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Puck Pieterse (Fenix Deceuninck) mastered the sand to take a third 2023-2024 World Cup victory at Zonhoven ahead of Inge van der Heijden (Crelan-Corendon) and Zoe Backstedt (Canyon-SRAM) in a race overshadowed by a heavy crash for Lucinda Brand (Baloise Trek Lions) whilst leading the field.
Brand skidded heavily on a left-hand bend at speed on the third lap, injuring her face and leaving the race on foot immediately afterwards.
Pieterse had endured a difficult start, puncturing on the first lap, but was able to fight back and move into the lead when Brand crashed.
The Dutchwoman claimed her second straight World Cup victory as a result and moved up to second overall in the series. Afterwards, she recognised that luck had played a part in her latest win whilst wishing Brand all the best for a speedy recovery.
“I had a flat back tyre at the start, so I just tried to stay close to the front and that chasing back took a bit of energy out of me,” she said.
“Then suddenly I saw Lucinda standing on a corner, and I thought she had a mechanical or something.
“But a few corners later, I could see she still wasn’t there anymore. That was a bit of luck for me, of course, but I hope everything is fine with her.”
How it unfolded
On a bitterly cold day in East Belgium, Pieterse was quickly in the lead of the 57-rider field, but the Dutchwoman was unfortunate enough to puncture early on, giving Brand a free hand to move into the lead position.
Brand gave it everything she could early on, taking a steady line through the sand, looking for the harder-packed sections, and gaining 12 seconds on Backstedt and Van der Heijden by the end of the first lap of six.
Pieterse was closing in on fourth at that point after her unlucky early start, and she moved onto the provisional podium shortly afterwards. But after two laps, the gap between Brand and PIeterse still stood at 19 seconds, seemingly making bridging that gap a tough ask.
Pieterse was not giving up, though, dropping Backstedt shortly after the third descent of the daunting downhill sandpit, going all the way to the corners on her bike rather than dismounting and keeping within contention of Brand. Just as it seemed that Brand had it in control, she crashed badly, skidding very heavily at speed on a lefthand bend on lap three and allowing Pieterse to move into the top spot in the race.
Clutching her nose in pain, Brand was clearly out of the race, calling for medics and walking off the course surrounded by concerned team helpers and officials. Pieterse, meanwhile, crossed the finish line for a fourth time with an eight-second advantage over Van der Heijden and Backstedt.
Van der Heijden’s fastest third lap, three seconds up on PIeterse, did not bode well for the leading Dutchwoman, particularly as Backstedt faded slightly in the second half of the race, but in fact Pieterse was in storming form. Having won her last three races, two of them World Cups, negotiating the daunting sandy descents with breathtaking skill and maintaining her speed on the draggy rises with the odd post-push, the gap remained narrow but solid all the way through lap five and lap six.
“Things were OK by that point. I had a bit of difficulty in the sand, but I tried to play it safe on the descents because you can get really high with all the people cheering you on, and you want to go really fast. I know, though, it’s better to stay safe than to crash,” Pieterse said later.
Pieterse crossed the line with an advantage of 24 seconds on Van der Heijden and 41 on Backstedt, with Van der Heijden saying she was more than delighted with her second place. “I could go full gas all the way and didn’t have problems on the sand, I took it easy on the downhills, and I really surprised myself. This is a bit like a victory for me,” she said.
Already the winner at Hexia Gullegem this weekend on a very different, mud-filled course, Backstedt was equally pleased, although also remembering Brand despite her personal satisfaction.
“I’m cold now, but give me ten minutes I’ll be over the moon about this,” Backstedt said afterwards. “I was in a little bit of a hurt box, so I’m really happy to get third, I also would have been happy with fourth, but unfortunately, Lucinda crashed, and I wish her a speedy recovery.”
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