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Fem van Empel fends off Marianne Vos in spectacular Val di Sole ‘cross World Cup

Van Empel takes breakout elite win, Canadian rider Maghalie Rochette finishes third to continue upward progress through the season.

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Fem van Empel (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) took a thrilling win in the snow of Val di Sole after a dramatic last-lap battle with Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma).

U23 world champion van Empel showed her technical skills by leading from the first lap and looked to be heading for a comfortable solo win. But Vos had other ideas. Vos chased down her young compatriot on the final lap and made a daring overtaking move on the penultimate corner, then crashed. Van Empel stayed on her bike and was able to sprint away for the win.

With World Cup leader Lucinda Brand missing, the race was a significant opportunity for Denise Betsema (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) to make up some ground in the overall World Cup ranking. Betsema, however, could only finish fifth. With six races to go, Brand has 252 points, ahead of Betsema with 244 points.

Today’s course was situated in the Nordic skiing center in Vermiglio, 1261m above sea level, at the foot of the Passo Del Tonale in the Italian Alps.

Heavy snowfalls during the week meant that there was plenty of snow for the course builders to pack down around the circuit. Along with the usual decisions to make about tire tread patterns and pressures the riders had to work out how to cope with the sub-zero temperatures.

Doesn’t get much more spectacular than that. (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

“If your body freezes, then it’s hard to push hard.” Maghalie Rochette (Feedback Specialized) said before the race. ‘I’ll have a few ‘hot pads’ on my toes, hands, and maybe even behind my neck and on my belly to help keep the body temperature high enough to push hard.

“We also bought a small blow-torch for the pits. In the snow, your pedals and cleats freeze completely. The snow freezes into a ball of ice under your shoes and you can’t clip in. With a blow torch, if I change bikes in the pits, my mechanic will be able to melt the ice on my pedals.”

Under bright sunshine, van Empel was the fastest away from the start.

Vos, Betsema, and Rochette all started fast but soon discovered that trying to go too fast at the wrong points in the track resulted in mistakes. Every rider slid out on the icy ruts. Some, like Vos and Puck Pieterse (Alpecin Fenix), dropped their chains and lost valuable time digging them out of their bottom brackets.

By the end of lap two, Van Empel had twenty seconds over Rochette and Betsema, with Vos several further places back. But Vos wasn’t giving up. She charged back through the field and set off in pursuit of van Empel. Contact was made on the picturesque – and very steep – wooden bridge over the river. Van Empel ran with her bike, Vos rode.

Vos knew that the short finishing straight meant the first rider through the final corner would be the winner. Her overtaking maneuver on a tight right-hand corner didn’t pay off.

Vos clipped the barriers and tumbled to the ground in front of Van Empel, who was powerless to do anything but wait for the Jumbo-Visma rider to untangle herself. As soon as her path cleared, Van Empel shot off. Vos had to run, then remount and that small difference decided the race.

“In the last corner Marianne fell, mentally it was very difficult and I was thinking maybe I’d even lost a podium place, but I stayed calm and took the win,” van Empel said.

Vos was characteristically sanguine in her appraisal.

“In the end, I’m happy I could race for the win,” she said. “I made a mistake in the passing move. I knew it was hard to pass at the finishing line and there weren’t many options.”

UCI Cyclocross World Cup Vale di Sole women’s elite results
1. Fem van Empel (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal): 51:50
2. Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma): +:06
3. Maghalie Rochette (Feedback-Specialized): +:11
4. Eva Lechner (FAS Airport Services): +:23
5. Denise Betsema (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) +:45