by Dan Seaton with reporting by Mindi Wisman
Zolder, Belgium – On a perfect December day and a course that started icy and became progressively muddy as the day unfolded, Kevin Pauwels emerged from a group of four to take his second victory as a professional in this seventh round of the UCI World Cup. Pauwels took a 22-second victory over World Champion Niels Albert, who, in turn, held off Sven Nys for third place.
Perhaps because of the course conditions, which, by the time the men’s race started were slick—a thin layer of mud over mostly frozen ground—or a relatively large field—the result of a recent influx of riders to Belgium for the holiday racing season—the early laps today were notably chaotic. With the 73 rider field swarming down the homestretch on the Formula One track here, Gerben De Knegt grabbed the early lead as the field made the hard right off of the pavement and into the mud. But his time at the front was short-lived; Zdeněk Štybar took over at the front after a huge pileup caused mass confusion just a few turns later.
Deeper in the field, Sven Nys was having flashbacks to Sunday’s race in Kalmthout, where he battled back after an early crash to take an astounding victory in the middle of a heavy snowstorm. Though the sun shone in Zolder today, the situation for Nys was the same after he tangled with Erwin Vervecken in slippery mud halfway through the first lap. Nys quickly collected himself, and while he tried to climb back through the crowd on the course, World Champion Niels Albert slipped up himself and wound up further back than the Belgian Champion Nys.
As the riders came through the end of that tumultuous lap, Czech rider Martin Bina came to the front, setting a blazing tempo down the long, straight road, the lead group breaking into pieces under the strain of the hard pace. Through the early parts of the second lap, Bina led a group of six, including early leaders De Knegt and Štybar, Bart Aernouts, Kevin Pauwels, and Christian Heule.
Back in the still enormous field, Albert marked Nys while both tried to get to the front and out of the chaos further back. American Jonathan Page drove himself back into the mix after getting caught behind the series of crashes that slowed many riders early in the race.
Up front, the lead group itself began to break down. First Bina fell off, blown out from his huge effort through the second lap, then De Knegt dangled after getting caught in the course tape around a steep, muddy climb. But the trouble for anyone near the front was minor compared to the difficulties the chasers had, as the group was still large enough that every bobble, fall, and error rippled back through the field. Finally, the big names of cyclocross, Nys, Albert, and Štybar emerged at the front of the second group, taking control and thinning out the mob of chasers.
But, just as it began to look like that those three might find their way back to the front, Nys fell on his side on a muddy off-camber section that caused problems in every race today. Nys fell hard and was slow to remount, looking visibly shaken and dangling off the back of the chase group. Albert, who led the chase when Nys tumbled, took advantage and pounded his way into the clear.
Albert was alone for only a few minutes before he connected with the front of the race, now down to three riders: Pauwels, De Knegt, and Bart Aernouts. Nearly as soon as Albert reached the front of the race, Pauwels hit the throttle and went clear. Albert, still recovering from the effort just to get there, couldn’t match his countryman, but took control of the chase. Albert eventually pulled away from De Knegt and Aernouts when Aernouts slipped and had to slow.
Meanwhile, Nys, who looked for several laps like he might be contemplating abandoning the race, suddenly appeared to regain his composure, and began to once again make his way to the front of the chase. At the same time, American Jonathan Page reached the Nys group, looking primed to contend for at least a fifth place finish, but then took a fall of his own. Page poured himself into the effort to reconnect, but the distance was too great to close with only one lap to go. Page would finish 14th.
But Pauwels was the star of the day, roaring down the homestretch on the racetrack while the crowds who lined the finish pounded on the course barriers and cheered. Pauwels, known for his serious demeanor on and off the bike, cracked a smile and waved to the crowds as he claimed the first World Cup win of his professional career. For Albert, at least today, the task was too much; he never managed to close the 20 second gap to Pauwels, but retained his World Cup lead with a second place finish.
And once again, a resurgent Nys somehow found his way on to the podium after early disaster. On the last lap, Nys regained and broke free from the chase group, coming to within 11 seconds of Albert before simply running out of room and finishing third. De Knegt claimed fourth place over Radomir Simunek, who bounced back from a hard fall Sunday in Kalmthout to take fifth place.
American Jamey Driscoll took home the best result after Page, recovering from a mid-race crash to finish 25th. His teammate Jeremy Powers was less fortunate, crashing hard after a problem with his brakes and abandoning the race. “My brake cable slipped and the front brakes went to the bars on the steep decent, I had to bail,” Powers reported after the race. “I’m sore and banged up, but I’m gonna live.”
Americans Troy Wells and Brian Matter took 32nd and 56th respectively.
Nys, who found himself in what is becoming a familiar, if not necessarily welcome, position, told reporters after the race that he had to battle through a great deal of pain to regain the podium. “I had some pain in my right knee in the last crash,” he said. “Two laps after the crash it was really painful and in my mind there was some question of what am I going to do now. Tomorrow is another big race where I am the [series] leader. So I waited a little bit and I hoped that it was not getting worse in the race and it was ok. On last lap I felt myself good. Then you could see something special in the last lap.”
Nys’ struggles were unfolding just meters up the track from Jonathan Page, who almost certainly would have cracked the top ten—and maybe done better—if not for his fall late in the race. Page, who battled back from deep in the field, said he focused on riding a clean race and avoiding mistakes. “I tried to be patient, if you went too hard, you’d fall down,” he said. “I was one of the strongest guys in every group I came to.”
Page said that despite the bad luck bookends to his race, he was pleased with his performance. “I wanted to be in the front group, not where I was, but that’s the way it goes,” he told us. “I’m happy. I’m not going slower. It’s a morale boost, but it’s going to be a real morale boost when I’m going for the top five.”
Page’s fellow American, Jamey Driscoll, told us he took a fall that cost him considerable time. “It was just starting to thin out,” he said, “but there was a blind corner due to the sun, right before the finish. Someone fell and their bike was right on the track and I didn’t notice it until the last second and I went down, over the handlebars.” Nonetheless, Driscoll also did his best to battle back, and said he satisfied with the day’s work. “I’m happy with my results, I guess,” said the Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com rider. “I placed better than last year, but last year 26th was a really good result for me. So I’m happy with how I’m riding and there’s more races to do.”
“That’s racin’,” added Driscoll.
While many riders, including Nys, alternately praised or expressed surprise at Pauwel’s victory, Albert was somewhat less effusive in his reaction. “Kevin won’t blame me for saying that he is somebody who has ups and downs,” he said. “He came 32nd in Kalmthout and he won today, so [victory] is something I can afford him.”
But Albert also said that Pauwels made a perfectly timed move for which he simply had no answer. “When I escaped from the chasing group and I joined the leaders, I needed half a lap to recover,” he told reporters. “But I didn’t get that time because Kevin just accelerated then. I started chasing him, but I stayed at that same distance and it wasn’t possible to close it down anymore.”
Pauwels, known usually as a quiet rider who has enjoyed mixed success since entering the professional ranks, won over the crowd today, smiling and waving at the finish and then stepping off the podium to hand a bouquet he received for his victory to his grandmother. “I’m very happy,” he said. “It’s my second victory in the pros, and the fact that it is a World Cup puts it above my victory in Overijse last year.”
But Pauwels pointed out that his victory did not come easily. “I suffered a lot,” he told reporters. “It was the longest ‘cross I’ve ridden in my life.”
See our full results of the Elite Men at the 2009 Zolder Cyclocross World Cup.