Preview: UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup Val di Sole

Cyclo-cross returns to the snow of Trentino, Italy, with Michale Vanthourenhout looking to match his winning ride from last year and Puck Pieterse making her return

Clock18:09, Thursday 7th December 2023
The CX World Cup returns to Italy on Sunday

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

The CX World Cup returns to Italy on Sunday

The UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup returns to perhaps one of its most visually iconic venues this weekend: the snow-capped Val di Sole in Trentino. Though snow can fall on the wintry World Cups in Belgium, Val di Sole is unique in that the whole course is generally covered in snow. First added to the circuit in 2021, it’s something of a novelty still, but a different and visually striking challenge for the racers.

In 2021, Val di Sole was host to Fem van Empel’s breakthrough victory where she beat her future teammate Marianne Vos in a last-lap thriller, whilst Wout van Aert took the title in the men’s race. Last year, a heavy crash on the snow took Van Empel out, paving the way for Puck Pieterse to take victory, whilst the men’s race, in the absence of the ‘big three’, was won by Michael Vanthourenhout.

This year, Val di Sole is another event in the middle of the World Cup participation debate, with the trip down to Italy simply not proving worthwhile for many riders. As a result, several big names will be missing, including Van Empel, Lucinda Brand, Lars van der Haar and Van Aert, who is starting his ‘cross-campaign this weekend in Essen.

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As a result, the startlists for both elite races are relatively small, but with the likes of Pieterse, Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, Eli Iserbyt and Vanthourenhout all heading to Italy, the snow and cold of Val di Sole should still produce some exciting racing. Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Sunday’s races.

The course

The Val di Sole Bike Park is no stranger to bike racing, with the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup often visiting in the summer, and in 2021 the owners brought winter cyclo-cross racing to the park in Trentino, northern Italy. Covered in snow for the last two editions, the cyclo-cross racing looks very different from the summery mountain biking we usually see in Val di Sole.

Naturally, the snow and ice is the main talking point when it comes to the course. Tightly packed snow and slippery ice are very different from the mud and grass that cyclo-cross riders usually have to contend with. This means riders need strong technical and bike handling skills to get around the course without crashing, and also need a lot of endurance to deal with the constantly challenging riding.

In terms of the actual course itself, there isn’t too much in terms of features, with the terrain providing most of the difficulty. There is this year the addition of barriers for the riders to bunnyhop or jump over, and there is also a pair of short but very steep ‘snow hills’. These sharp ascents would be hard to deal with anyway, but are made harder by the snow, meaning keeping momentum will be key.

If the last two years are anything to go by, crashes are to be expected on this course, and with the unpredictable nature of the terrain, riders will prefer to be out front on their own, rather than battling for position through icy, treacherous corners.

The contenders

In all likelihood, the women’s race becomes a two-horse race in the absence of the likes of Fem van Empel and Lucinda Brand. In their place, the returning Puck Pieterse (Fenix-Deceuninck) and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado (Alpecin-Deceuninck) should be a cut above the rest of the field, with both riders sporting multiple podium placings thus far this season.

Pieterse was part of the ‘big three’ alongside Van Empel and Shirin van Anrooij (Baloise Trek Lions) last year, but has only raced four times thus far this season, with her two World Cup appearances yielding two second-place finishes. In the latest of those two podiums, the 21-year-old was comfortably beaten by Alvarado, which will spur her on towards revenge on Sunday. However, Alvarado herself will be keen to make up for a lost opportunity in Flamenville last week, a race she was due to start but was ultimately forced to miss through illness.

The Dutchwoman is enjoying her best campaign in a number of seasons and currently leads the World Cup standings. With the next five riders in the standings all missing in action at the World Cup in Val di Sole, another impressive performance could see her extend her handsome advantage in the leader’s jersey.

In their Val di Sole showdown last season, it was Pieterse who came out on top with a 44-second advantage over second-placed Alvarado, and it would not be a surprise to see a very similar top five come the end of the race on Sunday.

Last year, it was Crelan-Corendon’s Manon Bakker in third place, with Maghalie Rochette in fifth. The pair will be back in Italy this weekend and keen to find a spot on the podium in the absence of some of the big stars.

Elsewhere, Canada’s Sydney McGill will seek to replicate her top 10 from last year, whilst Italy’s Sara Casasola will hope to use the hills to her advantage and provide an entertaining ride in front of her home crowd.

In the men’s field, we so often speak about the battle between Baloise Trek Lions and Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal, but the former of these two teams is looking rather weak for the race on Sunday. Both Lars van der Haar and Thibau Nys have decided against interrupting their training for a trip to Italy. Van der Haar spoke to GCN last month about his plans for a mid-season training camp in Mallorca, whilst Nys is stepping back from racing until the New Year.

In their absence, Baloise Trek Lions’ hopes will be carried solely by Joris Nieuwenhuis, who was only seven seconds off a podium finish in Flamanville. The 27-year-old is a dependable rider who will no doubt be in the fight for a top three spot again, but he will have to do battle with Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal’s troublesome trio alone.

Their ambitions will, of course, be led by Eli Iserbyt, Michael Vanthourenhout and Ryan Kamp, and it was Vanthourenhout who ploughed his way to victory in the snow last season. The European champion has not won since retaining his white, blue and gold jersey in Pont-Château in November, but showed hints of a return to form at Superprestige Boom with a fifth-place finish.

However, all three will have to look out for Alpecin-Deceuninck’s Niels Vandeputte, who finished runner-up to Vanthourenhout in Italy last year, and has been nothing if not consistent thus far in the 2023/24 season. As have Cameron Mason (Cyclocross Reds), Toon Vandebosch and Joran Wyseure (both Crelan-Corendon). All four will be hoping to cause an upset in the unique conditions of Trentino.

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