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Cyclocross Racing

Fem van Empel stays cool under pressure to deliver her first elite cyclocross world title

Youngster Van Empel captures emotional first world title in front of home crowds: 'There’s a massive weight coming off my shoulders.'

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Fem van Empel put a rainbow flash across a gray day Saturday to reward tens of thousands of cyclocross fans in Hoogerheide, the Netherlands.

The fans on-site and those following the race on their screens were longing for a captivating duel between the two 20-year-old Dutch wunderkind Van Empel and season-long rival Puck Pieterse in the elite women’s cyclocross world championships.

Van Empel’s steady high pace forced Pieterse into a mid-race mistake.

From there, Van Empel put the hammer down on the slippery but fast 3.2km long course at the so-called Brabant wall and completed an impressive solo during the second half of the 50-minute race.

Van Empel usually seems as cool as ice but this time around she was very emotional when crossing the finish line, grabbing her first cyclocross world title in the elite category.

It’s a dream season so far for Van Empel. In November she captured the European title at the citadel of Namur, Belgium. She won seven World Cup rounds this season thus securing the overall World Cup title. On Saturday she concluded her cyclocross season with a win on home soil at the world championships.

“It’s very special to end the season with a win. At the moment I don’t realize yet that I became world champion in my own country. It’s really special to become world champion, as it’s the highest [sic] thing in cycling,” Van Empel said at the post-race press conference in Hoogerheide.

Van Empel was much impressed by the big crowds which clearly were on her hand, racing on home soil.

“There were so many spectators. Back in 2020 I raced here in orange [Dutch national team – ed] for the first time. These are the world championships in your home country. It felt great to reach the finish line with a lot of people there,” Van Empel said.

Among those people at the finish were those who supported Van Empel in chasing her dreams and living her life as a pro cyclist.

“The people around me maybe work even harder than me. It’s a reward for them,” she told NOS about the people around her.

“I’m a bit emotional. From the outside it’s probably hard to tell how much work is put into this. I really have to thank the right people; they’re always there for me. There’s family here to watch the race, other people who follow me to every race the whole season.”

“After my fall in Val di Sole [hit a pole with upper leg] it was mentally hard. Then I tried to get back better than I was before,” Van Empel said.

In the snowy Italian World Cup round in December, Van Empel rode into a pole and injured her upper leg. It turned out to be her last race for the Pauwels Sauzen team. She returned to action in style as she showed up in her new Jumbo-Visma kit on new year’s day in Baal, Belgium and won the race.

At the post-race press conference Van Empel talked about the pressure that was on her shoulders.

“There was pressure. I didn’t feel it by my side. I did what I needed to do,” she said.

Shortly after crossing the finish line, she spoke differently when talking to NOS in her mother tongue.

“I was top favorite over here. As a top favorite there’s the pressure to make it happen. There’s a massive weight coming off my shoulders,” she said.

More to come in blossoming rivalry between two supertalents

Pieterse congratulates Van Empel after their season-long rivalry. (Photo: Getty Images)

Van Empel won the duel in the elite women category over Pieterse but there’s certainly more coming up.

The two 20-year-old riders are destined to become rivals in the way Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel are in the elite men category.

They’ve raced against each other in the youth categories and they’ll race against each other in the elite categories, not only in cyclo-cross but also in MTB and road races. When asked whether Van Empel felt what stands out between her and Pieterse, she referred to bike handling.

“Maybe I need to improve my skills a bit more. Puck hops the barriers and does a wheelie to cross the finish line. She’s more technical than I am. I’m probably faster in the first meters,” Van Empel said.

On Saturday afternoon Van Empel focused on being steady while Pieterse combined exceptional technical skills with errors. “I was confident in myself and kept my cool when I needed to do so. I tried to ride as steady as possible. It was a matter of maintaining the pressure during the second half of the race and that worked out well.”

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