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Fem van Empel led a Dutch one-two-three in winning the women’s title at the cyclo-cross world championships on Saturday.
With compatriot and defending champion Marianne Vos out injured, Van Empel took full advantage to lead home Puck Pieterse and Lucinda Brand.
On a memorable day for the Dutch, the home side had seven riders in the first eight places — only Italy’s Italian Silvia Persico in fourth broke the stranglehold.
The turning point of the race came on the fourth of seven laps when Pieterse crashed, losing control of her front wheel on a fast corner.
Van Empel then accelerated away to defeat fellow 20-year-old Pieterse.
“I put the gas on when I realised that Puck had slipped,” said European champion Van Empel whose road power trumped the technicality of mountain bike specialist Pieterse.
Jumbo-Visma team leader Van Empel has now won 14 of 22 cyclo-cross races this winter. Pieterse finished all her 19 races on the podium.
On Sunday, the sport’s biggest stars Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert will clash for the men’s title.
Van der Poel, the four-time cyclo-cross world champion and the winner of three road classics, is on home mud in Hoogerheide in the Netherlands.
Belgian van Aert, who won the green points jersey in last year’s Tour de France, has won the world title three times.
The reigning champion, Tom Pidcock of Britain is skipping the event to attend a training camp in Spain, preparing for the road-racing season.
Van Aert and Van der Poel have met 10 times on the mud already this season. All the races have been close, but the Belgian has come out on top six times.
“It will probably be 50/50. It will all depend on the form on the day. Until then, I’m going to rest well so that I have my best legs of the season in a week,” Van der Poel said last Sunday, after he won the World Cup race in Besancon, France, where Van Aert did not compete.
Barring mechanical problems, so frequent in the sport, it is hard to see who could disrupt the fight between Van der Poel and Van Aert.
Their strongest rivals are a trio of Belgians, Laurens Sweeck, Eli Iserbyt and Michael Vanthourenhout, who between them won the first six races as the big two both skipped the start of the World Cup season.