Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games) won the fourth round of the cyclocross World Cup in Namur, Belgium on Sunday.
Wearing the white World Cup leader’s skinsuit, the Belgian made his move on the final lap, and proved to be the most sure-footed on a difficult, hilly course, getting the best of Lars van der Haar (Giant-Shimano) and Philipp Walsleben (BKCP-Powerplus).
Early in the race, a group of seven riders broke off the front of the field. The lead group began to slowly pull apart during the first 20 minutes of racing, until Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea) attacked with six laps to go. Van der Haar took up the chasing duties, and with a big effort, he bridged alone to the 26-year-old Belgian leader.
“This is a couse where you can actually do something on your own, and I saw an opportunity to go when Meeusen went, and I felt I was really strong uphill,” Van der Haar said. “So I just went full gas to him and then just did my own race.”
Behind, Corné van Kessel (Telenet-Fidea) and Pauwels battled for third place.
“In the beginning of the race I wasn’t better than the rest, so it was fast enough for me,” Pauwels said. “I was always in the back of the [front group]. But I rode all the race at my own rhythm, and in a race like this it’s better not to go too deep in the beginning. Always ride your own speed.”
When they came through with five laps to go, Van der Haar had faded and was riding with van Kessel and Pauwels.
The chasers persisted and brought Meeusen back, a little over the race’s halfway mark.
With four laps left, van der Haar attacked on one of the course’s many steep hills, early in the lap. The Dutch champion quickly got a gap, and the increased pace caused Meeusen to drop from the chase.
Walsleben, who’d been lurking in fifth place, overtook Meeusen, and soon had the podium in his sights.
“It wasn’t my intention to close the gap to the leaders, I was just was riding at my own speed as fast as I could,” Walsleben said. “But then, obviously, I was coming closer to the first two, and then I thought I had a chance. But, of course, they were riding a little bit for tactics, the last couple of laps. So I could come close, but I knew they were looking at each other.”
On a high-speed descent, van Kessel crashed on a right-hand corner and lost his chance at the podium.
With three to go, van der Haar’s advantage had grown, and Pauwels, the World Cup series leader, chased alone. Walsleben sat in third position.
Undeterred, Pauwels slowly reeled in van der Haar, and by the penultimate lap, the 30-year-old Belgian had returned to the front of the race. Pauwels moved ahead of van der Haar after a trip through the pits. The two traded the lead a few times but waited to attack.
On the final lap, the two leaders slowed a bit, and began to play tactical games, offering Walsleben a ray of hope, as he chased close behind. But it was not meant to be. Pauwels accelerated away from van der Haar and extended his lead on a brutally technical off-camber section.
“Just before the off-camber I felt good, and I had a little gap,” said Pauwels. “On the off-camber I came back on the penultimate lap to Lars. I didn’t know, but in the last lap I suddenly saw that I had a gap, so I presumed that Lars made a mistake. But I didn’t know, but it was in the same place again.”
Van der Haar was forced to settle for second place, and Walsleben stayed close to finish third.
“It became a bit tactical, and I wanted to see if I could beat Pauwels,” van der Haar said. “And I did really good in the next-to-last lap, but in the last lap I wanted to do the same, like go in the front in the off-camber bit. But I got a lot of stuff in my eyes just before I wanted to go over, and I just couldn’t see how I wanted to do it. So then I just stayed put. And then you come to the off-camber and I was just like, ‘Ok, now I have to do it. I have to do it.’ And of course, it goes wrong. So I lost a lot of time.
“Then, a little bit later, I made another mistake where Walsleben was almost back in my wheel,” van der Haar continued. “And I made myself so angry, I was like, ‘No way, that’s not going to happen.’ So I just pushed myself so hard that I was still the second place.”
With two events remaining, Pauwels is poised to claim the World Cup series overall.
“The World Cup is looking very, very good. We have two races to go, so it’s not sure yet,” he said. “Friday in Zolder I will try to lose as few points as possible on the other guys. But it’s looking really, really good. Zolder remains the most important race of the Christmas period, even though I have a big lead in the classification. I’m feeling strong, but not super strong. Maybe because I trained very intensely during the training camp in Mallorca, so maybe it will come back next week.”