The 2023-2024 cyclocross season reaches its pinnacle this weekend with the World Championships in Tábor, Czechia as defending champions Mathieu van der Poel and Fem van Empel look to retain their rainbow jerseys, both arriving as heavy favourites after dominating their respective elite calendars.
Between them, they have taken 29 wins from the 32 races they have started. Van Empel managed 11 victories in a row before she was beaten in Gavere, while Van der Poel’s only defeat came in Benidorm after hitting a pole and crashing as close rival Wout van Aert rode to victory.
Van der Poel has a long history with Tábor and 2024 marks nine years since he claimed his first elite world title in the Czech town and became the youngest-ever elite men’s World Champion. He and Van Aert chose to debut at senior worlds following a season of already competing with the best at just 20. A decision he called “the best choice of my life so far” in 2015.
Unaware of its significance at the time, Tábor has become the site where one of Cyclocross’ finest-ever riders found his first monumental senior success. The first of many both in the off-road discipline and on the road where he has now developed into one of the riders of a generation. Four more CX rainbow jerseys, the road world title, stages of Grand Tours, a stint in the maillot jaune and maglia rosa and four Monuments have followed since that day.
The Dutchman has hinted that it could be his final appearance in cyclocross without much left to achieve in the general cyclocross racing calendar and it not adding much to his abilities in the spring Classics, also admitting that it would be hard to match the euphoria of that first world title in 2015 even with a sixth triumph.
“The finish was quite emotional. Equalling [Tábor in 2015] now is difficult. The first time is often the best,” said Van der Poel in a recent press conference.
When asked if Tábor would be his final dance in CX, he said, “I’ll have to think about that and see,” adding that stopping after a seventh title might be nice. “First elite world title in cyclocross in 2015, now again in Tábor. It could be full circle, but I don’t know yet.”
There aren’t many courses not suited to Van der Poel’s abilities, but Tábor specifically has been one where his raw power mixed with excellent technical skills have resulted in him taking many wins here throughout his career – from as a 17-year-old in 2012 to his most recent win there in 2019.
Van der Poel twice won the senior and junior World Cup rounds in Tábor and although the course may be slightly different in 2024 from that at which he took the title ahead of Van Aert in 2015, the flying Dutchman will certainly fancy his chances on the fast and pure-power course in Czechia.
Since Van der Poel’s crowning day in 2015, only two other men have won world titles, Van Aert three times from 2016-18 and Tom Pidcock in 2022 where neither the Dutchman nor Belgian took the start in Fayetteville. But both have decided to miss out on worlds with their other targets at the Tour, Giro and Olympics respectively taking priority.
Their absence, coupled with Van der Poel’s 12 wins from 13 record, pointed towards somewhat of a formality in 2024 with it almost looking impossible for the Dutchman to not claim his sixth world title and move alone to the second most all-time behind Erik De Vlaeminck (7-time champion).
However, the last three races have thrown some doubt in the mix with Van der Poel not dominating in the same manner as the Christmas period where over one-minute finishing gaps were becoming regular for the Dutchman.
The X2O Trofee round in Hamme and Hoogerheide World Cup saw Van der Poel only make separation late into the day with European Champion Michael Vanthourenhout (Pauwelz-Sauzen-Bingoal) and reigning U23 World Champion Thibau Nys (Baloise Trek Lions) almost surviving the brutal accelerations to challenge for victory – Van der Poel was still victorious on both occasions but it was much closer than it had been all season.
Despite this, Van der Poel’s biggest barrier to a sixth elite world title does appear to be himself after Benidorm highlighted how defining a late crash can be. So although he will be the massive favourite and likely too strong for the field, a crash could see someone become the only other rider besides Van Aert to beat Van der Poel in an elite CX World Championships.
The race behind will be furious for the podium spots with several riders swapping out for wins throughout the season, and it will be the age-old Dutch-Belgian battle that unfolds in Tábor. The Dutch trio of Pim Ronhaar, Lars van der Haar and Joris Nieuwenhuis will be vying for an orange lockout of the podium while Thibau Nys, Eli Iserbyt and Vanthourenhout fly the Belgian flag.
All six have taken wins this season without any emerging as the obvious best, but Van der Haar, Iserbyt and Vanthourenhout have all been previous winners in Tábor, so expect great racing for second and third even if Van der Poel leaves the rest behind in the opening laps.
This is Tábor’s fourth time hosting the cyclocross World Championships after 2001, 2010 and the aforementioned 2015, with the 2010 race seeing home favourite Zdenek Štybar take his first of three world titles. Štybar will bring the curtain down on his illustrious career after Sunday’s race on the course he knows best.
Dutch squad to battle out women’s race
Fem van Empel will head to Tábor as a similarly heavy favourite in the women’s race as without a doubt the best rider this season, honouring the rainbow jersey in the best way and taking 17 wins from 19 appearances – at still only 21 years old.
The defending champion will have close competition from her Dutch “teammates” as she tries to retain her crown with Puck Pieterse, Lucinda Brand and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado offering up close competition throughout the season.
Pieterse was the victor on both occasions Van Empel missed out and has been a close rival of hers throughout the pair’s rise up the junior, U23 and now elite ranks. Pieterse is the same age as Van Empel at 21 but has differing qualities to her compatriot which could play a part in Saturday’s race.
“We can only make each other stronger,” said Pieterse to Cyclingnews on her rivalry with Van Empel. “How it’s been for the last year for example and the year before, it’s very nice to keep seeing each other and keep competing against each other because you keep each other sharp as well.”
When the pair took first and second at the Tábor World Cup last season, Pieterse tried to make her race-winning move on the boards section, which goes uphill in Tábor, as the only rider able to hurdle them on her bike, but Van Empel had too much power in the final lap and rode away to victory.
A similar situation played out in the Benidorm World Cup two weeks ago where despite Pieterse’s technical advantage over the boards, Van Empel was able to again get the better of her with a dive up the inside of the penultimate corner. Pieterse isn’t likely to leave the door open as she did in Spain, but was ill at the last race in Hoogerheide so her exact form heading into the weekend is unknown.
“It’s a shame, I have never had such a long period in which I was able to train at a lower quality,” said Pieterse to WielerFlits after a disappointing eighth place in Hoogerheide. “I am not necessarily going to the World Championship with a good feeling, but I am open to everything. It goes the way it goes.”
Hoogeheide did similarly for Van Empel as it did for Van der Poel, asking the question of whether Saturday’s race is as foregone a conclusion as it had been throughout the season. Van Empel was pushed right to the very last, only securing the win in a final sprint as a new name emerged as a challenger in Hungary’s Blanka Kata Vas. The 22-year-old is refinding her form after a broken collarbone ruined her early CX season at just the perfect moment ahead of Saturday’s race.
Former World Champion Brand and World Cup overall winner Alvarado are the other big challengers for the title having won multiple races this season and often pushed Van Empel to her limit during the season. Brand especially should be able to use her large endurance base throughout the laps in Tábor to ride for a solid result and will be spurred on after claiming the Dutch national title last month ahead of Pieterse even with a broken nose.