NAMUR, Belgium (VN) — Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor) rode an inspired race on Sunday to claim a solo victory on a sodden, treacherous World Cup course at Namur.
“I really didn’t expect that I would win today in this manner and with such a big gap,” he said. “In the second lap I took over from Francis Mourey, and then rode my own tempo. That’s what our team leader, Mario De Clerq, told me to do. I expected that the rest would quickly return, but they did not.”
Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) appeared certain to finish second, a position he had held since the start of the third lap, but flatted early in the final lap as behind, Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) escaped a chase containing early leader Mourey (FDJ-Big Mat) and Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb).
As the exasperated world champion pitted for a fresh bike, Nys overhauled him and rode past into the runner-up spot at 48 seconds behind Pauwels.
A dejected Albert coasted across the line for third at 1:00. He still leads the World Cup overall, with 345 points. Nys sits second with 335 and Pauwels third with 334.
American Jonathan Page (Planet Bike) finished 15th, despite a bad start and a flat, and earned an automatic spot on the U.S. team that will contest the world championships in Kentucky.
The Mourey eel slithers away
Mourey got off to a fast start on the boggy, deadly circuit, as did U.S. national champion Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus), who was third early on but faded to 28th at the finish.
As the Frenchman drove forward Pauwels followed, as did Albert, and going into the second lap the world champion was 10 seconds behind the two leaders with a strong chase on his heels containing Nys, Powers, Lars Van Der Haar (Rabobank-Giant), Vantornout and Bart Aernouts (AA Drink).
Pauwels seized the lead on a sketchy descent and Albert remained in no-man’s land as first Nys, then Vantornout led the chase group.
The third lap saw Pauwels shed Mourey. Then Albert caught and passed the FDJ rider and took sole possession of second.
Sven surges forward
With five laps remaining Pauwels led Albert by 22 seconds while the Nys-powered pursuit caught Mourey at the pits. There would be no retrieving the Sunweb rider — Pauwels nearly doubled his advantage during the lap — and with three laps to go he held nearly a minute over Albert and a further 20 seconds over the chase group.
Nys finally shed his companions on a steep climb near the end of the lap and with two to go he was third on the track, 24 seconds down on Albert, with Mourey only a few seconds behind.
As the bell sounded for the final go-round Nys had closed to within 19 seconds of the world champion.
He would not catch Pauwels, who sailed across the line alone to claim a well-deserved victory. But Nys got close enough to Albert to capitalize on that mechanical, and as the World Cup leader hit the pits for a spare bike, banging the bars of the other as he handed it off, the Belgian champion rolled past to claim second place.
“It was a very difficult course and that doesn’t usually suit me,” said Pauwels. “The second round I took over and I just rode my own pace.”
And with three rounds remaining in the World Cup, which resumes Wednesday at Zolder, Pauwels pronounced himself “optimistic” about taking the overall victory.
Albert, predictably, described himself as “frustrated” over his misfortune, which cost him 10 points in the World Cup rankings, but gave credit where credit was due.
“I got a flat on the first descent,” he said. “On each climb, I stopped. That way, I lost at least 20 seconds to Sven.
“Kevin today was by far the best. I think, however, that I was certainly entitled to that second place.”
For his part, Nys said he was not at his best on Sunday.
“The first part of the ‘cross I was not bad, but not great,” he said. “Only in the last three or four laps did I get a good feeling. I was not bad, but not great. I only started to have a good feeling in the last laps. I could only aim to get as high as possible in the standings at the end.
“I got 10 points extra thanks to the gift of Albert’s bad luck, though I’d prefer to catch him a different way. Kevin was too good today.”
Page pleased, Powers ponders
Page was very happy with his 15th-place finish, which reserved his spot on the U.S. worlds team. And it didn’t come easily.
“I flatted on the third lap, going up the hill just after the finish line,” he said. “It was slower at that point, so that was nice, but by the time I got to the pit I was just riding on the rim on the corners. So that was some mental training for me.
“I think, in terms of taking everything out of me, this was my best race of the season. I really had to concentrate the whole time. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was happy about the whole thing. This is very, very good for my season.”
Powers, meanwhile, said he was happy to finish on a course that didn’t suit him.
“The start was the highlight of the race,” he said. “I think if I had finished 15th I would have been happy. But I have to go back and look at the whole thing. I don’t think I’m off the mark, it just really didn’t suit me. When I’m running, I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I am going slowly!’ This was kind of the double trifecta, with both the running and the heavy mud.
“I think the progress for me is this: I think three years ago I would not have finished this race. One hundred percent, I would not have finished it. So we have to look at the positive stuff. So you make the holeshot, you do a good first lap, try to settle in. I knew I wasn’t going to last; I was hoping for 10th or 15th. But once we got to the running section I knew that wasn’t going to be possible, so I just did damage control.”
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton contributed to this report.