Could cyclocross ever be considered a winter Olympic Sport? That was both the question on the minds of many who attended the UCI World Cup ‘cross race high in the northern Italian mountains.
Snow cyclocross is officially a reality. The ambitious project made possible by the determination of Val di Sole and Flanders Classics, the organizing company of the UCI Cyclocross World Cup, took shape on Sunday, December 12th, 2021 with the first ever stage of the World’s top circuit projected and organized to be held on the snow.
The World’s best athletes have embraced the novelty with curiosity and sincere enthusiasm: Van Aert, Vos, Pidcock and more wanted to be in Vermiglio for a historical event, to open the sport to a different format, for the dream of taking cyclocross to the Winter Olympic Games.
Wout Van Aert was the top favorite, and he won despite the (winning) effort of 24 hours earlier, the night trip and the morning arrival in Vermiglio. In the women’s field, smiling was the young and fresh face of Fem Van Empel, 19 years old and an innate ability to float on the snow, but who still had to fight until the very end to see off an indomitable Marianne Vos.
Despite the sub-zero temperatures in Vermiglio, the athletes were warmed by a fantastic show of fans, enthusiasts, and onlookers, who came from all over Northern Italy and way beyond. The enthusiasm of over 4.000 attendees rewarded Val di Sole intuition: this experiment looks destined for a bright future.
Who knows if IOC President Richard Bach was in front of the TV today, like Flanders Classics CEO Tomas Van den Spiegel had wished, to watch the Val di Sole show; for sure, the Olympic perspective looks closer today.
VAN AERT RULES IN VERMIGLIO
In one word: unbeatable. Wout Van Aert has imposed his law also on the snow of Vermiglio, Val di Sole. The Belgian champion left behind his compatriot Michael Vanthourenhout, author of a great performance, while Brit Tom Pidcock climbed to the third step of the podium at the end of an all-comeback race.
Michael Vanthourenhout himself was the author of a rocket start, which however did not surprise fellow Belgian Wout Van Aert and Eli Iserbyt, the World Cup leader. The trio was grouped through the first lap, but right from the early corners of the second, Van Aert took control of the pace and put his rivals on the back foot.
During the third lap, Iserbyt lost contact due to a crash, while behind them Tom Pidcock began a slow but consistent, eventually leading him to catch and surpass Hermans and Iserbyt in the fourth lap. At that time it looked like the Brit could move further up, but a crash affected his ambitions. At the front, Van Aert finally cracked Vanthourenhout’s resistance to cruse towards a great victory. Behind the two, Pidcock got back on Iserbyt to secure third place. Quinten Hermans rouned out the top-5.
For Wout Van Aert it was the third success in as many seasonal cyclocross races, and the second in two days. Vermiglio’s success has a special taste, as the Belgian confirmed to the microphones of the international press: “Today we made cyclocross history. I absolutely wanted to be at the start, plus I love competing in Italy, the atmosphere, the enthusiasm of the public, and even today I was not disappointed. It was a very technical race, you had to try to stay in the saddle as much as possible, and deal with a course that changed lap after lap. When I started doing cyclocross, the World Cup was only held in the Netherlands and Belgium: today we are in Italy, we are experimenting with new scenarios, and I think it is positive. Maybe some Italian kids will have fallen in love with the cross today, and they will be part of tomorrow’s champions.”
VAN EMPEL TAMES THE SNOW IN NAILBITING FINISH
A cold but sunny day (temperatures well below freezing) welcomed the girls of the Women category, who opened the competition program of the UCI Cyclocross World Cup stage in Val di Sole.
The first ever snow race in cyclocross was spectacular as advertised, finding a partially unexpected protagonist in 19-year-old Fem Van Empel, who put on a riding clinic early in the race, surfing in the snow where even top names like Marianne Vos and Denise Betsema were struggling, and eventually secured her very first victory on the World Cup stage.
Affected by a mechanical that forced her to surrender time and position, Vos showed her determination in her first race after two off months. Meantime, following Van Empel’s solo break was Canada’s Maghalie Rochestie, while Denise Betsema was solid early on but faded on the long run.
Also showing off strong was Italy’s Eva Lechner, who emerged into the leading position, racing along with the surging Vos for a couple of laps.
In the penultimate lap is where Van Empel’s performance slightly dipped, while Marianne Vos showed off her racing pedigree by reducing the gap to the leaders, coming back on Rochestie and, finally, bridging to Van Empel in the final corners of the race.
In all went down to the very last bend, leading on the finishing straight: Vos dared to overtake Van Empel, but lost grip and went down, eventually leaving way to her rival and being unable to contest the sprint for first place. Vos still secured the runner-up spot, with Rochette rounding out the podium.
“Getting my first World Cup podium was one of my season goals, but I didn’t think of winning. Not only did I win today, but I won the first World Cup race on snow, staying in the lead from start to finish – amazing,” the winner said.
“Too bad about the crash on the last pass, but I didn’t expect to win upon returning to race after two months, so I’m happy,” commented Marianne Vos. “On the eve of the race I was curious and excited to face this new situation, and I must say that the course was truly beautiful. We are used to compete in different conditions in cyclocross, even if not like these: I think today we saw sport at the highest level. Today’s race is proof that cyclocross can be organized anywhere in the world.”