A day after her long sequence without defeat was broken in Gavere, Fem van Empel (Jumbo-Visma) responded with victory at Superprestige Heusden-Zolder after a gripping duel with Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado (Alpecin-Deceuninck).
Van Empel had to fight hard for her victory, recovering from a mid-race crash and then withstanding some fierce attacking from Alvarado on the final lap. The race pitted the world champion’s power against Alvarado’s technical skills, and the contest was too close to call for much of the finale.
However, once Van Empel resisted Alvarado’s last onslaught, the direction of travel finally looked clear. Alvarado led out the sprint, but she was unable to match Van Empel’s turn of speed. “I was really keen to be good here,” Van Empel said afterwards.
While the television footage focused, understandably, on the duel out in front, Inge van der Heijden (Crelan-Corendon) produced a fine performance, pressing clear of the chasers midway through the race and coming home third on the day, 16 seconds down, while Sanne Cant (Fenix–Deceuninck) took fourth at 40 seconds.
Not for the first time this winter, Marie Schreiber (SD Worx) was quickest off the mark at the start, racing to the front and stretching out the field on the flat and fast opening section. She was soon joined by Superprestige leader Annemarie Worst (777), Van Empel and Alvarado. By the final portion of the opening lap, Van Empel was already beginning to run through her repertoire, and it looked as though the world champion was eager to make a statement after her missing out in Gavere 24 hours earlier.
Alvarado was not deterred, however, and the Dutchwoman came to the fore on the second lap, launching an acceleration that saw Worst and Schreiber lose contact with the front group. Only Van Empel could follow, and the remainder of the race would be a thrilling duel between the front two, who both enjoyed periods of supremacy without ever distancing the other.
A key moment came on lap three, when Van Empel opened a lead on Alvarado on the steepest climb and then tried to press home her advantage on the technical, sandy descent that followed. It was almost her undoing: Van Empel crashed on the descent, falling on the same knee she injured the previous afternoon. She took a few seconds before remounting, while Alvarado cruised past to open a six-second lead by the end of the lap.
“I fell off my bike with all my weight and landed on my knee. I thought for a moment: shit,” Van Empel said. “But you might as well get back up and luckily, I was able to continue on my way again. Of course, you can’t give Ceylin too much space. I had to get back up there again, but luckily I managed it.”
Van Empel, however, diligently closed the gap again on lap four and she again proceeded to pile the pressure on Alvarado in the same point on the course. This time, however, Alvarado fared better, while Van Empel was understandably cautious on the descent.
On the penultimate lap, Van Empel pressed again but Alvarado was already clawing her way back on even before the world champion was stalled by lapped riders.
The pair took the bell with a winning lead and they slowed as they prepared for the final onslaught. Alvarado looked the sharper on the final lap, trying repeatedly to open a gap over Van Empel, but once the world champion survived the last climb and descent, the balance tipped decisively in her favour, and she was a comfortable winner in the two-up sprint.
Behind, Van der Heijden was the best of the rest ahead of Cant. Kristýna Zemanová (Brilon Racing Team) also impressed among the chasers in the middle portion of the race, and although she faded in the finale, she was full value for fifth place, at 58 seconds.
Worst had to settle for sixth place, which means her overall lead in the Superprestige series is cut to just one point ahead of Alvarado with two rounds remaining. Alvarado will sense a chance to move into the lead as soon as Thursday when the series resumes in Diegem.
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