Racing 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.
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.
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 continued her consistent run on Thursday’s celebrated Duinencross. Sanne Cant also continues to ride high in the top 10 after a steady build throughout the season. 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. Alvarado entered a battle for second with Brand. 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. 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. 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. The combination of sand and mud made it another busy day for the pit crews at Koksijde. The series sponsor’s mascot, a giant rubber duck, watches as the elite men line up on the start line. Mathieu van der Poel was a picture of ‘chilled’ as he awaited starting orders. 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 didn’t have a wonderful day in the sand … … 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 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. Van der Poel vs. Ronhaar. 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. European champion Michael Vanthourenhout stayed with Van Aert, Van der Haar and Vermeersch before slipping back into eighth by the finish. 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 winning bike. 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. 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 had a great race, showing again that mud is happy hunting ground for the 24-year-old. 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. It was soon clear that Zoe Backstedt was the one to beat. 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. 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 of TDT-Unibet led the men’s field into the mud in the first lap. 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 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 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. 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. 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 had both to chase after the Brit ahead of him, and keep Nys at bay. 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. Mason and Wyseure, two of the season’s foremost underdogs, congratulate one another on the podium. He fought hard, but Thibau Nys just missed out on the podium. 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 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 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 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’s strong weekend went from good to better on her way to a career-best elite World Cup finish. Pieterse steadily picked her way through the competition until she found herself lodged between Van der Heijden and leader Brand. 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. 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. Victory number four in a row for Pieterse. Joris Nieuwenhuis led out-and-out favourite Mathieu van der Poel and the fast-starting Laurens Sweeck in the opening laps. 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. 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. 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. 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 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. Nys was far from the descent’s only victim on Sunday. But not Van der Poel. He made everything look easy despite admitting to dwindling form. A damn good bike rider and an accurate sign. 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. 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. What did you think of this story?
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