ZOLDER, Belgium (VN) — Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor) proved best of a three-man break on Monday, taking the victory at Monday’s UCI World Cup and regaining the series lead.
Series leader Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet), world champion Zdenek Stybar (Quick Step) and Pauwels escaped the bunch with just over five laps to go in at Heusden-Zolder, then took turns trying to shed one another in the final few laps, without success.
With two laps remaining the trio had more than half a minute on a chase led by Lars Boom (Rabobank) and Belgian champion Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus).
Nys pitted for a fresh bike on the final go-round. Stybar took the front and pegged it, with Pauwels on his wheel. But Nys stayed with them, waiting for one or the other to make a mistake.
Stybar tried a few accelerations but couldn’t shed the others. Then he took the lead out of a corner with a muddy low line and a grassy high line and grabbed a small advantage going into the subsequent fast descent. In hot pursuit, Pauwels nearly laid it down, with Nys on his wheel, but the three were back together again at the course’s lone, steep run-up.
Stybar kept the pressure on, leading the trio on their final trip down a steep, technical drop-in ending in a left-hand corner, and all three hit the pavement together.
Unfortunately for Nys, he hit the pavement for real, sliding out in the final right-hand bend, leaving Stybar and Pauwels to fight it out for the win.
The world champ led out the sprint, but the persistent Pauwels slipped by at the line, leaving Stybar to pound one thigh in frustration.
Nys coasted across for third, in the process surrendering the World Cup lead to Pauwels. Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb) took fourth with Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea) fifth.
Dare to win
Nys told a press conference that he knew that the he would have to take some risks to win, and simply hit the slippery pavement a bit too hard.
“To win here I knew I would need to be right on their wheel, in the big ring and with an 11 (tooth cog) in the back, just like in the start,” he said, adding that the endless finishing stretch set up an unusual finale today.
“I still had the power for the sprint, I wasn’t lost, and I had good sensations going into the end. I think it was possible to start the sprint in third position. But I just slipped out coming off the bridge.”
Nys, perhaps the best technical rider and tactician in cyclocross, seemed off his game for much of the day, and was hampered by mistakes and misjudgments more than once.
Still, he said, he felt like the dramatic conclusion was inevitable with both Stybar and Pauwels so clearly on top of their game.
“There was no way to avoid a sprint today, we could only get a gap of 15 meters, nothing more,” he said. “I was confident enough to let it be decided in a sprint. So I’m disappointed and frustrated, because I wanted to prove something. Before I was able to turn the pedals once I was on the ground.”
Stybar, for his part, said he executed his plan for the day well, but Pauwels was simply a bit stronger in the final moments.
“I’ve learned that I need to stay on the wheels to save some energy in these races,” said the world champion. “I succeeded until the sprint. I didn’t think during the race I could (stay in the lead group). In the sprint I thought I had a bigger gap, so I started a little too early. It was close, but he won. If it’s a meter or a centimeter, it doesn’t matter.”
Stybar, who has had a string of disappointing results going back to November, told reporters that he has struggled to figure out the best way to prepare for races. Finally, he said, he decided that he had to put his family first for the moment.
“After Friday’s race in Diegem I went home to the Czech Republic. It’s not ideal, but Christmas — and a day with my family — is more important than a World Cup.”
Pauwels, for whom the race was a return to his impressive early season form after several weeks of mixed results in difficult, muddy races, said he was pleased to beat a rider as strong as Stybar in conditions that didn’t completely favor him.
“I didn’t even know that Sven crashed because of the crowds,” said Pauwels, who will be back in the World Cup leader’s kit in Lieven, France, in three weeks time. “Stybar had a few meters, but not a lot and I quickly closed it.
“I’m well positioned in the classification, so I’m going to keep going for it. If the weather improves, that’s good for me; otherwise the following World Cups will be very difficult.”
Page, Johnson disappointed
American results, meanwhile, continued to be decidedly mixed. Jonathan Page (Planet Bike), who continues to show glimmers of good form after an uncharacteristically slow start to the season, led the contingent with a 25th-place finish.
The Belgian-based New Hampshire native, who rather expressively compared the slick, soupy course conditions to “riding through diarrhea,” spent much of the day caught in traffic in a group of riders that numbered close to 20 at times.
“I didn’t start bad,” he told VeloNews, “but the race is so fast, and things bunch up, and so I just kept getting into traffic. I always seemed to be the last guy in whatever group I was in. It didn’t really go my way today. The legs were okay — not great, but okay — I was just frustrated because it wasn’t really in my control.”
There was plenty of frustration to go around for the Americans. Tim Johnson (Cannoncalde-Cyclocrossworld.com), who spent most of his race trapped in the next group behind Page and ultimately finished 37th, said he was also disappointed with the day’s results — and the outcome of his whole European trip.
“It’s been a little bit of a mediocre trip. I was definitely looking for more than I got,” he said. “It was just a disaster at the start. I got stuck behind a couple little things in the first two corners, and then I was literally crashed into the pit the first time through.”
Johnson rebounded from the mess at the race’s start, but never quite managed to break through and get back into the race.
“I just didn’t have enough to make up for all that. You can make up time on a course like this by jumping group to group if you have good legs, but I just didn’t have the legs to do that today.
“But I’m still really optimistic about the next few weeks and nationals. I know what it takes for me to get going. This is a little bit of motivation for me as well.”
Behind the big American guns, Jeremy Durrin led a contingent of developing North American riders with a 52nd-place finish, just ahead of Canadian Craig Richey. Fellow Euro ’Cross Campers Ryan Knapp and Mitch Hoke took 54th and 56th.
Online editor at large Patrick O’Grady contributed to this report.
- 1. Kevin Pauwels (BEL) Sunweb-Revor, 1:03:44
- 2. Zdenek Stybar (CZE) Quickstep Cycling Team, same time
- 3. Sven Nys (BEL) Landbouwkrediet, at 0:20
- 4. Klaas Vantornout (BEL) Sunweb-Revor, at 0:32
- 5. Tom Meeusen (BEL) Telenet-Fidea, at 0:35