Preview: UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup Hulst

Van der Poel, Van Aert and Pidcock all back in action as Van Empel and Pieterse continue to duel

Clock17:00, Thursday 28th December 2023
Mathieu van der Poel is perhaps the biggest favourite for the win in Hulst on Saturday

© Sprint Cycling Agency

Mathieu van der Poel is perhaps the biggest favourite for the win in Hulst on Saturday

The UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup continues on Saturday, as the round in Hulst draws to a close the busy festive period which features five races in five days. Hulst is the fifth, and as a World Cup is one of the most important, meaning it’s attracting a field as stacked as what we saw in a thrilling round in Gavere on Boxing Day.

Returning in full force for the first time since Gavere, all of the men’s 'big three' will be in action in Hulst, with Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) all opting to close out their 2023 in a muddy field in the Netherlands. On the women’s side, Fem van Empel (Jumbo-Visma) and Puck Pieterse (Fenix-Deceuninck) will be the favourites, though Lucinda Brand (Baloise Trek Lions) and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado (Alpecin-Deceuninck) have been pushing them hard this winter.

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The course in Hulst is a tricky one, with several treacherous ascents and descents on a lap where both top fitness and refined technical skills are going to be key. With so many places to make a mistake, nothing is guaranteed on this course, and even a 30-second lead could be erased with one wrong pedal stroke.

As the final CX race of 2023, Hulst is sure to be a big one - here’s what you need to know about the elite races on Saturday.

The course

The Hulst course is one defined by its slopes, with the treacherous descents as important as the super-steep climbs. The main climb is so steep it’s physically impossible to ride up, and even walking up carrying one’s bike can be a tricky task in the slippery mud. The key descent is wide and off-camber, narrowing towards the bottom, and crucially very steep, making it a real challenge in bike handling, and often the site of crashes or mishaps.

As well as the big ups and downs, there are lots of little, steep rises or descents on this course, and various off-camber sections that can throw riders off. As if the natural challenges weren’t difficult enough, Hulst also has three man-made bridges thrown in, plus a set of barriers, making this a technical and testing course.

There’s a big corner just before the finish, so if more than one rider comes towards the finale together, this turn can prove crucial, so a wise sprint is as important as a fast one.

The contenders

In the men’s race, it’s hard to look past the so-called ‘big three’ as contenders for the win. In fact, it’s hard to even look past one man, Mathieu van der Poel. Not only is the Dutch rider unbeaten in CX so far this season, but this is his first race in the Netherlands this winter, so support and motivation will surely be on his side. Van der Poel has looked fairly unbeatable so far, putting in big solo moves to win four times already, so it’s not hard to imagine that happening again on Saturday.

Wout van Aert will have taken some confidence from his victory in the Superprestige Heusden-Zolder, but that was without the presence of Van der Poel and Pidcock, and we’re still waiting for the Belgian to really go head-to-head with his old rival. Pidcock, on the other hand, has been struggling through injury and illness, but looks to be returning to a good level, only hampered by some poor starts, though he’s very good and climbing back through a field.

Outside of the big three, Lars van der Haar and Joris Nieuwenhuis (both Baloise Trek Lions) are looking the most on-form, whilst Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) and his consistent style can almost be guaranteed to be somewhere in the action. The likes of Michael Vanthourenhout (Pauwel Sauzen-Bingoal), Pim Ronhaar (Baloise Trek Lions) and Cameron Mason (Cyclocross Reds) also can’t be overlooked, but they have definitely been bumped down the hierarchy since the big three started their campaigns.

In the women’s race, it looks like another battle between Fem van Empel and Puck Pieterse is on the cards. Both have taken victories already this festive period, and look to be just a little bit above the likes of Lucinda Brand and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado. Van Empel had an off-day in Gavere, losing her winning streak and giving way for Pieterse to take her first win of the season. The world champion wasn’t off form for long, though, and quickly came back to take the win in Heusden-Zolder the following day, albeit without Pieterse, though it was much closer with Alvarado than it sometimes is.

It’s difficult to say whether Van Empel will be back with a vengeance in Hulst, or if the effects of a long campaign are becoming clear, but what’s known is that the world champion is never far from the front of the race. Pieterse is the defending champion in Hulst, however, and has looked somewhat fresher than her compatriot this festive period, so will be gunning for a second consecutive World Cup victory.

With the World Cup overall standings on the line, Alvarado will definitely be near the front and looking for a top result, as will Brand, though the veteran rider has looked slower compared to the young stars in the last few races. Shirin van Anrooij (Baloise Trek Lions) is likely to miss the race in Hulst, having broken a rib and bruised another in training recently.

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