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Stars of Women’s Cyclocross: The Season’s Top Talents

By Megan Flottorp

In the early 20th century, when Tour de France riders sought ways to maintain their fitness during the off-season, they inadvertently birthed a thrilling discipline known as cyclo-cross. Fast forward to the present day and this exhilarating autumn and winter sport has captured the hearts of cycling enthusiasts worldwide. With its sharp turns, steep banks, hurdles, and varied terrain, cyclo-cross demands a unique set of skills and tactics from its competitors. As we wind down from the electrifying 2023/2024 season, let’s delve into the highlights and celebrate the top women’s talents who blew us away with their performances!

Fem van Empel, a dominant force

Fem van Empel’s prowess in the cyclo-cross arena is extraordinary, indeed. With an unmatched ability to excel on challenging courses and a knack for navigating technical obstacles, van Empel’s consecutive victories at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships underscore her dominance in the sport.

Currently ranked 4th, van Empel’s preference for demanding races defies the notion that such courses are reserved for more experienced and stronger riders. As discussions surrounding the length of women’s races continue, van Empel remains focused on her unique ambitions and multi-disciplinary pursuits. Expressing her aspirations beyond cyclo-cross, including road and mountain biking, she harbours dreams of competing in the Olympic Games, acknowledging the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

At the recent event in Tabor, van Empel reaffirmed her status as the reigning champion at the 2024 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships. Her commanding performance saw her surge ahead from the outset, leaving her competitors behind and extending her lead to over a minute by the race’s conclusion.

Fem van Empel
Fem van Empel’s prowess in the cyclo-cross arena is extraordinary. © Profimedia

Shirin van Anrooij, a rising star on the road and off

Shirin van Anrooij’s exceptional performances in cyclo-cross and road racing underscore her remarkable versatility and potential for success. Achieving podium placements at World Cup events and securing victories on the road, van Anrooij’s determination to excel across multiple disciplines distinguishes her as a genuine talent on the rise.

Presently occupying the 3rd position, van Anrooij’s achievements extend to her podium finish at last year’s women’s UCI World Cup where she shared the spotlight with fellow Dutch riders Pieterse and Fem van Empel.

Moreover, van Anrooij’s success transcends cyclo-cross, with notable triumphs on the road circuit in 2023. Her impressive victories at prestigious events such as Trofeo Alfredo Binda, alongside a stellar performance at the Giro Donne, underscore her capabilities as a formidable road racer. Despite her decision to prioritise road racing this season, van Anrooij’s early results affirm her status as a rising star, poised to make significant strides in both disciplines. Keep a close eye on her journey as she continues to redefine the boundaries of success in cycling.

Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, Superprestige champion

Ceylin Del Carmen Alvarado
Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado at the Noordzeecross women’s elite cyclo-cross race. © Profimedia

Currently leading the pack, Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado has clinched the Superprestige ranking and secured victory in the World Cup earlier this season. Despite encountering challenges, such as an early crash during the Middelkerke Superprestige, Alvarado’s determination saw her through to a commendable third-place finish, solidifying her overall win.

Reflecting on her performance, Alvarado acknowledged the unexpected hurdles she faced, including a back injury that affected her throughout the race. Despite her resilience, she expressed concerns about continuing to compete this season if her back issues persist, emphasising the importance of both mental and physical well-being.

With an impressive season highlighted by dual championship wins, Alvarado’s decision to prioritise her health speaks volumes about her integrity as an athlete. We will eagerly await what’s next for this talent!

Puck Pieterse, a bunny-hopping phenomenon

Ranked second overall, Puck Pieterse epitomises the new wave of Dutch cyclo-cross talent, following in the footsteps of the country’s rich history of success in the sport. At just 21 years old, Pieterse’s achievements speak volumes, including a silver medal in the UCI World Cup series in 2022-23 and a stellar debut season in the elite category of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup where she claimed first place in both the XCO and XCC disciplines.

In cyclo-cross, Pieterse’s prowess is evident, with a victory in the U23 European Championships last season and strong performances in this season’s World Cup events, finishing second in both the Waterloo and Troyes races — not to mention her infamous bunny-hops!

Adding to her accolades, Pieterse dons the National Champions’ jersey this season, a testament to her exceptional talent amidst stiff competition within the Dutch contingent. Furthermore, her versatility extends beyond cyclo-cross, as demonstrated by her impressive fifth-place finish at Strade Bianche, marking her WorldTour debut in road racing.

Lucinda Brand, a resilient champion

The Cyclo-cross World Championships in Tabor witnessed the pinnacle performances of the year, with two dedicated riders earning well-deserved spots on the podium.

Lucinda Brand and Joris Nieuwenhuis showcased their unwavering determination, securing silver medals and marking the culmination of resurgent seasons. For Brand, the 2023-24 campaign marked a triumphant return to form following consecutive years of injuries.

Despite facing setbacks such as a hand injury in October 2022 and a shoulder injury the following September, Brand remained steadfast in her pursuit of excellence. Even a broken nose suffered just before the Dutch National Championships failed to hinder her momentum. Brand’s resilience paid off as she clinched the coveted Dutch champion’s jersey and continued her remarkable streak with a silver medal at the World Championships. Displaying unparalleled grit and determination, Brand’s podium finish underscored her status as one of the sport’s most formidable competitors.

Zoe Bäckstedt, a multifaceted talent

Zoe Backstedt
Beyond cyclo-cross, Bäckstedt’s prowess extends across various disciplines. © Profimedia

Zoe Bäckstedt has been on a steady upward trajectory over the past few years, and her impact on this cyclo-cross season has been undeniable. Currently holding the 8th position after completing four races of the UCI World Cup, she has performed with passion and consistency. Her victory at the under-23s European Championships further solidified her position as a rising star, earning yet another coveted rainbow jersey.

Beyond cyclo-cross, Bäckstedt’s prowess extends across various disciplines. With world titles in road racing (both road and time-trial), track cycling, and cyclo-cross at the junior level, she has established herself as a formidable force to be reckoned with. As she continues to excel in multiple arenas, Bäckstedt’s versatility and talent make her a name to watch closely in the world of cycling.

Cat Ferguson, a junior sensation

Despite being a junior rider, Cat Ferguson has been causing a stir with her impressive performances in cyclo-cross. Securing podium placements at both European Championships and World Cup events, Ferguson’s talent and determination hint at a promising future in elite competition.

As she approaches the end of her junior career, Ferguson’s profile has soared in recent years. After finishing fourth in last year’s junior European Championships, she clinched a remarkable silver medal at this year’s event in Pontchâteau, leading the pack from a strong starting position. With her recent signing for Movistar, Ferguson’s transition to the elite ranks is eagerly anticipated, as she prepares to join the team in the latter part of 2024.

Manon Bakker, victorious in adversity

Manon Bakker
Manon Bakker at stage 6 of the ‘X20 Badkamers Trofee’ competition. © Profimedia

Manon Bakker’s triumph at the Cyclo-cross World Cup was a testament to her tenacity and skill in the face of adversity. Despite challenging conditions and fierce competition, Bakker’s composed performance propelled her to a memorable victory. Her calculated move in the final lap proved decisive, as she surged ahead to claim victory with a commanding lead of 23 seconds over second-placed Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado.

With her impressive display of skill and determination, Bakker has firmly established herself as a contender to watch in future competitions.

Marie Schreiber, climbing the cyclo-cross ladder

One of the season’s rising stars is Marie Schreiber, whose ascent in the cyclo-cross ranks has been impressive, to say the least. Joining SD Worx in January 2023, the Luxembourgish rider initially flew under the radar. However, her prowess on the cyclo-cross circuit quickly garnered attention. Despite facing physical setbacks, Schreiber’s consistent performances have earned her a spot in the top ten standings, signalling her potential as a force to be reckoned with in the years to come. Currently sitting at number 9 in the standings, we’d say she is one to keep an eye on in the coming years.

Looking ahead, one thing is sure: women’s cyclo-cross has plenty to offer in the years to come!