European Cyclo-cross Championships: Fem van Empel powers through the mud to win Elite Women's title

Dutch superstar remains unbeaten this season, as Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, Inge van der Heijden and Sara Casasola battle for podium places

Clock13:53, Sunday 5th November 2023
Fem van Empel was unstoppable in the mud of France on Sunday

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

Fem van Empel was unstoppable in the mud of France on Sunday

After heading into the European Cyclo-cross Championships with six wins from six, it was always going to be a tough ask to defeat Fem van Empel of the Netherlands. Too tough a task it proved, as the Jumbo-Visma multi-disciplinary dominated her opponents in the mud to retain her European title.

As the current world champion, Van Empel will not get to don the white, blue and gold jersey for the rest of the season, but will toast yet another prestigious victory in what is proving to be a season for the ages.

Behind Van Empel, a three-way battle erupted for the remaining two podium spots between Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado (Netherlands), Sara Casasola (Italy) and Inge van der Heijden (Netherlands). For most of the race, Alvarado led the chase of Van Empel, but in truth, no rider ever came close to the young Dutchwoman once she had attacked on the opening lap.

With Van Empel up the field and out of sight, the space emerged for Casasola to enjoy some well-deserved limelight as she produced the best performance of her fledgling career to date. The Italian was not quite a match for silver medalist Alvarado, but was able to outpace Van der Heijden as the race drew on to win the bronze medal.

"In the first lap, I made too many mistakes," admitted Van Empel after the finish. "It was quite hard to get in my rhythym, but luckily the plan was to attack on the first uphill part and that succeeded."

"For now, some rest days," the Dutchwoman responded when questioned about her next objectives.

"It is quite hard mentally to be at the start line as a top favourite, so physically I am in very good shape, but mentally it is quite hard to motrivate myself each time, so it is time for some rest."

Fem van Empel makes devastating attack within the opening lap

Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado of the Netherlands enjoyed the best start of the pack, whilst France's Évita Muzic became quickly hampered at the bottom of an early descent. She was not the only rider to become quickly caked in mud, as the rain poured in Pont-Château in Western France.

Of the riders positioned slightly further down the field from the off, Great Britain's Anna Kay made the most impressive start, quickly joining the back of the first group alongside Annemarie Worst (Netherlands), Fem van Empel (Netherlands) and

Despite Alvarado's fantastic start, the first big move of the day came from Van Empel a little over seven minutes into the first lap, with the world champion powering away from her Dutch compatriot on a small climb.

With her burst of acceleration, a three-second gap opened up over Alvarado and Inge van der Heijden (Netherlands) as the leading trio ended their first 2.92km lap. The only non-Dutch rider within the top six after the opening lap was Italy's Sara Casasola, who was in fourth place ahead of Worst, Annie van Alphen (Netherlands) and Kay. Their deficit was already 11 seconds to an imperious looking Van Empel.

As Alvarado battled to try and bridge the gap to Van Empel on the second lap, Van der Hiejden was slightly distanced and the squeals of disc brakes rung out throughout the course.

Such was the difficulty of the weather conditions that whilst the Junior Women rode their laps earlier in the day at around a time of 7:50, the Elite Women could only muster an 8:37 first lap over the muddy fields of Pont-Château.

Unbeaten in cyclocross since January, Van Empel had extended her advantage to 26 seconds over Alvarado by the end of the second lap. As one of the more powerful riders in the field, the uphill sections through thick, gloopy mud certainly suited Van Empel, who was able to squeeze out an increased gap with what seemed like every pedal stroke.

Worst crashes out, as Casasola produces a career performance

Van Empel's first bike change came in the third lap, but the gaps remained true, with Van der Heijden and Casasola riding in third and fourth, respectively.

The organisers had deemed the race would be six laps long, and it were the opening laps that began to pinch Alvarado, who was caught and passed by Van der Heijden having overexerted herself looking to close the gap to Van Empel.

Further down the field, Worst came in too hot to the stairs out on the course, which saw her take a tumble and allow Van Alphen to extend her advantage in fifth place. By this point it seemed as though the battle for the podium spots behind Van Empel would be decided by Alvarado, Van der Heijden and Casasola.

Worst, the 2018 European Cyclo-cross champion, would abandon the race shortly after, clearly suffering with the bruising she took in the crash.

By the end of the fourth lap, meanwhile, Van Empel's textbook performance had given her a 1:13 lead over Alvarado, 1:26 over Casasola and 1:36 over Van der Heijden - who had begun to lose out to the Italian in the battle for third.

Van Empel wins alone in dominant fashion

A status quo emerged throughout the fifth lap as Van Empel continued her solo march, Alvarado led the chase alone and Casasola extended her gap to Van der Heijden.

As Alvarado came across the line to take the bell behind Van Empel, the deficit stood at 1:19 and all that was left was for the world champion to complete her final lap unscathed.

The gap between Alvarado and Casasola was too much for the 23-year-old to bridge, but Casasola made sure to keep up her momentum in search of the bronze medal.

With such an enormous gap over Alvarado in second, Van Empel used the remainder of the race to test out new lines and soak up the atmopshere of the supporters who had braved the intermittent rain.

A little stumble from Alvarado coloured the final lap, but she quickly recovered to maintain her lonely - and futile - pursuit of the race leader. There was no shame in anybody struggling through the muddy conditions, however, which made the course tougher as the race went on.

It was in these worsening conditions that Van der Heijden began to fade, with Casasola eventually crossing the line in third, some 43 seconds ahead of the Dutchwoman. With Van Empel followed by Alvarado, Casasola and Van der Heijden, the top five was rounded out by Van Alphen.

Further down the field, Marion Norbert Riberolle ghosted her way to a commendable sixth place, shortly followed by Kay in seventh, Sanne Cant (Belgium) in eighth, Laura Verdonschot in ninth and the first French rider, Amandine Fouquenet, in tenth.

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Race Results

1

nl flag

VAN EMPEL Fem

52' 44"

2

nl flag

ALVARADO Ceylin del Carmen

+ 1' 35"

3

it flag

CASASOLA Sara

+ 1' 56"

4

nl flag

VAN DER HEIJDEN Inge

+ 2' 39"

5

nl flag

VAN ALPHEN Aniek

+ 3' 06"

6

be flag

NORBERT RIBEROLLE Marion

+ 3' 18"

7

gb flag

KAY Anna

+ 3' 24"

8

be flag

CANT Sanne

+ 3' 44"

9

be flag

VERDONSCHOT Laura

+ 3' 58"

10

fr flag

FOUQUENET Amandine

+ 4' 15"

Provided by FirstCycling

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