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Wout van Aert during a very wet and muddy Exact Cross Essen.

Cyclocross gallery: Wout’s splashy season debut and a snowcross at Val di Sole

Mud and snow made for a thrilling weekend of CX action at Exact Cross Essen and the World Cup round in Italy.

Kit Nicholson
by Kit Nicholson 10.12.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
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Rarely do conditions play such a pivotal role as they did this weekend. That was always going to be the case with the World Cup heading to Val di Sole for the third edition of Snowcross, but as it turned out, Saturday’s Exact Cross Essen also got the memo.

If there’s ever a context in which rain on their parade is a good thing, it’s cyclocross. The key subject of Saturday’s parade? Wout van Aert.

The Belgian headed to Essen, his family in tow, for the first race of his truncated ’23-’24 CX season to find the course saturated after days of heavy rain which was yet to let up. The multiple world and national champion said beforehand that he’s never started a CX programme less well-prepared, and though the field was younger and less prolific than those who’d already headed out to Italy, Van Aert would not underestimate the fight on his hands. Though clearly his “bad” is still pretty damn good by ordinary standards.

Van Aert wasn’t the only rider eager to make a mark with the best riders absent, especially on the women’s side. After seemingly endless consecutive weekends of victories being shared between Fem van Empel, Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado and Lucinda Brand, this was an opportunity to take the spotlight in a near-primetime spot. That made for a hotly contested duel between Marion Norbert Riberolle and Aniek van Alphen. With the weather and deep mud factored in, it was one of the more exciting races of the season … so far.

Shortly after Riberolle emerged victorious, Van Aert and co. took to the course, and … well, I probably don’t have to tell you what happened.

Over in Val di Sole, freezing temperatures and a clear day made for tricky but beautiful conditions on the snow. In a sense, it was a shame not to see 2021 champion Fem van Empel on the start line, opting out along with in-form Lucinda Brand who’s at team camp this weekend, but in their absence, and with Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado still recovering from illness, there was a more-even playing field, and a great chance for Puck Pieterse to snatch that elusive first 2023 win with back-to-back Snowcross victories. What we got in the women’s race instead was one of the contests of the season so far, with relative underdog Manon Bakker (Crelan-Corendon) rising to the top after a last-lap duel.

The men’s race, by comparison, had an impressive but dominant outcome from one of the riders of the season in Joris Nieuwenhuis who won solo by over a minute. That said, it was a podium of firsts, as Nieuwenhuis – the only Baloise-Trek Lions rider in attendance – took his first elite World Cup title ahead of Niels Vandeputte and 22-year-old Joran Wyseure, who was maybe the happiest man across the line as he celebrated his first elite World Cup podium. What’s more, Sunday’s winner makes it five different champions from seven rounds of the men’s World Cup, something that’s never happened before at this point in the season.

The elite women's field leaves the start line at a very wet and muddy Exact Cross Essen.
Laura Verdonschot had a good start, seconds before the first splatters of mud landed on the elite women’s field at Exact Cross Essen.
Kiona Crabbé during a very wet and muddy Exact Cross Essen.
Relentless mud and rain quickly soaked through the riders, like Kiona Crabbé (Proximus-Cyclis-AlphaMotorhomes) who raced to a sturdy fifth place.
Marion Norbert Riberolle during a very wet and muddy Exact Cross Essen.
Marion Norbert Riberolle (Crelan-Corendon) found her first win of the season in the deep mud and torrential rain after a tight duel with last year’s Exact Cross Essen winner Aniek van Alphen (Cyclocross Reds).
Aniek van Alphen during a very wet and muddy Exact Cross Essen.
The top two were closely matched, the margin of victory just 12 seconds after Van Alphen was shaken free.
Laura Verdonschot during a very wet and muddy Exact Cross Essen.
The podium was completed by Laura Verdonschot (De Ceuster-Bonache).
Marion Norbert Riberolle celebrates victory at a very wet and muddy Exact Cross Essen.
Wout van Aert in the background as young fans pose for a photograph at a very wet and muddy Exact Cross Essen.
Wout van Aert was a major attraction in Essen, and his young fans were undeterred by the weather.
The elite men's front group ride through a muddy puddle during a very wet Exact Cross Essen.
Senne d'Hollander during a very wet and muddy Exact Cross Essen.
Zdenek Stybar and Wout van Aert during a very wet and muddy Exact Cross Essen.
Van Aert wasn’t the only ’23-’24 debutant who was returning to the mud after a post-road season break. Three-time CX world champion Zdeněk Štybar was also digging through the Essen mud in the first race of what is expected to be his curtain-call CX season before retiring following his home World Championships in Tábor, Czech Republic.
Wout van Aert during a very wet and muddy Exact Cross Essen.
Yorben Lauryssen bypasses the pits as Victor van de Putte goes in for a bike change during a very wet and muddy Exact Cross Essen.
21-year-old Yorben Lauryssen bypasses the pits, presumably fairly early in the race given the lack of brown paint covering his kit.
Wout van Aert during a very wet and muddy Exact Cross Essen, Jens Adams chasing in the background.
Jens Adams raced a good race behind Van Aert, ultimately finishing second, his best result of the season so far.
Thijs Aerts during a very wet and muddy Exact Cross Essen.
Behind the Wout van Aert show, there was an opportunity for the underdogs – the second string, if you will – to shine through the smears of mud, like Thijs Aerts who found his second consecutive podium finish after Thursday’s runner-up spot in Rucphen (behind Ryan Kamp, who was in Italy Saturday before the Sunday’s Val di Sole ‘Snowcross’ World Cup).
Wout van Aert during a very wet and muddy Exact Cross Essen.
Before his debut CX outing, Van Aert played down his form, telling media, “I am taking cyclocross very differently this year, and I don’t think I have ever started the ‘cross winter as badly as I have now.”
Wout van Aert celebrates winning a very wet and muddy Exact Cross Essen.
With the top-tier riders already in Italy preparing for Sunday’s World Cup round, the weather was arguably Van Aert’s biggest rival in Essen, but despite the thick mud and the early pressure of compatriot Jens Adams, the three-time world champion was able to chalk up his first win of the season by a confident margin.
Sara Casasola during UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
Sara Casasola had a strong start in Val di Sole, revelling at the chance to race on home, err, snow.
Kristyna Zemanová during UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
Kristyna Zemanová (Brilon Racing Team) was in her element, the Czech national champion taking an early lead after surging past World Cup leader Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado.
Sidney McGill during UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
Sidney McGill also seemed at home on the snow, the Canadian racing to fifth after four laps, by far her best result of the season since she hopped the Atlantic in mid-November.
Dutch national champion Puck Pieterse during UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
Puck Pieterse arrived in Trentino hoping to defend her 2022 title and double up on 2023 Val di Sole success after winning on her mountain bike this summer.
Czech national champion Kristyna Zemanová runs with her bike during UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
After a fantastic start, Zemanová began to slip back a little, but held on to finish just off the podium in fourth, the 20-year-old’s best World Cup result of the season, which will end with a home World Championships in Tabor, Czech Republic on 4th February.
Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado in the World Cup leader's jersey during UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
Alvarado played down her chances in advance of the race after a less-than ideal build-up, including over a week of illness that ruled her out of last weekend’s action. She dug deep though, overcoming a few jabs of bad luck to regain the lead of the race which she held until the final lap.
Manon Bakker during UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole, Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado chasing a few metres behind.
Then came Manon Bakker. Third here in 2022, the 24-year-old said herself that she had a bad start, but a calm race saw the Crelan-Corendon rider leapfrog through the field until she reached Alvarado’s wheel in the final lap. For the first time this season, Bakker was racing for the win.
Dutch national champion Puck Pieterse carries her bike as she runs over the snow during UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
Puck Pieterse wasn’t able to touch the front of the race, but a dogged and consistent effort saw the reigning champ climb to third on an all-Dutch podium, extending her clean sweep of top-three finishes for the season, only missing a victory.
Manon Bakker crosses the line celebrating victory at UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
With victory in her sights, Bakker left nothing to chance by surging away from Alvarado to ensure the biggest win of her career.
Joran Wyseure leads a group including European champion Michael Vanthourenhout over the snow during UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
The elite men's field navigates the snow-covered course during UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
Niels Vandeputte during UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
Niels Vandeputte is one of the fastest starters in the elite men’s field and a consistent top-10 finisher, but in Val di Sole he proved again that he thrives in the snow, just as he did in both previous appearances (6th in 2021; 2nd in 2022).
Michael Vanthourenhout in the European champion's jersey during UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
Defending Val di Sole champion Michael Vanthourenhout also loves the snow, and it was nice to see his special European champ edition Ridley X-Night in all its (mud-free) glory.
British national champion Cameron Mason during UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
Cameron Mason got a front-row start in Val di Sole, but an iffy start and a mechanical in the first lap put him on the back foot and he never found his groove, eventually finishing 11th.
Joris Nieuwenhuis leads Niels Vandeputte into a corner during UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
Joris Nieuwenhuis and Niels Vandeputte made short work of jamming a wedge between the two of them and the rest of the field in the first lap.
World Cup leader Eli Iserbyt during UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole, Laurens Sweeck a few metres behind.
World Cup leader Eli Iserbyt has made his dislike of the snow well known in the past, but he’s not one to stand down from a fight, eventually riding to fifth and extending his lead in the World Cup standings.
Joris Nieuwenhuis gets up off the snow, bike in hand, during UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
It wasn’t a matter of if you would fall, but when. No slip or slide seemed to deter Nieuwenhuis though, the Dutchman powering away from Vandeputte in the second lap and going solo …
Joris Nieuwenhuis gives high-fives to the crowd as he rides the finishing straight to victory at UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
He was untouchable by any of his rivals, staying clear to take an emphatic victory, and a first World Cup win of his elite career.
Joran Wyseure celebrates finishing third at UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.
Speaking of firsts, Nieuwenhuis wasn’t the only one celebrating, young Belgian Joran Wyseure was delighted to take his first elite World Cup podium in the snow, finishing third behind Nieuwenhuis and Vandeputte.
Joris Nieuwenhuis sprays Prosecco on the podium at UCI Cyclocross World Cup Val di Sole.

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