Wout van Aert and the rag that almost ended his race at the Dublin round of the CX World Cup.

Dublin CX World Cup gave us the bare-knuckle fight we’ve been waiting for

Ireland hosted a thriller event as Fem van Empel and Wout van Aert came out on top, providing top-notch entertainment along the way.

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I’m no cyclocross expert. I only added it to my winter viewing schedule last year in search of stories to write up of a weekend, and it was a learning process for me. I watched and familiarised myself with the names which populate the top 10, the various perplexing obstacles that characterise the different courses, and learned to recognise all the ways it’s different from the kind of bike racing that is my specialty, from the obvious to the less-so.

Being in the lead from the start is not a disadvantage, in fact, it’s where you want to be. A lead of just a few seconds, which on the road would be little more than momentarily losing the wheel, can quickly become an impossible margin to close, barring mechanical or other disaster. Furthermore, it seems fairly rare for a race to come down to a sprint, and almost never between more than three, maybe four, riders.

I’ll admit: it’s this, the fact that some races see their winner go off the front in the first few laps of the hour-long event, that has had me only half-watching some weekends, or switching off altogether; one rider scorching away from the field and stretching out an unassailable margin does not make for thrilling viewing in my opinion, except as an exhibition of grit and raw power.

But the CX World Cup’s visit to Dublin this weekend made me sit up and pay attention. Yes, the winners of both women’s and men’s races are very big names, prolific too – especially Fem van Empel whose lead in the World Cup standings this season is enormous – but the results on paper convey nothing of the blockbuster narrative that unfolded in the slowly thawing mud.

Van Empel got the best of Puck Pieterse to take her 10th win of the season and extend her World Cup advantage to 105 points.

Wout van Aert won by 14 seconds in the end, but he’d had to bounce back from ‘race over’ incidents more than once. After a stuttering start from the second row he was held up by a crash in front of him, then he had his own awkward slide across the mud which resulted in the Belgian national champion somehow getting his left shoe caught in his rear wheel. And as if that wasn’t enough drama, he was forced to run backwards after getting a rag caught in his rear mech along the barriers of the pit lane.

“It was a really hard race for me, especially mentally,” Van Aert said post-race. “I had to fight my way into the race because I was missing a little but at the start and too far off in my positioning. When I felt better I had a mechanical and so it was a long race. In the end it was so tough that I could still make the difference.”

After sprinting on foot back to the pit entrance, his now-useless machine over his shoulder, Van Aert had about 20 seconds to make up with very little time to do it in. Presumably he was seeing red, the adrenaline and rage at that bloody towel adding a little oomph to his effort.

“Apparently they are trying to stop me in all sorts of ways,” said Van Aert, able to see the funny side after he’d won the race, “but they have not succeeded. Fortunately, I quickly realised that something was blocking it. I just started to feel a little better at that point. The course turned out to be tough enough to make the difference and finish it off.”

But he made contact, and at the start of the penultimate lap, there were still no less than seven riders forming the ‘front group’, including Tom Pidcock. The world champion was looking superb having led for a number of laps, and though he faded towards the finale, he held on for a podium finish.

Once back with the leaders, Van Aert did not hang about long. When his acceleration came, it might as well have come with a roar of flame – a nitro boost, if you will. And the rest of the group was left gasping in his wake.

After yet another terrific duel between Fem van Empel and Puck Pieterse in the women’s race, the men’s event delivered one of the best World Cup rounds of the season so far, and dominant though both winners are, their means of victory provided unexpectedly brilliant entertainment on a very chilly December afternoon.

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