Van Empel and Van Der Poel Strong Favorites in Tábor World Championships

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

The UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships at the Czech town of Tabor kicked off on Friday with a bang as France’s final rider, junior rider Aubin Sparfel, held off Britain’s Cameron Mason by a whisker in the final sprint to win a famous victory for his country. Sparfel had begun the final lap with a lead of 7 seconds over Mason, thanks to France’s next-to-last rider, Hélène Clauzel, who turned a 20-second deficit to Britain’s Anna Kay into that lead of 7 seconds. Belgium finished third, 32 seconds behind the winners. Last year’s winning team from the Netherlands did not take part as they are concentrating on the individual events this year.

If this race was any indication of what is to come in Saturday’s Elite Women’s race and the Elite Men’s showdown on Sunday, this should be a hot weekend indeed. Though there are clear favorites in both races, the outcomes are perhaps not quite cut-and-dried, at least in the women’s race. On paper, Fem van Empel of the Netherlands looks almost as big a favorite as her male compatriot Mathieu van der Poel.  She has lost only two cyclocross races all season, some of them by substantial margins, and is clearly the strongest and best technical rider in the field.

Bike-handling is essential in the Tabor course, which punishes carelessness and technical errors, and she won the World Cup race held in Tabor two years ago. However, van Empel looked vulnerable in last weekend’s World Cup race in Hoogerheide, when she had to work very hard to shake off fellow Dutch rider Lucinda Brand and just barely outlasted Hungary’s Blanka Vas at the finish.

Mathieu van der Poel
Van der Poel is a strong favourite for the UCI World Championships. © Profimedia

But having said that, it’s important to remember that van der Poel, who also struggled a bit at Hoogerheide, complained afterwards of fatigue. Both he and van Empel followed the same schedule in the runup to the Worlds, racing at Benidorm, Hamme and Hoogerheide in one week. It’s fair to assume that she, like van der Poel, have rested up after those exertions and are coming to Tabor in the best possible shape. And it is a characteristic of champions that they win even when they are not at their best. So van Empel will likely win in her customary dominant fashion.

She will have one less rival to worry about as Vas will not be racing due to illness. Brand won the world championship in 2021, so she can handle the pressure. But she finished well behind van Empel at Hamme and caught her on a less than great day at Hoogerheide. Another Dutch former world champion, this season’s World Cup champion Ceylin Alvarado, looks to be a tougher rival for the favorite, but she has had a hard season and has not raced since finishing third, by 16 seconds, to van Empel in Benidorm, two weeks ago. If the two weeks of rest have given her good legs, we might have a competitive race on Saturday.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Sunday’s race. At Hoogerheide a tired van der Poel was given a run for his money by Belgium’s Thibau Nys, who stayed close to his wheel for half of the final lap and then just eased up because he was racing in the red. He eventually finished fourth because he was so fatigued from the chase he made a careless error and crashed. If van der Poel can distance a top rider like Nys when he is tired, what’s he going to do after a week of rest? There is no reason to belabor this question.

Barring a bad crash or technical breakdown, van der Poel will win his sixth cyclocross world championship on Sunday. He is simply the best. The podium should be completed by two of the following riders: Nys, World Cup champion Eli Iserbyt and Michael Vanthourenhout, both also of Belgium, as well as Dutch riders Pim Ronhaar, Joris Nieuwenhuis and Lars van der Haar. For my money, the 22-year-old Ronhaar looked very strong in the second half of the season and may prove to be the best of the rest.