HASSELT, Belgium (VN) — Soft-spoken Kevin Pauwels spoke loudly with his legs on Saturday, burying an elite lead group in the Belgian sand to win the GP van Hasselt by seconds over world champion Zdenek Stybar.
The mud bogs of last weekend’s Superprestige in Hamme-Zogge were but a filthy, fading memory as the world’s best came to Hasselt, which served up a rolling, sinuous handler’s course overflowing with hairpin turns, deep sand and three flyovers — one of which 2009 winner Stybar was using as a launch pad, table-topping for the entertainment of the massive crowd.
On such a tight, fast circuit it was tough for anyone to get away, and early on there was a big crowd up front, including Pauwels, with Telenet-Fidea teammates Stybar, Rob Peeters, Tom Meussen and Bart Wellens; Sven Nys (Landboukrediet); Niels Albert and Radomir Simunek (BKCP-Powerplus); and Bart Aernouts (Rabobank-Giant).
Nys tried time and again to get away, but Stybar marked him relentlessly. Then Aernouts made a big move with four laps to go that trimmed the lead bunch to six — himself, Pauwels, Stybar, Nys, Albert and Wellens.
It was looking like anyone’s race, though Nys seemed the strongest of the six. With two laps to go he was on the front and setting a tremendous pace that split the lead group in two, with the Belgian champion, Pauwels and Stybar in the front.
“It’s really nervous and you must stay on the front three,” said Nys. “There is always a gap and you have to close it and use a lot of energy. You’re dead and you see they’re all coming back.”
Indeed, Aernouts, Albert and Wellens clawed their way back to the leaders, and it was a six-man group racing into the bell lap, though Albert was clearly suffering, hanging just off the back of the group.
Stybar took the front and gave it the gas, again trimming the lead group to three. Wellens and Aernouts fought their way back up, but Albert was well and truly gone.
And then Pauwels made his move, leading up and over the final flyover and punching it through the final stretch of sand to hit the pavement with a few bike lengths over Stybar, with Nys just behind. The world champion put his head down and drilled it, trying to bring his teammate back, but it wasn’t going to happen. Pauwels crossed the line alone, with the world champ hanging on for second ahead of Nys.
“Today I had a really good day, so it was easy to stay in front. Some other days it’s hard, but today I was really super,” said Pauwels. “I knew that I had to be very fast into the corner before the last pit very fast and I knew I had to stay in front to go into the last descent on front.”
Stybar said he knew that the first man out of the sand on the final lap would be the first to cross the finish.
“Today it was so technical a race that if you have just one mistake you could lose the entire race. It’s quite dangerous,” said Stybar. “Kevin was really strong and I was not so fast in the sand because I came in with no speed.”
As for Nys, he was disappointed to miss out on the win after showing such strong form.
“It’s too bad that I couldn’t win this race because my feeling was really good,” he said. “I did the perfect race until the last half.”
American Jonathan Page (Planet Bike), who has had an up-and-down season in Europe thus far, got off to a slow start but came back to finish 19th.
Online editor at large Patrick O’Grady contributed to this report.