After losing the Koppenbergcross in the final meters on Saturday Belgian champion Sven Nys was a man on a mission at Sunday’s Superprestige Zonhoven, methodically disposing of one rival after another.
But once again the Crelan-AA Drink rider found himself forced to settle for second as Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games) chased him down on the final lap and then out-sprinted him at the line.
With three laps remaining the lead group was down to four — Nys, Pauwels, Lars van der Haar (Giant-Shimano) and Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea).
Meeusen was first to fade, and with two to go there were three men left out front. Come the bell lap, Nys finally shed the remorseless Van der Haar, surging through a long sandy stretch as Pauwels fought to keep him in sight.
It looked like another successful late-race attack from the Belgian champion. But Pauwels didn’t show the white flag — he chased Nys, caught on just as the two hit the pavement for the final dash to the finish, and out-kicked him at the line. Van der Haar hung on for third.
“I thought Sven was gone,” Pauwels said afterward. “But I took a chance in the last corner … and I had enough speed to pass him.
“At last, a victory. Hopefully, more will come.”
Nys said he sought to made the race hard, but it apparently was hard on him, too.
“I noticed that everyone was in trouble when I stood on the accelerator,” he said. “But then I had to rest, which is when Pauwels and Van der Haar came back.
“I still had some left in the final round and attacked. But my legs were completely empty. Eventually I had to bow to Pauwels, who was slightly faster in the sprint.”
Meeusen on fire
Meeusen was aggressive early, taking the hole shot with Van der Haar on his wheel. But Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb) soon moved forward to take the lead, and Meeusen and Van der Haar stuck with him, as did Pauwels, with Nys, Rob Peeters (Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace), Corné Van Kessel (Telenet) and Mathieu Van der Poel (BKCP-Powerplus).
Van der Poel’s teammate Philipp Walsleben quickly joined up, too, making for a big, strong lead group on the tough, technical circuit.
Then Nys launched an early attack, splitting the group. Vantornout stayed close, with Meeusen chasing and Van der Haar further back in charge of a four-man pursuit.
Nys kept the pressure on and with less than seven laps remaining Vantornout nose-wheelied while plummeting into the sand pit and crashed out of second. Meeusen moved ahead of him and onto Nys’ wheel.
Behind, Van der Poel led Van der Haar and Walsleben.
A two-man race
With six to go it was still a two-man race, with Nys and Meeusen pursued by Van der Poel, Van der Haar and Walsleben. Van der Haar pried a slight gap and began a solo chase, but the other two stayed close.
Van der Haar closed to within five seconds going into a long sandy straight. Behind, Van der Poel was distancing the German champ, who had been joined by Pauwels.
With five laps remaining Nys stayed firmly planted on the front, keeping the pressure on and opening a slight gap over Meeusen, but the Telenet rider fought back. Van der Haar likewise fought gamely on in third while behind, Pauwels slipped around Van der Poel and continued inching forward.
Van der Haar finally made it to the leaders with four laps remaining and Pauwels was just six seconds back. Nys slipped into third and let Meeusen make the pace as Pauwels, too, made the connection.
Then the audacious Van der Haar took over. Meeusen was sitting second wheel ahead of Nys and Pauwels. Peeters was moving up, too, trying to join the leaders.
Nys accelerates again
After a bit of rest Nys surged once more, taking the lead and Van der Haar for company, leaving Meeusen and Pauwels to chase.
A rare miscue in a sandy U-turn set Van der Haar afoot and gave Nys his chance. But the Dutch champion chased furiously with Meeusen and Pauwels in tow and quickly erased his deficit.
With three to go, there were four men up front, and it seemed Van der Poel was fading.
Nys wasn’t. He kept accelerating, trying to break the others. Recovered after his chase, Pauwels moved up and into second, with Van der Haar third wheel and Meeusen losing ground.
As Van der Haar inched his way back up to the two leaders Nys waved Pauwels into the pole position.
Two laps out it once again was a threesome up front: Pauwels, Nys and Van der Haar. Pauwels stayed on the front, while Van der Haar fought to stay in contact.
Attack after attack
Nys took over just before the trio began the bell lap. He gave it some stick and once again Van der Haar lost the wheel, though Pauwels stuck with him.
Once again the gritty Dutchman latched back on during the second run out of the sand pit. Then Pauwels moved to the front, only to see Nys slipstream him in a long sandy stretch, leaving both of his rivals in his dust.
Pauwels began another desperate chase, but it seemed hopeless, and Van der Haar was finally dropped for good.
And just as it seemed the race was won, Pauwels had closed to within striking distance and uncorked a powerful sprint that Nys simply couldn’t match. Van der Haar finished third.
Nys now leads the Superprestige series in a tie on points with van der Haar (27 points). Van der Poel sits third with 26 and Pauwels fourth with 25.