Michael Vanthourenhout shown mirrored in a glass-walled building while racing at the CX World Cup in Maasmichelen.

Cyclocross gallery: Mirror images at Maasmechelen

All the action from a busy week, plus: is racing more exciting with the sport's superstars, or without them?

Joe Lindsey
by Joe Lindsey 29.10.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
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Cyclocross season is starting to heat up. Metaphorically, of course – it is late October. But after a North American sojourn to start the World Cup, racing returned to the comfortable environs of Europe to start the Superprestige series last weekend. You know: large and, um, jovial blue-collar crowds; courses that make creative use of big earthen berms; and certainly those familiar banners for all manner of construction products and Belgian beers and of course your drankenspecialist, Prik & Tik.

This week brought the return of cyclocross weather, starting at Tuesday’s Nacht van Woerden and going right through Sunday’s sloppy World Cup at Maasmechelen. Another familiar routine: the night-and-day racing when certain riders are or are not present – and no, we don’t mean the golden afternoon light of Saturday’s Superprestige versus the under-the-lights of Woerden.

It’s hard to miss the contrast in the racing when the sport’s biggest names are present versus sitting it out. That’s been a major aspect of men’s cyclocross the past few years: when any time only one of the “Big Three” of Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, or Tom Pidcock is racing, the result is generally pretty predictable. Two usually provides an entertaining matchup, and three is a treat. Last season and the start of this one has seen a similar dynamic in women’s racing, where it’s Fem van Empel and Puck Pieterse typically running and riding away with the race.

After putting in a solid appearance at the World Cup opener in Waterloo, Pieterse – who raced a full World Cup mountain bike season that ended only in late September – announced she was taking a well-deserved break from competition until late November. That’s left reigning World Champion Van Empel firmly in control of the action, and this week’s trio of races was a sterling example of the phenomenon.

Van Empel rode away to wins on Tuesday at Nacht van Woerden and Sunday’s World Cup. In her absence at Saturday’s Ruddervoorde stop on the Superprestige series, it was Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado locked in a tight battle with Annemarie Worst for much of the race, and a tighter 17-second gap at the finish. It’s early days in the season, but so far Pieterse is the only one able to stay within about half a minute of Van Empel.

On the men’s side, Van der Poel, Van Aert, and Pidcock have yet to pin on a number this season. And instead of a typical lap-two move by Van der Poel that sees him ride clear in a snoozer, we’ve been treated to tight, tactical racing. Sunday’s Maasmechelen event was typical of what we’ve seen this season. Multiple riders were in contention for nearly the entire race before Lars van der Haar broke clear with two to go after a pileup behind him in an off-camber 180. And his 21-second margin of victory to Eli Iserbyt was the largest of any major race this year. Those two riders have swept three of the four World Cup and Superprestige rounds so far, but a dab of a pedal here or a slightly different line up a steep berm there and things could be much different.

This is, emphatically, not a criticism of riders like Van der Poel or Van Empel. Cyclocross’s Big Three men and Big Two women racers have star power that no one else in the sport matches. And they’re just doing their jobs when they do suit up: win (it’s also not a dig at the riders who make CX the focus of their seasons). It’s just that it’s undeniable that their presence changes races. And while I eagerly await the season debuts of Van der Poel, Van Aert, and Pidcock, I’m also enjoying the suspenseful, evenly matched sport that men’s elite cyclocross is without them, and looking forward to the return of the dynamic, barrier-hopping Pieterse.

Note: our cyclocross coverage this season will be very gallery-and-commentary focused, mostly on major series like the World Cup and Superprestige. That means it’s going to have a gap or two. Essentially: when there’s a lot of racing, like this week, we’ll be On It. But times like next weekend, where there’s a lone X20 round at Oudenaarde, we won’t have the depth and quality of images available to support a gallery.

Fem van Empel runs her bike during the Nacht van Woerden. She has a headlight for better visibility in the night race.
We start you off under the lights at Nacht van Woerden. Several years ago, Trek riders ran Bontrager lights in warmups to promote the products, but Fem van Empel A) rides a Cervelo and B) just wanted some extra illumination.
Inge van der Heijden leads van Empel through a corner at Nacht van Woerden.
Inge van der Heijden hung tough at the start, leading Van Empel in the early going.
Van Empel cruises to a solo victory. At the finish, there's no one in sight on the road behind her.
But ultimately, Van Empel powered away from the field in what’s becoming a significant theme this season.
Ryan Kamp tries to straighten out his bike after the rear wheel slips sideways.
The race was also one of the first this season with really greasy conditions; Ryan Kamp contemplates his tread choice as he gets a little slideways.
Laurens Sweeck leans his bike around a corner at Nacht van Woerden, steering away from the course tape.
Former Belgian national champion Laurens Sweeck has had a relatively quiet start to the season so far, but his form is starting to come in; he was a close second at Woerden.
Lars van der Haar throws up his arms in victory celebration at Nacht van Woerden. Sweeck can be seen just behind, out of focus.
But it was Baloise-Trek’s Lars van der Haar who got the win.
The men's peloton runs a set of stairs at the Superprestige round in Ruddervoorde, Belgium.
From Woerden it’s a few hours southwest by car to Ruddervoorde, just outside Bruges. Honestly, the traffic jams were probably worse on the steps for the men’s field.
Michael Vanthourenhout rides alone in a straightaway at Ruddervoorde. He's watched by a massive crowd.
Belgium, cyclocross, big crowds. The usual.
Cameron Mason climbs a hill at Ruddervoorde, chased by Felipe Orts.
One to keep an eye on: British national champion Cameron Mason switched kit from Trinity to Cyclocross Rads this season; he had seven top-10 finishes last season and so far this season he’s not finished OUT of the top 10.
Eli Iserbyt crests a steep berm at Ruddervoorde. He's still clipped in and is past the top, while behind, Lars van der Haar is partly off the bike, a foot down and struggling to maintain momentum.
Eli Iserbyt cleans the berm while Lars van der Haar dabs. Sometimes, that’s the difference.
Iserbyt gives a victory salute as confetti showers around him. Behind, van der Haar is seen well back and out of focus.
And it was Saturday, as it’s confetti cannon for Eli, while Van der Haar is left to wonder what if.
del Carmen Alvarado runs out of the finish of the sand pit.
Turns out, it was del Carmen Alvarado who came away with the W, while Vanthourenhout was third on the day.
Del Carmen Alvarado collapses on the grass after winning Ruddervoorde. Only her head and shoulders are shown and her face, with a slight smile, is flecked with mud.
Cyclocross: it feels so good when you stop.
Fem Van Empel tries to straighten out her bike going up a hill at the World Cup Maasmechelen. She has an intense expression.
Sunday it was back to the Van Empel show at Maasmechelen.
Marie Schreiber plows through a mud puddle at Maasmechelen. Water sprays sideways off her front wheel.
Marie Schreiber “enjoys” the racing at Maasmechelen. Keep an eye on Schreiber in road and CX. She’s just 20 and is learning from the best in women’s racing at SD Worx. She was fifth on the day.
Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado is seen mirrored in a glass-wall building at Maasmchelen.
Fem van Empel points to her Jumbo-logo glove as she holds up four fingers, counting off her wins this year.
But in the end, it was inevitable, as Van Empel counted off her fifth straight victory this season. She’s not lost a cyclocross race since January 15th, last season.
Pim Ronhaar leads a line of riders through soupy mud at Maasmechelen.
Baloise-Trek’s young-talent-not-named-Nys, Pim Ronhaar, seemed happy as a pig-in-s__t as he led the first first few laps of the race.
Eli Iserbyt leads a line of riders at Maasmechelen, past a glass-wall building. His head is turned toward his reflection, whether admiring his excellent form or checking the position of Niels Vandeputte behind is unclear.
Form check! Looking good, Eli. Feeling good, Billy Ray.
Iserbyt, Laurens Sweeck, Thibau Nys, and Felipe Orts struggle to run up a steep, muddy berm at Maasmechelen. They're shown from behind, with fans to their right.
Treacherous runups were the big difficulty at Maasmechelen, as coursesetters enjoyed sending the racers up at off-camber angles.
Lars van der Haar crests another berm. He's shown from the front, all alone.
Ultimately, it was Van der Haar who got clear with two to go as the race balled up behind him in a 180° corner.
A close-up photo of Thibau Nys. His face is muddy and he's shown in profile, looking away with a kind of puzzled expression.
For the second week in a row, Thibau Nys was left to wonder what-if as a last-lap crash dashed his hopes. He slipped from fighting for second to eighth. Worse off was Michael Vanthourenhout, who was running in the top five late race before he stopped. He did not appear to crash and seemed physically unhurt, but was a DNF on the day.

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