse’s fast ascent through the placings following her early puncture, Brand looked unstoppable as the early laps ticked by. However, disaster struck in the third lap when the former world champion crashed hard in one of the fast but relatively innocuous sections, landing awkwardly on her arm and face, and it was immediately pretty clear she’d be unable to continue. As Pieterse charged past and into the lead, an emotional Brand left the course on foot clutching her bloody nose.
Dutch national champion high-fives the crowd along the finishing straight as she rides to victory at UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
Victory number four in a row for Pieterse.
Joris Nieuwenhuis rides out of the iconic 'pit', filled with an enthusiastic crowd, during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
Joris Nieuwenhuis led out-and-out favourite Mathieu van der Poel and the fast-starting Laurens Sweeck in the opening laps.
The leaders of the elite men's race during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
The leading trio was soon joined by the on-form Pim Ronhaar who went straight to the front of what became a seven-rider group by the end of the third lap.
UCI World Cup leader Eli Iserbyt follows Dutch national champion Lars van der Haar during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
That Eli Iserbyt was able to tag onto the back of the lead group for even a few seconds was remarkable given the week he’s had, including a hospital visit to treat dehydration after he was floored by a stomach bug. The World Cup leader rode his own pace and was able to score a sixth-place finish to defend his overall lead, albeit by an eminently closable margin for second-place Nieuwenhuis with two rounds to go.
Mathieu van der Poel leads Laurens Sweeck during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
If it wasn’t Van der Poel we were talking about, his fiddling about in second wheel for the first three laps might have seemed like an opportunity for his rivals, but he was just biding his time and attempting to warm up. Sure enough, as Ronhaar led the lead group up the finishing straight at the end of the third lap, the world champion leaned down to tighten his shoes, a sure sign of what was to come.
CX world champion Mathieu van der Poel leads the race solo during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
It’s hard to state with certainty what happened next based on what we were shown, but at the start of the fourth lap, Van der Poel dropped to the back of the group taking Ronhaar with him – perhaps to box in someone he saw as a threat? – and then as Emiel Verstrynge (one of three Crelan-Corendon riders in the group) hit the front, Van der Poel launched his attack from the back and plunged into the lead in the snaking turns that led to the pit.
Thibau Nys during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
Thibau Nys had made it into the front group alongside teammates Nieuwenhuis and Ronhaar, the Crelan-Corendon trio and the world champion, but the young rider was left behind when Van der Poel attacked, and then lost a little more time after a heavy fall on the fast descent through rutted sand.
A rider takes a tumble on the fast sandy descent into the pit during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
Nys was far from the descent’s only victim on Sunday.
Mathieu van der Poel descends through the sand during UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
But not Van der Poel. He made everything look easy despite admitting to dwindling form.
Mathieu van der Poel punches the air in celebration as he crosses the finish line victorious at UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
A damn good bike rider and an accurate sign.
Joris Nieuwenhuis leads Laurens Sweeck over the finish line in second and third at World Cup Zonhoven.
Nieuwenhuis had raced a smart race and preserved enough energy to better his rivals in the chase, outpacing Sweeck on the approach to the finishing straight.
An exhausted Pim Ronhaar in the finish area after UCI World Cup Zonhoven.
Pim Ronhaar was a picture of exhaustion after the finish, fourth place and the comforting presence of his team support staff the only rewards for a rollercoaster day out.

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