Fem van Empel (Pauwels Sauzen Bingoal) took a stunning first elite victory, beating a charging Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma Women) in the snow of Val di Sole.
Having suffered a first lap mechanical, Vos staged one of the comebacks of the season when she bridged back up to the under-23 world champion on the penultimate corner, but crashed into a post, handing the win to Van Empel.
“It was a goal before the season, so check,” the beaming 19-year-old said after winning round nine of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup. “That was very difficult, I thought maybe I would not stand on the podium because of the last corner [crash] but I stayed calm and I’m very happy to take the victory,” van Empel added.
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Having thrived on the muddy tracks in Besancon, Canadian Maghalie Rochette once again showed her consistency in tough conditions to finish behind the Dutch duo in third.
Val di Sole had never held an elite level cyclo-cross race, but is a venue on the mountain bike World Cup circuit and hosted the MTB world championships earlier this year where accomplished cyclo-cross rider Evie Richards won her first crown.
The course looked very different today though with the track being totally covered in Alpine snow, it may have even taken a viewer a while to wonder if their Eurosport feed had switched over to the women’s 10km biathlon pursuit in Hochfilzen mid-race.
Although the World Cup has seen snowy races before, most recently the Hoogerheide round in 2013, organisers Flanders Classics and the UCI purposefully took the round to the snow to showcase the discipline's credentials as a Winter Olympic sport. Italy is preparing to host the Winter Games in 2026.
The first lap in Vermiglio almost resembled a snowboard cross race, with riders taking their feet out on the corners to keep balance on the slippery packed snow surface.
Van Empel shot off the line and was able to avoid the trouble behind her. The 19-year-old Dutch rider has specifically targeted the tricky parcours, being an accomplished mountain biker.
Treachery was around every corner with Van Empel, Denise Betsema (Pauwels Sauzen Bingoal), Puck Pieterse (Alpecin-Fenix) all having issues on the second lap. Vos was struck hardest by misfortune when her chain got caught underneath the bike's bottom bracket, resulting in a 43-second delay as the seven-time World Champion fought to reattach it.
As the race went on, the snowy course was also becoming an exhibition of the under-23 world champion's talents, with the 19-year-old taking the slippery course at speed and extending her lead out to 20 seconds going into the penultimate lap.
But the race was heating up behind. A strong athlete, Rochette used the first half of the lap to her advantage and ran past Betsema on a hilly stretch that resembled a snow-dusted version of Zonhoven’s sand dunes, to put herself back into contention.
Having lost 40 seconds, Vos also began an incredible last lap charge passing Eva Lechner, Betsema and Rochette on her way to catching Van Empel at speed.
With the clock hitting 50 minutes, youth was pitted against experience but on the penultimate corner it was Vos who made a mistake, striking a course post, and falling into snow below as she tried to undercut her exuberant compatriot.
With that, Van Empel passed the cyclo-cross legend, having diligently waited for her to untangle her bike, and raised her arms in triumph in an incredible first elite victory.
Vos justified her gamble afterwards: “I knew it was going to be hard to make the pass on the finish line, so I knew I had to make a move earlier on and there weren’t so many options, so I took the chance to take the inside line on the last corner, but that line went into an obstacle. I made a mistake, but I can be happy with second.”
With series leader Lucinda Brand (Baloise Trek Lions) at a team training camp and Betsema finishing fifth, the world champion retains an eight-point series lead.
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