Fem van Empel, Laurens Sweeck come out top in World Cup Maasmechelen

Sweeck scores first elite World Cup victory, Van Empel makes it four-from-four in new Belgian circuit.

Photo: Getty Images

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Fem Van Empel (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) and Laurens Sweeck (Crelan-Fristads) won the first Belgian round of the 2022-23 UCI Cyclocross World Cup in the inaugural Maasmechelen race Sunday.

Van Empel continued her crushing start to the season with her fourth World Cup win in four races as she amasses a huge early lead in the rankings.

She topped a podium full of Dutch 20-year-olds as Puck Pieterse (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Shirin van Anrooij (Baloise Trek Lions) took the second and third steps.

It wasn’t the same 100 percent record for Van Empel’s teammate and fellow season-crusher Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal).

The Belgian went into Maasmechelen as top-favorite after sweeping the previous three World Cups, but saw his chance of victory undone when he crashed on a descending corner.

Sweeck surged away from Michael Vanthourenhout (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) in the aftermath of Iserbyt’s crash and held off the chasing pack to score his first victory of the season after seven consecutive top-4 finishes.

Sunday’s race made for the debut of the Maasmechelen course in the Belgian Limburg. The testing circuit twisted through grassy parkland and was packed with features, notably a tough embanked climb, some sand pits, and a series of bunny-hoppable barriers.

Pieterse puts the pressure on Van Empel

Van Empel won after a tight three-rider battle

Van Empel made it four-from-four but didn’t have it all her way Sunday.

The Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal rider went into the closing laps locked in a tight battle with Puck Pieterse and Shirin van Anrooij after the threesome detached from the bunch in the middle of the race.

Pieterse piled the pressure onto the World Cup leader in the final lap when she took the lead of the trio and completed half a circuit in pole position.

However, Van Empel had the speed on a short rise to round the bunny-hopping star before accelerating a few seconds clear over a sandy section a few corners later.

“It was the hardest race I did all season, it was a hard battle,” Van Empel said.

“I got the gap in the last steep section and luckily I could overtake Puck [Pieterse]. Then it was full gas to the finish. I had to hope Puck wasn’t sitting on my wheel at the barriers, but it was enough to win.”

Reigning ‘cross world champion Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) finished sixth in what was her second race of the winter, while U.S. national champ Clara Honsinger (Cannondale) finished eighth to continue her streak of World Cup top-10s.

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Sweeck goes solo for first victory of season

The 28-year-old Sweeck scored palmares topping victory Sunday.

Sweeck scored solo victory to put an end to a run of close calls this season and score his first elite World Cup win.

The Belgian went solo in front of home crowds to claim his first win of the winter after finishing in the top-4 of each of his seven races so far.

Lars van der Haar (Baloise Trek Lions) and Iserbyt finished two-three on the podium.

Sweeck’s victory saw him close the gap to Iserbyt in the World Cup standings as he continues to lead the chase behind the series-leader.

Sunday’s race saw its pivotal moment on lap five of nine. Sweeck, Iserbyt and Vanthourenhout were locked at the front of the field when Iserbyt pushed too hard on a descending corner, slid out, and hit the mud.

Sweeck and Vanthourenhout sped away from Iserbyt before the Crelan-Fristads ‘crosser distanced Vanthorenhout and kept cool after suffering a final-lap puncture.

Victory sees Sweeck come good after consistently hitting top-5s in recent seasons.

“It feels great,” Sweeck said at the finish. “I had a good start and a good feeling in the legs. We both tried to make a gap and it was about little mistakes, but Eli [Iserbyt] made a big one I think.”

“But also you have to keep the air in the tires, eh,” he joked. “I made it quite far in the race to do it, but the last lap it was quite a scary moment.”

UCI World Cup racing resumes in Beekse Bergen, Netherlands, on November 13.

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