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Puck Pieterse (Fenix-Deceuninck) took her first win of the 2023-24 cyclocross season at the Gavere World Cup, ending World Champion Fem van Empel’s win streak in the process.
Van Empel had won the previous 11 races she started this season and the final five at the back end of last season in a winning streak that extends back to January 15 2023 where Pieterse took the win at the Dutch national championships.
The World Champion crashed in the recon and looked uncomfortable during the opening few laps with her right knee bandaged up. She struggled on the first few climbs with unclipping, but settled into the race and eventually crossed the line in second, 0:28 down on Pieterse.
Pieterse led after attacking past Marie Schreiber (SD Worx) on the opening lap, and despite slipping out twice and having to battle with World Cup leader Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado (Alpecin-Deceuninck) in the middle portion, she was too strong on the day.
“It feels great to be back on top, especially on such a tough course,” said Pieterse immediately after. “Of course I’m really happy, I really wanted to win and when it works out it’s the best.”
Van Empel stressed it wasn’t her knee that was the issue, but was unsure of why she couldn’t hold the pace.
“A little bit [disappointed], the first three laps I don’t know what happened, maybe a little off day or something but there was one girl stronger today so she deserves it,” said Van Empel.
“I couldn’t go full gas so I don’t know, maybe I’m a little bit tired but it can happen.”
How it unfolded
The drama began even before the explosive sprint off the start line as Van Empel took a tumble at the bottom of the sharp descent section, starting the race with her right knee covered up.
Schreiber was the fastest off the line as she has been for a lot of the season, but the 20-year-old was soon left behind by Pieterse who laid down a marker with an early attack. Pieterse built a big advantage on the opening lap despite hitting the deck twice after sliding out of a rut.
As the riders hit the first few repetitions of the main climb, Van Empel was evidently not at her dominant best from the last 11 races this season – 15 seconds back at the end of lap 1, but instead looked uncomfortable and missed her pedals on the uphill gradient, causing her to yoyo behind Lucinda Brand (Baloise Trek Lions).
The muddy conditions caked the riders’ bikes, causing them to change bikes on each lap. Pieterse had come accustomed to the conditions after her early visits to the ground, now looking the strongest ahead of Alvarado at the front.
The pair battled for a couple of laps with Alvarado notably better on the descent section, but Pieterse’s power eventually became too much and forced the former World Champion to drop back.
Van Empel caught Alvarado after refinding her legs in the middle portion of the race, eventually making the pass as Alvarado made a small mistake around a corner.
Pieterse was too far up the road, however, and carried her lead all the way to the line for her first victory of the season. She had been on the podium of all seven of her previous participations but wasn’t at the level of Van Empel yet.
Now Pieterse seems to have closed the gap to the World Champion, albeit with Van Empel’s crash and a possible off-day considered, heading into the remainder of races in the Christmas period and the run-up to the World Championships in Tabor.
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