Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) won a thrilling duel with Kevin Pauwels (Telenet-Fidea) at Sunday’s Superprestige in Gavere.
Nys, the Belgian national champion, and Pauwels, winner of Saturday’s GvA Trofee-GP van Hasselt, had been part of a five-man group that formed going into the third lap on a hilly, difficult course packed with long, loose climbs and fast, sketchy descents. No barriers, no dismounts — just a lot of up and down that favored a powerful, skilled rider.
Bart Wellens (Telenet-Fidea) got the ball rolling on the first lap, taking a five-second lead after the first steep ascent, which devolved into a run-up as it clogged with traffic. World champion Zdenek Stybar (Telenet-Fidea) and Nys were within striking distance, however, as was Americans Jonathan Page (Planet Bike), with U.S. national champion Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) in hot pursuit.
The players began making themselves known as the first lap wrapped in under seven minutes. Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor), Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus), Bart Aernouts (Rabobank-Giant), Nys, Page and Stybar were all among the front-runners going into lap two.
Albert splits the bunch
Then Albert came to the front, accelerated, and split the bunch going into the long, sinuous descent past the start-finish. His move set up a four-man lead group as Stybar, Nys and Vantornout latched on.
Going into the third lap Pauwels had joined the leaders, who had 15 seconds over a chase group containing Page and a crowd of Rabobanks.
This time Stybar took the lead on the descent, followed by Albert and Nys. Pauwels and Vantornout briefly lost contact, but both latched back on just past the pit, though Vantornout kept yo-yoing off the group, perhaps still feeling the effects of his hole-shot crash on Saturday.
With six laps to race the lead five held 30 seconds over a five-man chase that included Page and Wellens. Albert was already looking weary, and as Nys came forward and stepped on the gas, Vantornout was tailed off again.
Stybar, too, seemed not quite himself, and lost contact as Nys got a gap on a steep, loose climb leading to the backside of the pit. As the Belgian champion quickly took 10 seconds on his erstwhile mates, Albert came to the front and towed the chase through the start-finish with five laps to go.
Nys shows his strength
The former world champion laid down a powerful effort, leaving the chase behind and closing to within three seconds of Nys at the pit, finally latching on as Nys took a bike. Pauwels was just behind, and Stybar and Vantornout had the leaders in sight, but only just; they were 15 seconds back with four laps to go.
Nys led Albert and Pauwels down the descent and onto the first steep climb. Once again he attacked, taking a slight gap that he padded to five seconds as he passed the front side of the pit. Pauwels was chasing in second with Albert a distant third.
Pauwels fought back up to Nys just past the backside of the pit, and it was a two-man race. Nys gestured to his young companion, asking him to share the work, but got only a shake of the head by way of reply.
Meanwhile, Albert was clawing his way back — he was just nine seconds behind with three laps to go. Vantornout was long gone at 23 seconds back with Wellens a further 16 seconds behind.
Pauwels punches it
Then Pauwels made his move, attacking Nys on the first steep climb. Nys responded and reclaimed the lead as the two passed the pit. Albert continued to dangle in third, just seconds behind the leaders.
With two laps to go, Albert was hovering at seven seconds while the two leaders seemed evenly matched, neither able to gain an advantage.
Nys led Pauwels going into the bell lap. Albert had closed to within six seconds with Stybar and Wellens chasing.
Nys punched it going into the long, winding descent, throwing out one leg to stay upright in a tight bend; just behind, Pauwels nearly overcooked the same corner, brushing up against the course tape.
The Belgian champ attacked on the following climb but Pauwels stuck to him, then launched his own assault going onto the climb just past the pit. Nys countered, Pauwels matched him, and at the backside of the pit the two were still locked together.
When they finally hit the pavement, Nys was the first to go, unleashing a final attack that he had, apparently, been saving throughout the race’s last laps. But Pauwels, whose soft spoken demeanor belies his fighting spirit, refused to go down without a fight, and sprinting side by side with Nys, pulled almost even with the Belgian Champion. But the line came just meters too soon for the resurgent Pauwels, and Nys claimed his seventh career victory in Gavere. Niels Albert wrapped up the final spot on the podium.
“On a hard course like this, normally I can put in one explosion on the last lap, and I can ride in the front alone,” a beaming Nys told VeloNews afterwards, “but Kevin Pauwels was really strong today. I did everything I could, but I made a little mistake on the last climb, so he could pass me. Then I had to wait until half-way through the climb to do an explosion, but it was a little bit too late, so I had to put everything into the sprint.”
Nys added that he was thrilled not only to win one of his favorite races, but also to take a fifth victory in the month of November, putting a bow on a stretch of muddy, technical, and dramatic races. “These were races where the strongest guy could win the race,” said Nys. “(You need) technical skills, strong legs, experience, and that’s what I like the most. These races are classics. To win these, everybody thinks about it for the whole season.”
Meanwhile, a magnanimous Pauwels told reporters that he was happy with his race, but that Nys had earned the victory. “I thought the finish was long enough to overtake Sven,” he explained. “He started the sprint just after the corner, and I didn’t have time to get my hands off the tops. Sven was better in the mud, and in the sprint the strongest man won.”
Niels Albert, who continued to gain ground in the quest for his first victory of the season, said he was disappointed to be third, but remained optimistic. “For the first time in a few weeks, I had the feeling that I could win today,” he said. “But when I closed the gap with Kevin to Sven, on the beginning of the climb, my chain fell off and I lost ten seconds. So I raced the whole race just five or six seconds back. It sucks, but it’s done and the feeling is ok, so I hope I can win in a few races.”
The two Americans, Johnson and Page, both said they had raced in less than perfect condition, but were satisfied with the results, finishing 12th and 14th respectively.
“I didn’t race fresh. Probably if I had good legs today, I might have had a little better start, and would have been able to fight some more,” Johnson said afterwards. “As it was, I went as fast as I could. Only a couple of guys went by me, and I went by a couple of guys. When we come (to Europe) it’s always a little bit more difficult than going to a race at home. But it’s a hell of an experience. It’s like jumping into the Harvard-Yale football game or something. It’s a huge experience.”
Page, more accustomed to the circus of Belgian ‘cross, said he was aiming for consistency today after a tough race in Hasselt on Saturday.
“I didn’t want to just start the race and fade,” he said, referring to the fast starts followed by disappointing results that have dogged him for much of the past month. “I tried to stay consistently good throughout; I just went as fast as I could the whole time. At the end I had some serious trouble with cramping, but I kept going. I just suffered a lot. I wish I had finished the last lap stronger, but it was all I could do today. I really left it all out there, so I’m happy with that.”
Canadians Craig Richey and Shaun Adamson finished 27th and 31st, respectively.
The win leaves Nys with a five point lead over Stybar, who finished fifth, in the Superprestige standings.
Dan Seaton contributed to this report