Preview: UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup Gavere

Wout van Aert and Tom Pidcock look to bounce back against Mathieu van der Poel, as the women's field hopes to provide an upset over Fem van Empel

Clock12:16, Sunday 24th December 2023
Mathieu van der Poel is three from three thus far this season

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

Mathieu van der Poel is three from three thus far this season

As it does every year, the festive cyclo-cross action continues thick and fast from mainland Europe with yet another blockbuster to look forward to on December 26.

For many countries, the CX World Cup Gavere will offer the perfect opportunity to unwind on Boxing Day, whilst in the Netherlands, their favourite Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) will be hoping that Tweede Kerstdag (Second Christmas Day, celebrated in the country) brings him a little bit of festive luck.

The Dutchman will no doubt start as the race favourite in the men's field, after having twice handily dispatched main rival Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma). At this time of the year, we usually discuss the 'big three' of Van der Poel, Van Aert and Ineos Grenadiers' Tom Pidcock, but the latter has suffered a recent bout of illness and it is yet to be seen how competitive he will be on Tuesday.

Just as Van der Poel has looked imperious in the men's races as of late, so too has Fem van Empel (Jumbo-Visma) in quite literally every single race she has entered this season. The world champion is heading into Gavere having won a remarkable 11 races on the bounce, but this course in East Flanders is one she has yet to find success on.

The Gavere course is often a real challenge for the riders and with plenty of downpours hitting the region over recent weeks, we can expect the mud to be fairly boggy and demanding for both elite races. This will be an additional hardship for the riders, who are already well aware of the tough climbs they must overcome to find success in the grounds of Castle Grenier.

December 26 is often one of the most highly anticipated days on the cyclo-cross calendar, and this year is no different. So settle in, feast on your Christmas Dinner leftovers and let us look forward to two fantastic races.

The course

Gavere is a very typical cyclo-cross course, making use of the natural features, hills and terrains to make the race difficult. The course has a lot of climbing, up muddy, rugged and sometimes off-camber hills, and whilst they aren’t all that steep, they require a lot of effort and will work to tire out the riders.

Much of the track is fairly wide, without too many tight corners, but the climbs are narrower so it can be hard to overtake on the key parts of the course. The surface is very loose and muddy even when it’s not wet, but adding any rain - or just the hundreds of riders taking on the course on race day - can really start to churn up the tracks and make mud a real problem.

Because the course and profile itself are so hard, there isn’t that much in terms of man-made features, apart from one bridge near the beginning of the course. From there, the long wooded stretch is hard enough on its own. The finish is long, straight and its asphalt has recently been relaid, so there’s room for a sprint if the race comes down to that, but the difficulty of the Gavere course lends itself to a solo winner.

The contenders

In truth, there are two outstanding contenders to bring home the Gavere titles on Tuesday, with Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) beginning his 'cross campaign like a rocket in the men's field and Fem van Empel (Jumbo-Visma) proving irresistible in the women's field this year.

It will be Van Empel who will be the more heavily favoured of the pair, with the 21-year-old winning all 11 of the 11 races she has started thus far in the 2023/24 campaign. A brief training crash and cold forced her to miss Namur, but otherwise, her season has been impeccable and without misfortune, she will be expected to mop up the honours once more on December 26.

Van der Poel's season has been relatively short in contrast, with the 28-year-old sitting only three races into his campaign, but again, the Dutchman has won all three races he has started and will be backed to make it four from four in Gavere.

Recently, his dominance has been wielded in the sandpits of Mol and Antwerpen, but it is not simply his technical prowess which have sealed his victories, indeed, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) recently admitted that Van der Poel's physical level was simply too strong to match at the moment.

Read more: Wout van Aert says it was 'necessary to race conservatively' against 'unbeatable' Van der Poel

Van Aert is suffering is largely down to a matter of priorities, with the Belgian's focus largely reserved for the 2024 road campaign, whilst Van der Poel has targeted a more thorough 'cross calendar this winter. With the current imbalance between the pair, one might expect Ineos Grenadiers' Tom Pidcock to emerge as the Dutchman's closest rival, but illness has recently struck a blow to those hopes.

The winter started well for Pidcock, with a second place to Van der Poel in Herantals and a victory at the World Cup in Namur, but he fell victim to illness ahead of Antwerpen and could only battle to eighth place. The Brit also suffered a slight fall on Saturday, so predicting a podium finish for Pidcock in Gavere is a tough ask.

In his place, we can look to past winners on this course, Lars van der Haar (Baloise Trek Lions) and Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal). Both riders have been in consistent form all season and this has delivered the latter a commanding lead in the World Cup standings.

Much credit must be given to Iserbyt, who has ridden every round of the World Cup to date and still been able to sustain his best form pretty much throughout. Highlights for the Belgian will be his victories in Troyes and Flamanville, but third place behind Van der Poel and Van Aert in Antwerpen was another fine outing.

Van der Haar, meanwhile, has not won a World Cup since the Maasmechelen round in October, so Baloise Trek Lions may hold more faith in Pim Ronhaar and Joris Nieuwenhuis for a top result on Tuesday. Both riders have markedly improved this season and rounded out the podium behind Pidcock in Namur, following World Cup victories for each of them earlier in the campaign.

These riders will all be gunning for Van der Poel's crown in Gavere, but the Dutchman should be able to count on the supreme form of his teammates Quinten Hermans and Niels Vandeputte, both of whom excelled at Exact Cross Mol.

Teammates are a luxury that Van Empel does not enjoy in the women's race. Instead, it will be the Baloise Trek Lions pair of Lucinda Brand and Shirin van Anrooij who will be gunning to topple the undefeated rider from her perch.

Van Anrooij and Brand secured a one-two on this course last time out, following Brand's back-to-back victories in 2020 and February 2022. Their experience and knowhow will be crucial should they be able to outwit Van Empel on Tuesday, but so too will their form, which has been noticeably improving for both over recent weeks.

Brand was able to dominate at Exact Cross Mol, whilst Van Anrooij bounced back from a disappointing ride at Namur to come home sixth in the Antwerpen World Cup. The 21-year-old is without a World Cup podium thus far in 2023/24, having spent much of last season vying for the top step, and so will be eager to capitalise over the festive period.

When it comes to consistency in the women's World Cup, it is Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado who stands the strongest of the field, having raced all but one events and amassed a handsome lead in the overall standings. The past couple of seasons have been disappointing for the Alpecin-Deceuninck rider, but this year has seen Alvarado back to her best and she will be hoping to add to her tally of three World Cup victories from the past few months.

Elsewhere in the women's field, a lot can be expected of rising talent Zoe Bäckstedt (Canyon-SRAM), who won the holeshot in Exact Cross Mol and demonstrated her standing as one of the more powerful female riders. The World Cup Antwerpen may have proved a disappointment, but she has shown form of being able to pick up podium finishes in her first full season in the elite World Cups.

Puck Pieterse (Fenix-Deceuninck) has finished on the podium of every race she has started this season, but is still without an elusive victory, whilst Marie Schreiber (SD Worx), Laura Verdonschot (De Ceuster-Bonache) and Manon Bakker (Crelan-Corendon) will all be riders to watch in the top 10.

Mathieu van der Poel and Fem van Empel are the overriding favourites, then, but plenty of contenders to create some excitement behind.

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