Women’s Cyclocross Update: it’s hard to beat the 20-year-olds!

As of the end of the Christmas period and the national championships season, there are three main narratives in women’s cyclocross:

  • Can anyone beat the three top Dutch women, who are all currently 20 years old? (none of them have had their 21st birthday, but for the purposes of counting age class in cyclocross, they all "turned" 21 on January first)
  • How many of them will ride in the elite category at the World Championships? Which one is likely to win?
  • Can the more experienced elite women find the form and the luck to beat them?

The answer to the first question is basically no. When at least one of the terrific threesome is in a race, no one else seems to be able to win. Two of them have already committed to riding the elite category at the World Championships, and here’s hoping that all three are there to make it a race for the ages.

Fem Van Empel leads the World Cup series, with 6 wins in the 10 races she has completed. She dominated the early part of the season, and seemed to have no weaknesses, riding everything a smoothly and with and power. However, on December 17th, on the snow and ice of Val di Sole (where she first broke through in the World Cup with a win last year), she had a hard crash and banged up both of her knees (and I think she had a concussion as well). She was out for a couple of weeks, and she hasn’t been as dominant since she came back. She crashed twice, in the first lap at Zonhoven but still worked her way back up to third (an amazing ride over the subsequent laps). She was "only" third at the Dutch National Championships. However, the timing may be right for her to build up for a second peak just in time for the World Championships. She raced in the Elite category in the European Championships at Namur, and her win there looked easy (not a word one associates with Namur), so she will be racing the elite category at Worlds. As of January first, she rides for Jumbo-Visma, but she doesn’t wear their colors since she is riding in either the World Cup leader’s jersey or the European Champion’s jersey, depending upon the race.

Puck Pieterse dominated late November and early December when Van Empel didn’t, with three World Cup wins (like Van Empel, Pieterse has not finished a race off the podium this year). Technical climby courses suit her style best, and her bike handling skills always amaze; she is one of the few women to consistently bunny-hop barriers. Don’t miss her pre-race ride/analysis videos of the courses on YouTube ( . Her most recent race was the Dutch elite women’s championships, which she won. This presumably moved her into the elite ranks for all races, thus precluding her from wearing the under-23 World Cup leader’s or the under-23 European champion’s jersey, which makes things easier for us when we watch races as the Dutch champion’s red, white, and blue should be unmistakable (her team is Alpecin-Deceuninck, but we never see her in that jersey!)

Shirin Van Anrooij raced a full and successful road season (as those who had her for one point in VDS know well!), and so her cyclocross season started late and she seemed to be on a level just a bit below the other two Dutch 20-year-old phenoms (perhaps not; she too was almost always on the podium, missing it only once in the World Cup race at Tabor). Then came mid-December. Over the Christmas period when there are so many great races, she won five of the six races she entered (including two World Cup races and Koksijde), showing how very strong she is on sand. Her running style is noticeably smoother than that of most other riders; when she runs over the barriers or through mud, her body and head do not move up and down but instead just flow in a straight line. She wears the Baloise Trek Lions blue kit with a red sleeve (as does Lucinda Brand, who, as a former world champion, wears rainbow bands around her neck and sleeve cuffs). Van Anrooij skipped the Dutch national championships in favor of a road training camp in Spain. Doing so allowed her to postpone a decision on whether or not to race in the elite category at the World Championships – which will take place on her birthday.

So… how about cross riders who dominated the sport in the past few years?

Marianne Vos is not currently riding at a level that would suggest she will be able to defend her title; she was tenth at the Dutch National Championship, and has only nine races this season; she did win at Kortrijk though none of the big three were there. But never, ever count Vos out; her experience is worth so much, and it would be a huge mistake to not include her among the favorites for the end of the season. Sherides for Jumbo-Visma, but of course wears the rainbow jersey.

Lucinda Brand dominated cyclocross the past couple of years, winning all three season-long series (World Cup, Superprestige, and X2O) as well as a couple of world championships. This season she has been hampered by injury (a broken hand) and illness, and has had trouble finding the form that made her the "patronne" in the recent past. There have been glimmers of past glory in the last couple of weeks; she was second at Gavere (behind Van Anrooij and ahead of Pieterse) and at Baal (behind Van Empel), and she now leads the X2O series. She can’t be counted out as she surely knows how to adjust her training to peak on February 5th. As noted above, she wears the blue with the red sleeve Baloise Trek Lions kit, with the rainbow strips at the collar and cuffs.

Ceylin Alvarado is only 24, and has already won a world championship. She is coming off a year of injury of illness, and has been steadily improving as the season progresses; her elegant riding style is a pleasure to watch. She has four wins so far, all in the Superprestige series, which she leads. It has been good to see her increasing confidence, and she may be a contender in the World Championships. She wears the Alpecin-Deceuninck jersey, also with rainbow strips at the collar and cuffs.

There are others who may contend, but I thought I’d stick with these six. They are all Dutch; in fact the top ten riders in the UCI rankings are Dutch, so it would be an astounding surprise if the next World Champion is not Dutch.

After the National Championships weekend (January 15th), the next big races are:

  • January 22nd: World Cup at Benidorm
  • January 28th: Flandriencross (X2O series)
  • January 29th: World Cup at Besançon
  • First weekend in February: World Championships!

The three 20-year-olds will probably ride the World Cup races but not the Flandriencross (but that race might be a good chance to see how some of the others’ form is coming along). This has been a great season for Women’s Cyclocross, and there is more to come!