(Or, the Cyclocross World Championships – elite races preview)
Sit back, relax, put the Rocky themetune on Spotify, because we’re going in. However you dress it up, both the elite races at this year’s cyclocross World Championships feature very public rivalries, and are expected to come down to head-to-heads in both cases between the top four riders in the sport so far this season.
I’ll throw in the usual disclaimer of ‘cyclocross is unpredictable and anything can happen’ before swiftly moving on to examine the finer points of the two head-to-heads that will almost certainly decide which riders will wear the lauded rainbow stripes going into 2023/24.
Using a highly scientific (completely made up) method, I’ll pit the pairs against one another across a series of categories, to ultimately determine who I think will take the win in the elite women’s and men’s races.*
*Please do not stake your house on this
If you happen to be reading this and you’re not sure who I’m talking about, welcome out from wherever you’ve been hibernating, please allow me to (briefly) illuminate you as to exactly who we’re screaming at this weekend.
The women’s CX season has been dominated by not two but three riders – all Dutch – but following the recent decision of Shirin van Anrooij to remain within the U23 category for another year, it’s the pair of queens Puck Pieterse and Fem van Empel who will duke it out for top spot in Hoogerheide this weekend. Both are ridiculously talented, and have achieved A LOT this season – they are well matched, yet contrasting in their skillset, and they challenge one another constantly to stay at the top of their game – both could have opted to remain U23 this year, but the fact that they haven’t, and that they are far and away the top two favourites for the elite race, speaks to their prodigious respective talent.
Although of course, the riders will be racing for their national teams at the weekend, it’s worth noticing that it’s Jumbo Visma v Alpecin-Deceuninck rounds 1 and 2. On the men’s side, it’s the much-anticipated clash of Van Aert and Van der Poel following a year off last year, and unlike Puck and Fem, whose rivalry is blossoming, these two have been knocking one another around the metaphorical muddy ring for a decade already. They know each other inside out, they have contested seven elite World Championships previously, and it’s openly accepted that they will occupy the top two spots on the podium, bar serious incident. Like Puck and Fem, both have been on excellent form this season, and it’s too close to call – without my serious, scientific analysis of course – who will go on to be victorious.
Let’s start by considering the form of the riders based on this season’s racing, and in particular their past couple of races.
Head-to-head, it couldn’t be much closer between Pieterse and Van Empel, with Fem leading 6-5 in terms of results so far this season when both have been in the race. Their most recent head-to-head resulted in a win for Fem at the UCI World Cup in Benidorm, in another tense, close battle.
They opted to avoid one another this past weekend, but both inevitably topped the podium at their respective races. This sentence applies equally to our men’s pairing, who also chose to amplify the anticipation for the big clash by choosing to take a week away from one another’s company.
Van Der Poel came out on top the last time they faced off, in Benidorm, though Van Aert leads the head-to-head form 6-4. Following a year in which we were starved of them as a duo, it’s been good to see that they are still on pretty equal footing – good for our entertainment, that is.
VERDICT – The form guide gives Van Empel the edge over Pieterse – for the men, it’s too close to call. Van Aert leads on number of wins this season, though VDP has the upper hand from their most recent encounter – I’m calling this one a draw.
Having considered this season’s form, it’s worth casting our eyes back a little further, or a lot further, in the case of the Vans, who first clashed at an elite World Championships in 2015. Feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? Mathieu took that one, despite Wout besting him 9-6 in the season head-to-heads. An interesting point of note, as it was not the first time that the season’s dominant rider went on to lose the rainbow stripes. Wout did it to Mathieu twice, in 2017 and 2018, despite having been soundly dominated by the Dutchman over the course of both seasons. In fact, VDP’s record over his Belgian rival is quite something – he leads the head-to-head series 119-60 overall, winning two-thirds of the match-ups between them, and taking the World title for the past three years that he’s ridden it – 2019, 2020 and 2021 (Van Aert was still recovering from the horror crash at the Tour de France in 2020).
The history between the two Dutch women is far fresher in the memory – they’ve raced one another in elite races since the 2019/2020 season despite their relative youth, and Puck leads the overall series 31-17, having had the upper hand in every season other than this one. They have both tasted the rainbow at U23 level, Fem winning in 2021 and Puck the reigning champion from this time last year.
VERDICT – historically speaking, it’s Van Der Poel and Pieterse with the edge.
Time to check out Hoogerheide. It’s no secret that the course was designed by Mathieu van der Poel’s father Adrie. It’s his birthplace (not literally on the course – although I haven’t verified that), and the GP Adrie van der Poel is held there annually since the man himself bowed out of the sport in 2000. It’s a strange phenomenon, going into a race knowing the father of your arch rival set the course, and it could be argued that it’s had the desired effect in previous years – Mathieu has won every elite head-to-head between the two on the course, and has taken the honours there five times between 2015 and 2020. Interestingly, Wout has beaten him there once – in the U23 World Championship in 2014. But that was a long time ago.
So to the course itself. It’s a fast, flowing course, with a number of technical elements, so there’s really something for everyone. There’s a high staircase, and planks which have been moved this year to a spot which will actually cause the riders to have to take them uphill – something which could be the ruin of anyone not secure in their bunny-hopping. Naturally, this gives Van Der Poel and Pieterse the edge on this course feature – though Van Empel’s bunny-hopping has improved this season – but Van Aert has looked shaky on them ever since coming down hard going over them in Antwerp in December.
The course has a long, rising start/finish straight which could lead to an epic sprint for the line, if the pairs stay together that long. Prior to that is the infamous off-camber section, which could see mistakes made as the pressure mounts, and will require nerves of steel to take at the kinds of speeds these maniacs travel at.
VERDICT – There’s not much to choose between the two pairs in terms of the parcours and this is mainly because there really is a fine balance on this course between power and technique. However, his familiarity and success on the course leads me to suggest Mathieu has the edge in this category. For the women, I’m giving the edge to Fem, simply because of the long drag to the finish, where her power will really come into play.
This is basically a glorified weather forecast. It’s set to be relatively dry this week in the area, however the ground is already quite waterlogged from earlier in the month, which partly explains the course being rearranged slightly. How this will play out over the weekend could dictate how it goes for our fair rivals. The women’s elite race takes place on Saturday afternoon, and is the fourth race on the course – it has less time to dry out fully but less racing to get it all churned up. The conditions arguably don’t have a huge bearing on the women’s race – both Fem and Puck have won in horrible conditions this season, with Fem victorious in the slop at Dublin and Puck taking the spoils in the slick mud of Overijse.
For the men, the conditions could play a more significant part in deciding the outcome of the race. Wout is famous for being a demon in the mud – not that Mathieu is a slouch, but he’s more error-prone and Van Aert’s diesel power and size really suit gross conditions. By the time the men take to the course, 7 races will have taken place on the course, and if the water-logging has affected the parcours at all, it will be at its worst by that point.
VERDICT – Unless it’s a mudfest, which looks highly unlikely, the conditions probably won’t have a big impact on the result in either race. A draw!
Mind, Body… And Vibes
OK this is a category that I have made up to reflect just general indefinable feelings and totally non-scientific stuff, for example: psychological advantage. It’s east to over-analyse this sort of thing and impossible to quantify, but it feels as though there has been a genuine shift in mindset from Van Aert over the past two seasons. Where in the past MVDP seemed to have the better of him, or at least the ability to get under his skin, Van Aert seems to have risen above it of late, taking his losses on the chin and always moving forward.
Conversely, Mathieu is the same instinctive, mood rider he always was. He takes risks, and he makes mistakes, but he also has plenty of days when he is on fire, and the risk leads to reward. He’s prepared well this year and despite a brief complaint about his back in early January, he seems to be in great shape. He’ll have confidence on a course he has succeeded on in the past, and in knowing that Wout hasn’t gotten the better of him at Worlds in five years, so in terms of mood – it’s highly likely his will be set to VERY GOOD. Wout has no reason to be anything other than his usual steady, unflappable self – he knows he has it in him to beat Mathieu, and if he can’t get a gap during the laps he will be confident in his sprint. Wout hasn’t worn rainbow stripes in any discipline since 2018 which feels like something of an aberration given his incredible results in the interim – and despite his form he may be considered the slight underdog, given the course and its implications.
Fem van Empel riding for Jumbo Visma has brought a satisfying symmetry to the whole affair. She has characteristics that make her reminiscent of the legend, and now team mate, Marianne Vos, and Wout Van Aert himself. Fem too is a powerful rider with a strong sprint, and like MVDP, Puck Pieterse is going to have to rely on her excellent technical skills to maximise any gaps she might be able to find around the course, as she will not want it to go down to a sprint finish. But Puck is stone cold on big occasions and will bring her A game to the uphill bunny hops and tricky off camber sections – but will it be enough to outlast Van Empel in the final?
VERDICT – Mathieu, on this course, with this form, has the edge here – if he can get a gap. If not, Wout will use the underdog spirit of it NOT being his Dad’s course, and having missed out for the past 5 years, to nail him on the sprint. OK FINE, I’m giving them a point each. Pieterse will call upon her supreme technical skills but I just can’t see past Van Empel on that long final run-in. I’ll give them a point each too. I’m not good at this, am I?
Er, Excuse me, We’re here too!
Or, my brief run down of the possible threats to the main contenders
I don’t want to be disrespectful. There are many hard-working, fantastically talented individuals in the world of cyclocross who will also be racing at the weekend. And while I’ve spent the majority of this article covering the most likely outcome, sport is sport, it’s unpredictable, and you just NEVER KNOW. So, who could cause an upset to the top billed stars?
The most obvious answer here would have been Shirin Van Anrooij but the Trek-Baloise Lions rider announced after the Benidorm World Cup that she would have plenty of time for elite championships, and has elected to remain U23 for another year, leading to a lot of people nodding with their teeth gritted and saying they totally understood her decision (while clearly being gutted that we’d miss out on the battle).
Speaking of Benidorm, the top 3 women became a top 4 there, as Italian Silvia Persico managed to keep up with the three Dutch for the majority of the race. She started her season late but has ridden well, and if she’s on a good day, she could cause an upset – and she has a hell of a sprint on her. Ceylin Del Carmen Alvarado is on excellent form this season, and she probably poses the biggest threat to her countrywomen; Lucinda Brand could be in with a shot too if she’s on the form of her life – she hasn’t quite had her usual edge so far this season. Annemarie Worst, Inge van der Heijden and Aniek van Alphen have all performed well this season too.
It’s been an incredible season in men’s cross in terms of competition, and, with the exception of Val di Sole, in races that HAVEN’T featured Van Aert or Van Der Poel, there has been a broad spread of winners and contenders. Eli Iserbyt followed his usual pattern of clearing up in the early season before going off the boil a bit, but he has looked fast in the past couple of weeks. Michael Vantourenhout has had almost the opposite pattern, peaking in mid-season, taking the European title and having a good run over the kerstperiode. But the two work well together and could cause some trouble. Lars Van Der Haar performs well on big occasions and the course suits his capabilities. Laurens Sweeck has had a brilliant season following his move to Crelan Fristads, winning the World Cup overall and proving that there is life beyond Pauwels Sauzen Bingoal.
So, Who’s Going To Win?
Despite the level of competition, I can’t see past a one-two for both of our hotshot duos. I hate predicting races so I’m not going to guess, but using my EXTREMELY SCIENTIFIC methodology, I have the scores at 3-2 to Van Empel and 3-1 to Van Der Poel so – I’ve called it – Mathieu and Fem will win.*
*Maybe. This is in no way guaranteed. I reiterate, please do not bet your house on it.