Fem van Empel came out on top in the eagerly-awaited battle of the Dutch wunderkinds, powering away from Puck Pieterse, the victim of a poor start and badly timed crash, to win the elite women’s race at the UCI world cyclocross championships in front of a boisterous home crowd in Hoogerheide.
In the first of arguably the two most anticipated elite world championship races in the recent history of cyclocross – between them, Van Empel and Pieterse accounted for 11 of this season’s 14 UCI World Cup rounds – Van Empel capitalised on a mistake from her compatriot and fellow 20-year-old halfway through the race to claim a deserved maiden elite rainbow jersey in Hoogerheide.
On a course made slipper than normal by the morning’s rain, European champion Van Empel, the winner of this season’s World Cup and the pre-race favourite, swiftly and calmly installed herself at the front on the first lap, as Pieterse briefly floundered at the start line, slipping along the wet tarmac as she struggled to get clipped in.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before Pieterse’s technical skills, particularly her trademark nonchalant handling of the course’s iconic planks, allowed her to gap the dogged Italian Silvia Persico – who, in the race’s early stages, appeared a blue speck in a sea of faded orange – and catch her compatriot, setting up the duel that had been on the cards all winter.
However, while the two 20-year-old sensations appeared to have the race firmly within their grasp and looked set to duke it out to the finish, one of the sport’s veterans, 33-year-old Lucinda Brand, the 2021 world champion, bridged to the leading duo on the third lap.
Brand was still in the mix on the following lap when Pieterse slid out while following Van Empel’s line. Despite that mishap, which in the end proved fatal to her chances of winning the rainbow jersey, the Alpecin-Deceuninck rider still had enough in the tank to catch and then blast past Brand.
Pieterse suffers a race-defining crash on the fourth lap
But by that point, however, the cool, relentless Van Empel was gone, establishing an unassailable 30-second lead to take the first of what may eventually prove to be an impressive collection of elite rainbow jerseys, and cap an astounding season during which she cemented herself at the very top of the sport.
The defeated but typically effervescent Pieterse earned a deserved second place, performing a one-handed wheelie across the line to the delight of the home crowd, while Brand completed the Dutch home-front domination by taking the bronze medal, ahead of Italian Persico.
“It feels a bit crazy, it’s an emotional victory, after a great season,” newly crowned world champion Van Empel said at the finish.
“The crowd was really amazing, I’ve never so many people at a race. It’s very special for me.
“It was battle with Puck. I think she crashed, and at that moment I went full gas. It’s difficult to find the right words, it’s a bit emotional.”
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