Van der Poel’s quadruple and Van Empel’s first title at the 2021 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships

The final day of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Ostend (Belgium) celebrated the rising talent of 18-year-old Fem van Empel in the Women U23 race and confirmed the rainbow supremacy of Mathieu van der Poel, who claimed a phenomenal fourth Men Elite title. Once again, the winners are all from the Netherlands with another Dutch rider, Aniek van Alphen, on the Women U23 podium, in second, and Hungary’s Blanka Kata Vas in third place – while the men's was completed by Belgians Wout van Aert and Toon Aerts.

“I can’t believe it, I have no words”, said the new Women U23 UCI World Champion Fem van Empel, who claimed the third successive rainbow jersey for the Netherlands this weekend. “I think and dream about this. Before the race, mentally, I was very good. I believed in myself the whole race and on the last lap I could make it happen. It’s fantastic. In the sand, I made the difference. My coach said I must be first into the sand after the bridge. I pushed on the bridge, but Blanka Kata Vas went all out.”

“The flat tyre for Van Aert was a little bit of luck from my side to come back but at that moment I didn’t feel the race was over yet,” said Mathieu van der Poel. “The course changed and became a bit faster at the beach section and I felt (I had) a bit better legs by then and I improved every lap running through the sand, so the good feeling was growing lap by lap and that made the difference for me today.”

One year ago Fem van Empel was primarily a soccer player who moved to cyclo-cross inspired by her father Paul, an amateur CX rider when he was younger. Fast forward 12 months and, at just 18 years, 3 months and 25 days old she took fourth place on the prestigious and tough Dendermonde (Belgium) course in the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup, ahead of several bigger name riders including the 2017 Women U23 UCI World Champion Annemarie Worst from the Netherlands and former triple rainbow jersey winner, Sanne Cant from Belgium.

As in both races on the first day of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships, the decisive action came on the demanding deep sand section where the Dutch rider attacked thanks to her powerful running and pulled out an important advantage over her compatriot Van Alphen and Hungary’s Blanka Kata Vas – who went on to finish second and third, respectively, with gaps of three and nine seconds.

The 2019 U23 rainbow jersey winner, Inge van der Heijden, from the Netherlands, had led the race from its tumultuous start – with several athletes involved in crashes, including Van Empel – and gained a lead of up to 10 seconds climbing the bridge back into the Hippodrome, but was caught by the trio and had to settle for fourth position at the finish.

The duel between Mathieu Van der Poel and Wout van Aert started right from the first corner, with the two favourites immediately taking off, also helped by a crash for the outsider Thomas Pidcock (GBR). The chasing group was made up of four more Belgian riders: Toon Aerts, Laurens Sweeck and Quinten Hermans with Michael Vanthourenhout, winner of the first round of the 2020-2021 UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup in Tábor (Czech Republic).

The turning point came on the second and third laps when Van Aert attacked on the sand, with the Dutch rider crashing shortly after. But the lonely lead of the Milan-Sanremo winner lasted only until the next circuit when Van der Poel changed his bike, came back quickly to the Belgian, and counter-attacked, gaining a few seconds also thanks to Van Aert's puncture. The Belgian  was forced to change his bike; a draw in terms of bad luck.

The gap between the two rivals remained under 10 seconds until the fifth lap when the Dutchman accelerated and almost doubled his advantage. In the meanwhile, Pidcock caught Aerts, moving into third provisional place. Shortly before the sixth bridge climb, Van Aert was forced to get off the bike, saying goodbye to his dreams of taking a fourth gold this year.

Van der Poel's lead increased lap after lap and despite slight difficulty just before the finish the 2020 Tour of Flanders winner triumphed in Ostend with 38 seconds over Van Aert. Third place went to Aerts in front of Pidcock, at 1’24’’ and 1’37’’ respectively. For the Netherlands it completed a perfect 2021 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships with four wins out of four races.