Fem van Empel (Visma-Lease A Bike) emerged victorious at the X20 Trofee Baal after a gripping duel with Lucinda Brand (Trek Baloise Lions), while 18-year-old Ava Holmgren (Lidl-Trek) underscored her potential with a remarkable podium finish.
“For sure, it’s always nice to start the new year with a victory, especially with the new sponsor,” Van Empel said.
Van Empel’s victory was her 13th from 15 races this season, and it also marked a statement of intent after she had finished off the podium at the World Cup in Hulst on Saturday. The world champion had to battle grimly for the victory, however, in a race that pitted her power against Brand’s technical skills on the demanding course at the Sven Nys Cycling Center.
With Puck Pieterse and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado among the absentees, this race was always likely to be contested by Van Empel and Brand, and so it proved.
Van Empel was quickest off the mark at the start, stretching out the field with an acceleration on the opening stretch of tarmac, and she was soon joined at the front by Brand, while Sanne Cant and Clara Honsinger led the splintered chasing group.
By the end of lap one, Brand and Van Empel already had a lead of 1:16 over the rest, while Holmgren had battled her way back into contact with Cant and Honsinger.
Their lead established, Van Empel and Brand’s duel began in earnest on lap two. Brand, who regularly trains on the Sven Nys course, took full advantage of her array of skills, opening a small gap over Van Empel on the tough series of dips early in the lap.
Van Empel, however, held her nerve and bridged back up to Brand on the climb that followed, and the pair reached the midpoint with a lead of 1:55 over Holmgren, Cant and Honsinger.
There was a sense of déjà vu on lap three, when Brand again opened a lead on the section of dips, even if Van Empel limited her losses a little better this time around. The world champion was later a faller on a running section, but she recovered quickly to stay in touch with Brand, while they continued to stretch their lead over the chasers.
Brand attacked Van Empel again on the jumps near the end of the lap, and this time she did enough to carve out a slender advantage of two seconds as she took the bell, but the world champion managed to get back ahead when her rival slipped shortly before they tackled the dips.
Brand came to the front again here, but she was unable to shake off Van Empel and the world champion’s power began to tell on the latter…