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Spain’s “sunshine coast” was treated to two red-hot races in Benidorm.
Van der Poel’s victory was perfectly timed in what was his final ‘cross against Van Aert before the February world championships, and after being nagged by a return of back problems in recent races.
“It was a great battle against Wout in the end, I’m really happy to win,” Van der Poel said at the finish. “I felt quite good, the back was better than previous races and I could really go deep again. That was what I needed today, to win.”
In the women’s race, Van Empel accelerated to force a gap from Silvia Persico and Shirin van Anrooij before she despatched archrival Puck Pieterse for her 12th victory of the winter.
“It was a very nice battle with the four of us, but with Puck and me, it was a real fight to the end,” Van Empel said.
The World Cup debut of the Costa Blancan race Sunday saw sand, grass, and tarmac sections stacked into a fast, dry circuit punctuated by stairs and hop-able barriers.
Some 15,000 spectators came out to cheer for two stadium-worthy shows in the penultimate round of the UCI’s leading cyclocross series.
Van der Poel takes Van Aert to a sprint after high-pace thrill ride
Van Aert and Van der Poel dominated the final of Sunday’s ‘cross, but it was Tom Pidcock who crushed the early circuits in what was his final race wearing the rainbow jersey.
The world champ powered away from the pack after just four minutes of racing, forcing Van der Poel to drag a bunch of big hitters across in the third lap.
Van der Poel was relentless through the middle of the race. The Dutch ace made moves across the crucial sandpit section in three consecutive circuits only to see Van Aert drag numbers back to him each time.
The race briefly bunched back to a group of six for a half-lap before the two crushers of modern ‘cross peeled clear and took turns hammering at one another.
Van der Poel twice divebombed inside Van Aert to hunt the crucial winning lines, but couldn’t drop his longtime rival through the nail-biter final.
The two steamed around the corner into the final sprint, but Van Aert almost caught the barriers after taking a wide line. Van Aert had to check, leaving Van der Poel to cross the line, take victory, and collapse in exhaustion.
“I’m glad I didn’t crash, but I’m more disappointed I missed the win,” Van Aert said afterward.
“I regret my tactics, I had to go all-in from the climb to the last part and try to hold the lead, but I was more focussed on staying in the front rather than setting a hard pace. Mathieu surprised me a bit when he passed me, then I couldn’t make up anymore.”
Pidcock finished fifth and now hangs up his ‘cross cleats as he clambers into road mode for the rest of the year.
Michael Vanthourenhout did not start the ‘cross due to illness, leaving Laurens Sweeck to secure a dominant lead in the standings.
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Van Empel overcomes Pieterse after four-rider throwdown
The women’s race was a true four-rider royal rumble.
Van Empel, Pieterse, Van Anrooij and multi-discipline maestro Persico hit to the front early on and rapidly left the bunch behind.
The awesome foursome was locked at each others’ wheel throughout, with each rider taking turns trying to squeeze the pace over favored parts of the circuit.
Pieterse began to pile on the pressure in lap six of seven, and only Van Empel could counter. The two World Cup dominators peeled away before Van Anrooij and then Persico clawed back from the brink of being dropped.
Van Empel smashed the hammer down in the last lap and only Pieterse could cling on.
The two were shoulder to shoulder through the technical final sectors, but Van Empel finally forced a winning gap just a few corners from the finish.
Victory gives Van Empel a 45-point lead in the World Cup standings ahead of the final round in Besançon next weekend – and reinforces her status as a top-favorite for the February worlds in her first season with Jumbo-Visma.
“I never expected this before the season. The goal was to win one or two World Cups, but I surprised myself week by week,” Van Empel said at the finish.
“After my injury and after last Sunday (where Van Empel missed out on the Dutch national title – ed), mentally it was not very easy. But I had good people around me and they helped me a lot. I looked forward to today’s race … I’m very happy.”
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