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The Quiet Man speaks

Who is cyclocross World Cup champion Kevin Pauwels? Dan Seaton talks with one of Belgium's most inscrutable 'cross stars

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September 26, 2004, Erpe-Mere, Belgium

The boy lay on the ground for a long, long time. Longer than made any sense. He had fallen heavily, missing a corner, crashing into a ditch. It looked like maybe the kind of fall that could knock you out of a race, but not the kind where you stay down so long. But the boy stayed down.

Tim Pauwels, a barrel-chested 23-year-old with a shock of nearly-white blonde hair lay dying, a ruptured aorta filling his chest with blood. Later, some would say his heart had already stopped before the fall, that he had died on the bike. Nobody would ever know for sure.

In the anguished weeks that followed, his family would forever wonder why help had been so slow to arrive. Why the police who supervised the course had failed to come to Pauwels’ aid. Why the race organization in Erpe-Mere, site of the star-crossed early-season race where Pauwels fell, had not taken to the public address system to seek a doctor from the thousands of fans who lined the track. Or whether they, or their doctors, or his team’s doctors had failed to recognize the warning signs, so clear in the sharp light of hindsight, that something was ailing the young cyclist.

But his parents, Jos and Josée, would face an even more impossible question. What to do about Tim’s brother, Kevin, 20, the reigning under-23 world cyclocross champion?

Should he stop? Did he himself ever harbor any doubts about continuing to race, without the brother who had been his role model and his idol, with the possibility that he, too, might have inherited Tim’s condition?

In an interview two months later, Kevin, normally shy to the point of timorousness, was unusually declarative. Did he ever doubt that he should keep going?

“Not for a moment,” he said.

January 2015

The Hollywood version of the Kevin Pauwels story would end back in the mud of Erpe-Mere. Exactly 10 seasons out of the long, dark shadow of his brother’s death, racing in the first-ever Belgian championship race on that very course, Pauwels would pull away from the field in the final lap. He would climb the final hill to the finish, holding back tears of joy and sorrow, emotion long repressed finally breaking through.

The music would swell and Kevin would ride to a long-elusive prize, the driekleur, the yellow, black, and red tri-color jersey of Belgium’s elite national cyclocross champion. It would be a redemptive victory, bringing his story full circle, and at just the right moment.

But Belgium is a long way from Hollywood, and there is no redeeming so terrible a loss, certainly not by winning a bicycle race. The real Pauwels finishes a disappointing fifth, his role limited to set-up man for his triumphant Sunweb-Napoleon Games teammate Klaas Vantornout. Pauwels will settle for the World Cup title — the second of his career — and an outside shot at the world championship, in Tabor, Czech Republic, on February 1. He will be the man he has always been: affable, inscrutable.

Pauwels will not shed a tear about any of this. In fact, he foretells most of the real story in his mobile home a week before it all happens, getting ready for a relatively small race in Leuven.

He is preparing his lunch while he talks to me, spreading thin slices of plain white bread with even thinner layers of creamed honey and Sirop de Liège, a nearly black, fruit-based spread that tastes a little like apple butter. He wears the slightly bemused smile he nearly always wears, joking that he might be the only Belgian cyclocrosser who doesn’t load up on spaghetti ahead of a race.

I’ve been through a lot of pre-race, lunchtime, mobile home interviews like this one. He might be right.

The radio plays quietly in the background as we talk, an upside-down interview in which Pauwels listens far more than he talks himself. He answers questions, occasionally in English, more often in Flemish, and as we talk it occurs to me that Pauwels, now 30, has come a long way since emerging as on of the main protagonists of the 2011-12 cyclocross season. That season, Pauwels says, was his very best. He won the World Cup, the GVA Trofee — one of Belgium’s two major cyclocross series, now called the Bpost Bank Trofee — and earned a bronze medal at the world championships in Koksijde, Belgium, his second trip to the worlds podium as an elite.

But the Pauwels of 2011 still seemed more boy than man, small and nervous, his voice quavering in every post-race interview. The years since have transformed him, and he is more confident in every respect: in his demeanor, in his body language, and — most importantly — in the flair with which he races his bike. Though still a man of few words, there is no longer any trepidation in his voice. The boyishness of a few years ago has melted away, and the lines on his face and thinning of his hair lend him instead a touch of ruggedness. He has become, undeniably, a man.

Although, he tells me, interviews, like the one we’re doing today, remain his least favorite thing that success as a cyclist has earned him. Some things never change.

Kevin is talking about his 2014-15 season — not his best, he says — and I am thinking about how much he has changed when his mechanic and friend of 20 years, Bart Risbourg, sticks his head into the mobile home. He joins the conversation, saying he too has seen a change since Kevin first became popular a few years ago.

“Sometimes people stop him and say hello when we’re out,” Risbourg explains. “Now it’s normal, but in the beginning, it was a bit disturbing for him. Now he’s adapted to the spotlight.”

And it’s true. Today, Kevin seems well-adapted to his place near the top of Belgian cyclocross. And while he eats and relaxes before the race, we share a wide-ranging, conversation on his career, his family, his influences, and his expectations for a season that has been something of a resurgence after a down year.

That Belgian championship race so loaded with symmetry and gravity to me? Pauwels brushes off. It is not the kind of race that favors him. “It will be very hard to win,” he says. “It would take a super day. [The others] need to have a bad one. The track will be a hard track and it will be a muddy race. It was already a hard race in September, it is sure to be hard now.”

Pauwels prefers drier conditions, more elevation change. A back injury, better controlled now, but still a nagging problem, has hindered his power and his running in the heaviest mud in past couple of years. He likes many of the World Cup courses, and he points to the Cauberg Cyclocross course, in Valkenburg, Netherlands, where he has twice finished second to Lars van der Haar.

More significantly, he singles out the World Cup race in Tabor, 2011, as the best race of his life. “The difference between me and the rest was so big there,” he says. “It was the beginning of the season, it was my first big win of that season, and it was in that season people started looking with another view at me.”

He’ll have another shot, perhaps his most important shot — perhaps his last, best chance to wear the world champion’s rainbow stripes — at that Tabor course this weekend.

That race, he says, might even be easier to win than the Belgian championship. But he doesn’t yet know that the two young riders who have dominated cyclocross all season, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert, will both line up in the elite race yet. That decision is still a couple of weeks away. But, cast in that light, Pauwels’ concise assessment of his season so far seems prescient.

“It’s harder to win now than it was a few years ago,” he says. “The two young guys, Wout and Mathieu, are very good.”

Any time you write about somebody the first question you ask yourself is, “Who is he, anyway?” It’s a terrible cliche, but it is the singular question that determines the fate of your story. Fail to answer it, and your story collapses, limp and characterless.

As a reporter, after a while, you come to know the men and women you cover week after week, and you want to answer this question. You want your readers to know that the reigning world champions, Marianne Vos and Zdenek Stybar, are the two most likely riders in the sport to crack self-deprecating jokes during a press conference. That Katerina Nash will always ask how you’re doing before you can ever land a question. That Niels Albert, no matter where along the roller coaster arc of his career he was, never failed to remind you he was, at heart, “just Niels from Tremolo.”

Kevin Pauwels, always answering questions with the same impenetrable half-smile, reveals so little of his inner life, this question seems impossible to answer. I must have asked myself 20 times in the span of this little lunchtime interview, and asked Pauwels nearly as many times himself, before his friend, Bart, says something that snaps the answer into focus.

Pauwels is so fluid, so obviously comfortable with himself and everything around him on the bike, and so much the opposite as soon as he walks away from it. How can two people so different inhabit the same body?

“I think he’s the same person on the bike or without,” says Risbourg. “He has the same mentality next to the bike, he’s as much determined. But on the bike he has the possibility to show it. It’s harder for him to express himself without it.”

Kevin Pauwels is a bike racer. That’s who he is. It’s what he loves — the best part of his day, he says, is the time spent on the bike — and it’s what he lives to do. Who would he be without the bike? It’s a question without any answer.

Pauwels lives with his parents in Kalmthout, right on Belgium’s northern border. In fact, he tells me, he owns more than one house, but rents them out. His father was a successful racer himself in the 1970s, though he never came close to the kind of success Kevin has enjoyed.

Though he clearly owes something to his father’s interest in cyclocross, Pauwels says he was not much of an inspiration as a racer. “I never saw him riding. I was too young,” he says. Sven Nys, he says, was a much bigger inspiration early in his career.

But he acknowledges parental support as the bedrock of his success.

“It’s easy for me, I’m at home so I don’t have to do a lot,” he explains. “My parents do everything for me. They cook, everything, so I can focus on training and racing.”

In-season he spends most of his time training or recovering from training. Away from the bike he prefers to stay in, watching television and movies. He cites “Breaking Bad” as a favorite.

He is also, as Risbourg, his mechanic, tells it, meticulous to the extreme about his bikes. He weighs and charts every piece of hardware that gets installed on one of them. He is fastidious about his position on the bike as well.

“I think all the best riders are maniacs about their bikes,” says Risbourg. “Kevin worries about the weight of the bike, about the way his brakes are set up. He’s the one who sets the height of the saddle and the shifters and handlebars. I put everything on the bike, but Kevin adjusts it all himself.”

Pauwels is, in his own words, confounded by his fans’ interest in him. He wonders who, in America, could be interested in reading a story whose central theme is, “Who is Kevin Pauwels?” even as he recalls his race at the Louisville world championships fondly. He appreciated the exuberant support of the fans there. “But they were cheering for everybody,” he adds modestly.

The truth is, what the fans think of him matters little to Pauwels; he appreciates their support but he rides for himself.

“I don’t really care [what people think about me],” he says. “My fans know who I am. My friends at home know me.”

And his biggest fan, arguably, is his grandmother, a tiny, white-haired woman with fiery, joyful eyes. She is so omnipresent at Kevin’s races that most Flemish cycling fans know her by the same name he does, Oma Fientje.

“I don’t see her a lot during the week, but I see her every weekend at the races,” says Pauwels. “It’s motivating. It’s good to see her at the races.”

Pauwels has been called dispassionate, a description belied by his obvious desire for victory on the bike — and by the sweetness he reserves for his grandmother, who he smiles and waves at, boyishly, from World Cup podiums.

And when Kevin is on the podium, she is always watching from the front row.

When Kevin Pauwels was a boy he watched his brother Tim, three years older, venture into the world of cyclocross.

Tim had some success, racing to a podium at the Belgian nationals as a junior and posting respectable results in a handful of big Belgian races. He inspired Kevin, and, when he was finally old enough, Kevin followed his brother into the sport.

“It’s probably because of him that I started racing,” says Pauwels now, looking back. “He raced, so of course I wanted to as well.”

He can be grateful for that.

Cyclocross, it turned out, was his calling. The younger Pauwels was wildly successful, racing to a junior world championship and, two years later, following it up with an under-23 championship. And even as Kevin amassed so much success of his own, he lived in the shadow of his brother. Tim looked out for Kevin, say people who raced with and wrote about the pair before Tim’s death. He was a source of confidence and reassurance, helping Kevin navigate the uncomfortable waters of the spotlight.

His death was clearly devastating, but published reports from 2004 say Kevin never spoke about it, publicly or privately. Whatever it was that Kevin went through back then, he went through it largely alone.

The Kevin Pauwels of 2014 is more forthcoming, more open, and he says now that he does think of his brother sometimes, though he says he does not turn to that thought for inspiration. Tim’s absence now is like a long-ago healed wound, albeit one that still aches from time to time. If it defined Kevin once — and, for a time, it surely did — it no longer does.

Kevin has become his own man.

Who is that man? He is unlike anybody else to compete at such a high level in the sport, it is true.

Invariably, when you talk about Kevin, someone will suggest he is autistic, as if his reticence cannot be explained without a label. He may be, though whether he is or isn’t was a question nobody was willing to address on the record. But the bigger question is whether it would matter if he were. Whatever his nature is, it has hardly been a limitation. Pauwels has met nearly ever expectation and exceeded it on his way to becoming one of the most successful cyclocross riders of the present era.

If you ask Kevin, he will tell you he is one thing: a cyclocrosser, nothing else. So let’s allow his achievements to speak for themselves.

He is the among the only men to go head-to-head with Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel and emerge victorious at any point this season. He is the only still-active racer to earn two World Cup overall titles in the 2010s.

And, by the end of next Sunday, he might just be the new cyclocross world champion.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.