Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) used his brains as well as his legs to win the World Cup stop in Koksijde on Saturday.
The race had distilled itself down from a six-man lead group to four and finally to two, Nys and series leader Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor).
Neither could dispose of the other on the final lap, and the race came down to a two-up sprint. Nys hit the final right-hand corner first, nearly riding into the barriers lining the left side of the finishing straight, then veered sharply to his right as he accelerated toward the line.
The wind was from the left, and Pauwels tried to pass on the right, and seemed to have the legs to make it happen.
But Nys slammed the door on him and crossed the line first as Pauwels sat up, gesticulating angrily. The World Cup leader had to settle for second on the day, six seconds ahead of Bart Aernouts (Rabobank-Giant) in third.
“It’s a hard and tough race and where there are two strong guys at the end of the race it’s a sprint,” Nys told Belgian television afterward. “I don’t think that I make a mistake. But it’s maybe the jury that needs to decide.”
In the end, it was Nys atop the podium, with a still angry Pauwels on the second step. But he could console himself by once again donning the white World Cup leader’s jersey. Pauwels leads the series with 220 points. Nys sits second with 215 and world champion Zdenek Stybar (Quick Step) is third with 195.
A day at the beach
Race day in Koksijde dawned chilly, cloudy and windy. And life was a beach — there was sand everywhere, on the uphills, the downhills and the flats.
Last year’s winner, Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) was recovering from injury and unable to defend his title. But World Cup leader Pauwels took the start and the holeshot, followed by Stybar.
A six-man group had formed by the end of the first lap, including Pauwels, Stybar, Aernouts, Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea), Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor) and Francis Mourey (FdJ). Nys was just behind, having shed a large chase group.
The sand was the great equalizer — gaps would open and as quickly close in the long, deep piles.
Nys takes the high road
With seven laps remaining Pauwels, Stybar, Meeusen and Aernouts had a slight lead over Mourey and Nys, but it didn’t last. Then Meeusen accelerated, Pauwels countered and Nys laid down a powerful move along the high side of a long sandy stretch, taking a gap going into the flyover.
Meeusen began a solo pursuit, but bobbled in the sand and slipped backward, leaving Stybar and Pauwels to chase Nys. With six to go the Landbouwkrediet rider had just a few seconds over his pursuers, who had been reinforced by Aernouts, and shortly Stybar dragged the trio up to Nys.
Nys did the bulk of the work on that lap until Stybar lost contact on a sandy descent. Then Aernouts hit the front, saw the world champ was off the back and gassed it.
With five laps to go Stybar had fought back on. This time it was Pauwels who accelerated — Aernouts grabbed his wheel and the two briefly left Nys and Stybar behind. Meeusen, meanwhile, was alone in fifth, seven seconds down.
An Aernouts assault
Aernouts was pouring it on but couldn’t shake the others. Then Pauwels took over the pacemaking. Stybar sat on, and as the lead group hit four to go Nys, who appeared exasperated with the world champ’s lack of participation, attacked through the start-finish, but the others were quickly on him.
Finally Stybar came forward and railed it into the long sandy stretch preceding the flyover, briefly distancing Aernouts. The world champ continued to accelerate but the others hung with him.
Aernouts had a brief dig but it went nowhere and with three laps remaining it was still a four-man race, with Meeusen dangling a half-dozen seconds down.
Once again Stybar took the lead coming off the pavement. Then Nys fired his second round, launching a strong attack in the deep sand, riding as the others ran and finally getting some daylight.
Pauwels went after him, the two hooked up and fought for the lead in the sand, neither able to take an advantage over the other in the next two go-rounds. Behind, Stybar finally cracked, leaving Aernouts alone in third.
Good legs, bad line
As they got the bell, both leaders were looking weary and Aernouts was closing in. Nys gave it the gas only to see Pauwels use his own move against him, attacking into the lead on the high line through the longest sandy stretch, but Nys fought back into contact on a steep, sandy climb.
Pauwels clung firmly to the front, slowing a bit in preparation for the two-up sprint. But he couldn’t wait too long with Aernouts chasing relentlessly in third, and Nys wasn’t interested in waiting at all.
He rocketed through the final right-hand corner and onto the pavement, brushing up against the barriers on the left side of the finishing straight, then put his head down and drove toward the line.
Pauwels tried to come around, but he chose the wrong side, and Nys didn’t give him enough room to seal the deal.
After the race both Pauwels and his team management suggested that Nys’ move at the end tainted his result. The usually mild-mannered Pauwels, in the midst of what can only be called a breakout season, made it clear he was frustrated with Nys even before the pair crossed the line, throwing his hands in the air in exasperation.
In a post-race interview, Sunweb-Revor team leader Mario De Clerq suggested that another rider may have been disqualified by the race jury, but Nys’ stature as a racer and his role as a member of the UCI’s Cyclocross Commission afforded him special treatment.
Manager Jurgen Mettepenningen, meanwhile, more diplomatically suggested Pauwels’ race was a moral victory, despite landing him on the second step of the podium.
No harm, no foul?
But Nys, who didn’t have a chance to respond to the suggestion during a post-race press conference, said he had not intentionally run Pauwels into the barriers.
“We both had sore legs in the final 300 meters,” Nys told reporters. “It’s a short finishing straight, but there was a headwind, so I wanted to be in front for the finish. I almost overcooked the corner, but looked back and saw no damage was done. Kevin was still behind me.
“Right after hitting the corner, I chose to move right. Did I touch him? Not that I noticed. He was never next to me. If he wanted to win the race, he had a choice to go to the other side.”
Nys also suggested that Pauwels’ frustration at race’s end could easily have been self-directed.
“The gesture?” Nys responded, when asked about the race’s final moments. “Maybe it’s because he was frustrated and disappointed because he made the wrong choice.”
Pauwels, for his part, said he was unhappy at the end of the race, but said he had quickly moved on.
“I was about halfway along his bike, maybe just behind it (in the finishing stretch),” Pauwels said. “After the corner I was next to him on the right, so I had no choice but to follow him. I was a little angry after the finish, but now I’m happy. I was not expecting to be so good. Now I think I have a chance for the world championship.”
Aernouts, who had a ringside seat for the drama as he rolled across the finish line in third, just five seconds behind Pauwels, said he watched the sprint, but couldn’t say whether the controversy was justified. Instead, he preferred to focus on his own result, one of the best of the season.
“In hindsight, I was too cautious and too often at the back,” said Aernouts. “But I’m really satisfied, if not 100 percent.”
Tough race for the Americans
Behind the excitement at the front, two Americans were also racing. For Jonathan Page (Planet Bike), who battled illness again this week, the star-crossed season continued. Page crashed on the first sandy section of the race, immediately finding himself stranded deep in the field before abandoning the race with leg cramps. Page was optimistic after a hard race in Gavere last weekend, but told VeloNews that he would spend the next week just focusing on getting himself healthy.
Jeremy Powers, who finished the race more than six minutes down in 32nd place, was similarly frustrated.
“I came here to get a bit of experience; I haven’t done this race in three or four years, and I know how hard it is. Since the world championships are here this year, I thought maybe this would be good preparation,” he told VeloNews.
But the American found that he simply couldn’t match the Belgians’ experience in the sand.
“I’m not happy at all,” he said. “That’s not to be sour, it was just a really difficult race in conditions I’m not really familiar with. It takes a little wind out of my sails in thinking that the world championship is somewhere I could get a good result this year.”
Powers refused to make excuses for his disappointing performance, though.
“I’d like to blame my result on the travel,” he said, “but it seems like this is a race where you can either do it or you can’t. It’s going to take more than three or four days of practice, you know? It takes three or four years of practice. I hoped for better, and I tried my best. I’ll definitely come over for worlds and race my hardest, like I did today, but it’s hard to imagine (a great result).”
Online editor at large Patrick O’Grady contributed to this report.
- 1. Sven Nys (Bel), Landbouwkrediet, 1:03:18
- 2. Kevin Pauwels (Bel), Sunweb-Revor, 1:03:19
- 3. Bart Aernouts (Bel), Rabobank-Giant, 1:03:23
- 4. Zdenek Stybar (Cze), Quick Step, 1:04:03
- 5. Tom Meeusen (Bel), Telenet-Fidea, 1:04:09