Telenet-Fidea’s 26-year-old Kevin Pauwels won the GVA Trofee cyclocross race in Hasselt, Belgium on Saturday. Pauwels bested a group of heavyweights including world champion Zdenek Stybar, Landbouwkrediet’s `cross legend Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) and another teammate, former world champ’ Bart Wellens.
Pauwels’ late race acceleration put his name on the front page of the Belgian papers, but who is the man from the harbor town of Ekeren, near Antwerpen, in northern Belgium?
First of all, Pauwels is the son of Joseph Pauwels, the former elite cyclocross racer who racked up a number of wins in the 1970’s and in 1983 finished third in the Belgium amateur national championships.
Perhaps more notable – and more significant – is the fact that Pauwels is the brother of fallen ’crosser Tim Pauwels, who died on the track at Erpe-Mere in September 2004. Two weeks after losing consciousness in a race at Essen, the 23-year-old crashed into a ditch. According to reports, doctors estimated that Pauwels’ heart had stopped before the crash and they were unable to revive him.
According to those closest to him, the accident deeply affected the younger Pauwels. A casual observer could not tell, however, as he is as quiet and tentative off the bike as he was loud on it on Saturday. In an interview a month after his brother’s death, Pauwels was reserved, offering only one-sentence answers. He continued to train, however, and the 2002 world junior champion worked his way to the world U23 title in 2004 and made a regular habit of U23 podiums in the 2005 Superprestige series before turning pro in 2006.
Since then, however, Pauwels has shown hints of his talent, but has largely lived in the shadows of world champion teammates Bart Wellens and Zdenek Stybar.
When asked what it would take for Pauwels to move from podium threat to a top elite ’crosser, Stybar told VeloNews that “sometimes he’s just too passive racing. I think he can do more.”
Pauwels has regularly found himself in the front group late in races this season, but has been hesitant to animate on his own. He broke through in the elite ranks with a UCI C1 win in Overijse, Belgium, in 2008. A run of podium finishes followed, but Pauwels did not win again until the Zolder World Cup last season.
“Sometimes we are in the front together and I say, ‘Kevin, come on, ride away because now is the moment,’ and he just stays in the wheel and then I go myself,” said Stybar. “I think that when he gets more confidence in himself to ride away, he will win more races like last year in Zolder. He rode away and nobody saw him anymore.”
Before Saturday’s race, a couple hundred fans crowded Nys’ camper in the team parking lot, many of them taking in the hor d’oeuvres in an adjoining supporters’ club tent. Meanwhile, Pauwels quietly spun on the rollers in front of his Fidea camper – one of more than 10 in the lot.
Two hours later, Pauwels was again alone, but this time in front of a frothing set of spectators lining the finish straight. Stybar had a front row seat and tipped the performance as just the one that Pauwels needed to get on a roll.
After the race, the Belgian press squeezed close to hear Pauwels’ words as he quietly recapped the day. A few minutes later in a private interview, his lower jaw quivered as he spoke just above a whisper through Erwin Vervecken, who translated Pauwels’ words to English. With his confident presence, Vervecken balanced Pauwels’ shyness and translated the race winner’s comment on riding deep into the race with a six-man front group: “Today I had a really good day, so it was easy to stay in front. Some other days it’s hard, but today I was really super.”
Pauwels’ translated words were no doubt filtered by the gregarious Vervecken as the race winner avoided eye contact. The two Belgians provided a striking study in contrasts off their bikes. On the course, they’re not so different, though. Half a decade ago, Vervecken was a veteran rider from outside Antwerpen riding in the colors of Fidea with Wellens. He won the world championship in Hooglede-Gits for the second time in a row in 2007.
With the kind of talking his legs did on Saturday, Kevin Pauwels may not be far away from his first elite world title. And so long as he keeps yelling with the crankarms, he doesn’t have to say much to the microphones.