Meet the 18-year-old cyclocross sensation who’s taking it to the world’s best
The UCI Cyclocross World Cup on December 27, 2020 was muddy, wet, windy, and very cold. In the final lap around the Dendermonde course, Fem van Empel, the youngest rider in the entire field, overtook a group with former U23 world champion Annemarie Worst and multiple-time Belgian champion Sanne Cant.
Van Empel gave a little fist pump as she crossed the finish line. Her name was fourth on the scoreboard – a career-best result. It was a breakthough performance for a remarkable young rider. A fourth place in one of the toughest races of the European cyclocross season, aged just 18 years, three months, and 25 days.
Put simply, Fem van Empel is the newest sensation in the Netherlands’ golden generation of female cyclocross stars. The trio of Van Empel, Puck Pieterse, and Shirin van Anrooij represents an exciting future for Dutch CX racing.
“I liked the circumstances in Dendermonde and had looked forward to it,” Van Empel tells me, speaking over the phone from her home town of Sint Michielsgestel, a small village in the province of Noord Brabant, not far from the Belgian border. The town has a rich heritage in cyclocross and was the site of a Superprestige race for many years. “Because I don’t have a lot of UCI points yet I usually start between the fourth and sixth start row and that is a handicap for me. At the World Cup in Namur [a week before Dendermonde] for example I knew that I could never recover and get a good result but Dendermonde was such a hard course and I could make up a lot running.”
The fourth place in the Dendermonde World Cup was Van Empel’s best result so far in her first year with the elite women. There are hardly any races for U23 women except for national, European and World Championships. Like in women’s road racing, promising junior riders are thrown into the deep end when they are 18 and immediately ride alongside the best of the best. In cyclocross that’s the likes of Lucinda Brand, Ceylin Alvarado, Denise Betsema, Annemarie Worst, and Clara Honsinger, who are all a few years older than Van Empel is.
And imagine this: one year ago, Fem van Empel wasn’t even a serious cyclocross rider. She was primarily a footballer.
“I started football when I was six years old,” she explains. “I played with the boys because we didn’t have a girls’ team just yet. I didn’t care which position I had on the field because I just wanted to run, run, run.”
When Van Empel was 15, she made her debut in the elite women’s football team. She was scouted by the national federation and her team was promoted to a higher division.
Van Empel might be young but she is determined in the way she talks and determined in the goals she sets for herself. When she felt that not everyone on the football team wanted to give it a 100%, she decided to dive into cycling full-time. That move was inspired by her father Paul who rode CX when he was younger.
Once she was committed to CX, Van Empel wasted no time impressing.
Through 2019-2020 she took a string of great results in the Helen100 Trophy, a CX series established by former British cyclocross champion Helen Wyman for junior women; women who, up until that point, always raced with the U23 and elite women in one peloton. In the final race in Brussels, Van Empel closed the time gap on the competition and won the overall series.
Though she wasn’t new to cyclocross at all, it had never been her primary focus. The moment that changed, her development went in overdrive mode. Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal signed her and after her great results this season offered her a pro contract early January.
“I always liked watching cyclocross and did some racing in the winter time,” Van Empel says. “Last year I started working with a trainer. I had never worked with a trainer or a training program before so that was all new. When COVID-19 came we started doing more and more endurance rides. That is the basis of this season.”
The differences between football and cycling, both of which she clearly has talent for, are considerable. “You use different muscles for cycling plus it’s always 100% in cyclocross and then see how far you get,” she says. “In football there are a lot of moments you don’t do anything.
“When I started working with a trainer though I quickly realized talent is not enough. Training is just as important,” she says confidently and wisely. Her maturity is remarkable for her age. She expresses herself with natural ease.
“These interviews and my new fame take some time to get used to,” she says. “But I also study marketing and communication so that is helpful in this respect as well.”
She enrolled in a dedicated school with many promising young athletes from all sorts of sports like football, field hockey or gymnastics.
“It helps that others experience the same things,” she says. “At my high school there weren’t many who did sports at a high level. The students at my current school have the same mentality as I have. We all know that talent isn’t enough. We know that training hard isn’t enough either. The mental side of things is important as well. Being here with like-minded athletes is very helpful.”
Van Empel is ambitious in everything she does. The fact that the Dutch nationals were cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak was hard for her.
“The way I am riding now means that I had a good chance to win a jersey – I really wanted to win that jersey,” she explains, clearly disappointed in having a race-free weekend.
The Netherlands is leading the way when it comes to women’s cyclocross. A full Dutch podium is no rarity. While the current top riders aren’t particularly veterans themselves the new generation is already there.
Van Empel likes races to be hard which contradicts the philosophy that hard courses are for more experienced and stronger (and therefore older) riders. The length of the women’s races is a lively discussion in cyclocross at the moment where some races don’t even last the minimum of 40 minutes.
“The tougher the better,” she says with joy. “I like these courses where you can’t get into a rhythm at all, where you need to run a lot. Also, I like races to be longer. The fact we get the same prize money as the men do should mean we do the same time too! Why can’t we be racing an hour like the men do? It means I have more time to make up for my bad starting position, for example.”
At Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal she is teammates with Denise Betsema, winner of the World Cup race in Hulst early January and one of the favorites for the upcoming elite world championships.
“Denise and I always do our warm-up together,” she says. “She follows my wheel to see how I choose my lines. I give her tips from my MTB experience and she shares her knowledge on how to balance a race in terms on when to power and when not.”
Next up for Van Empel are the World Championships in Oostende, Belgium at the end of January. There she will race against other U23 riders like 2020 world champion Marion Norbert Riberolle, Anna Kay, Blanka Vas and her compatriots like Inge van der Heijden, Puck Pieterse, Manon Bakker and Aniek van Alphen.
“I haven’t checked the course yet but have seen images on YouTube already,” she explains. “I dream of a jersey and maybe it could be a beautiful day in Oostende if we get to race because that’s uncertain for the U23 category. My rivals are the Dutch but also Anna Kay and Blanka Vas but, to be honest, I am not scared of any of my rivals,” she states with the same ambition she showed as she ploughed through the deep mud of Dendermonde.
Fem van Empel is a rider to watch for now and in the future, both in cyclocross and mountain bike. She’s chock-full of ambition and ready to follow her own path in the sport.
“I don’t want to be your run-of-the-mill cyclocross rider,” she says. “My ambitions are different. Also, I don’t compare myself to others. I want to keep on riding cyclocross but also road and mountain bike. I dream of the Olympic Games but it’s still early to say how far I can get. There is a still a lot to learn in mountain biking because the courses are much more extreme and the technique is different but if I keep making progress there are opportunities there as well for me. I do believe I have the talent for all three disciplines.”