Fem van Empel (Pauels Sauzen - Bingoal) won a thrilling head-to-head battle with her rival Puck Pieterse (Alpecin-Deceuninck) in Dublin to take the ninth round of the Cyclocross World Cup.
The series leader followed up her win in Antwerp a week ago by claiming her tenth win of a superb season, with the local Irish crowd being privy to one of the most exciting races this campaign.
Across five dramatic laps, the lead changed hands repeatedly thanks to a series of attacks and counter-attacks, with Pieterse battling back from a first lap crash to lead the race on a number of occasions, only for her fellow 20-year-old to come back stronger and nudge back in front.
On a course characterised by deep and frozen mud and sand, with patches of overnight snow still present in some corners, Van Empel eventually proved victorious by just two seconds.
Her triumph was even more impressive given that she felt under the weather. "I did my best, and it was a good performance today but I didn't feel good during the race," she said.
"I gave everything I had and in the end it was enough to win. Puck is also really strong this season so it's very fun to ride together, to battle every time to win."
Her win means she now has an advantage of 105 points at the top of the World Cup standings, and with each win being worth 40 points, it's hard to see how the new star of women's cyclocross will not retain her lead in the final five rounds.
Pieterse commented that she tried to distance Van Empel in the final lap, knowing her competitor would have the upper-hand in a sprint. "I knew if it came down to the last straight, Fem would be really difficult to beat," Pieterse said. "I decided to go early. I went all out, but Fem had the last punch to overtake me again so [it's] second again."
The tone for a riveting 50 minutes of racing was set in the opening lap, Marie Schreiber (Tormans Cyclo Cross Team) sprinting into a lead almost immediately, the Luxembourger aided by a small crash holding up a group of half-a-dozen favourites for a few seconds. Van Empel was one of those affected, down in seventh.
Before the race, riders had spoken about running over the barriers as opposed to bunny hopping, and all were true to their word except Pieterse who tried to jump the planks. The Dutchwoman, however, fell as she did so, her chain falling off and forcing her to remount it herself.
Into the large sand pit for the first time - frozen in places - Schreiber's lead was cut, with Van Empel, Denise Betsema (Pauwels Sauzen - Bingoal) and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Ineos Grenadiers) at the head of a five-strong group of riders.
Come the end of the first lap, Van Empel and Betsema crossed the line together, with Pieterse recovering from her fall and mechanical to be in third place, just 12 seconds in arrears.
It wasn't long before the season's two superstars were then riding side-by-side, Betsema falling away as Pieterse drew level with Van Empel at the end of the second lap.
The Alpecin-Deceuninck rider was changing her bike every lap, and she built a small lead at the outset of lap three, but Van Empel kept her within sight at all times and it was when crossing the deep sand that she pulled up alongside her rival.
A neck-on-neck duel was now underway into the fourth lap, Pieterse taking the lead once again after a successful bunny hop. For the second time in the same lap, Van Empel changed bikes, but there was no immediate difference to the race proceedings.
During the sand pit, however, Van Empel did retake first spot, but the series leader lost pole position in a tricky mud section at the end of the fourth lap. Pieterse sensed her opportunity to apply pressure but Van Empel responded well to jump on her back wheel.
On the fifth and final section of barriers, Pieterse overtook Van Empel once more thanks to her preferred bunny hop strategy, but Pieterse was unable to construct any advantage.
On the penultimate climb, Van Empel put down the power to go to the front, but she allowed Pieterse back into it when she failed to ride away on the sections of small undulating banks. A minute later, Pieterse was back at the head of proceedings.
But as so often in a spectacular 48 minutes of racing, the two remained unable to disentangle themselves from one another, and Van Empel exited the mud first and onto the asphalt to take a superb win by two seconds.
Denise Betsema rounded off the podium in third, her best World Cup result since 2018.
Result: Cyclocross World Cup round nine, Dublin
1. Fem van Empel (Ned) Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal in 47-13
2. Puck Pieterse (Ned) Alpecin-Deceuninck, at 2secs
3. Denise Betsema (Ned) Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal, at 1-37
4. Inge van der Heijden (Ned) 777, at 2-26
5. Marie Schreiber (Lux) Tormans Cyclo Cross Team, at 2-27
6. Manon Bakker (Ned) Crelan - Fristads, at 3-39
7. Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Fra) Ineos Grenadiers, at 4-39
8. Sidney McGill (Can), at 4-50
9. Millie Couzens (GBr) Crelan-Fristads, at 4-53
10. Fleur Moors (Bel), at 5.22
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