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Fem van Empel (Netherlands) bounced back from an early mechanical to take a dominant victory in the women’s race at the European cyclocross championships in Namur.
The 20-year-old lost over 30 seconds to the leaders when she had to run back against the course to get into the pits after a puncture on the opening lap. Van Empel made quick work of getting back to the front before heading off solo on the fifth lap to win by 22 seconds.
Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado made it a 1-2 for the Dutch with Blanka Vas (Hungary) rolling in to take third.
Van Empel made a late decision to ride the elite race, having dominated the early part of the cyclocross season. Her elite European title cements her position as one of the stars of this cyclocross season.
“After my flat tire, I wanted to finish the finish line without regrets,” Van Empel said after the race. “I found a good pace and I caught them every loop so I’m very happy.
“I never thought I would take the jersey, but this is my eighth victory this season and I can’t believe it. Namur is very iconic. It was very slippery today, I like this course a lot and it looked like mountain bike.”
How it happened
The riders faced cold weather and muddy conditions in Namur following earlier downpours, which made for a very tricky course. One of the hardest parts proved to be an off-camber downhill corner in the second half of the lap. While some were able to ride down, others had to dismount to navigate it.
Though there was no clearly dominant rider early on, the Dutch squad appeared the strongest and put multiple riders up at the front, including world champion Marianne Vos, the on-form Van Empel, and Alvarado. Vas was one of the few riders who seemed to have the power to match the Dutch, along with Italy’s Sara Casasola.
Gaps began to widen as the riders moved onto the second lap with Van Empel and Vas pushing clear. Alvarado and Denise Betsema formed an all-Dutch chasing group with Casasola dropping Vos as she closed in on them.
There was huge drama as the leaders reached the pits with pre-race favorite Van Empel suffering a mechanical problem. She had not finished passing the pits and was able to run back against the race direction to enter the pits and pick up a new bike, leaving Vas to head off on her own.
Vas wasn’t alone for long as Betsema and Alvarado reeled her in soon after the pits. Behind, Van Empel was making quick progress catching and passing her teammates Vos and Annemarie Worst before the end of lap two. She was just 20 seconds behind the leaders as she crossed the line and she had Casasola in her sights next.
Up front, Alvarado was pushing the pace and she put in some stern digs on the climbs that littered the course, putting Betsema into difficulty with each move. Vas was also caught on the backfoot following one of Alvarado’s attacks, but she caught her back after making ground on another uphill section.
Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, who had been one of the outside favorites for the podium before the race, struggled to make an impact. The Frenchwoman was back in 10th place just under a minute behind the leaders on lap three.
Van Empel had caught Betsema by the end of the third lap but soon dropped her as they hit the first climb of lap four. Just as she had the two leaders within touching distance, Vas decided to attack on yet another uphill ramp, forcing Van Empel to chase for that little bit longer.
Vas was finally caught by Van Empel coming into the latter part of the fourth lap with Alvarado close behind. Having yo-yoed off the back of the lead group for much of the race, Betsema looked like she had finally cracked and the gap to the three up front widened.
Heading into the penultimate lap, Van Empel and Alvarado had a small lead on Vas, who looked to be tiring. As the lap progressed, Van Empel pulled out a small lead on her teammate but she was struggling to get rid of Alvarado until the older rider slipped on a corner coming into a climb and had to dismount and run to the top.
Once Alvarado was gone, Van Empel stepped it up another level and there was no catching her before the line. She had plenty of time to celebrate as she crossed the line some 22 seconds before Alvarado, with Vas holding off Betsema to take third.
Ferrand-Prévot made up some positions in the final laps of the race to eventually come home in seventh, while Vos finished in ninth at 3:07 behind Van Empel.
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