On the Nys-Pauwels Sprint

Photo by Balint Hamvas | cyclephotos.co.uk

As the photo above demonstrates, Saturday’s World Cup race in Koksijde, Belgium came down to a race between Sven Nys, a veteran who’s maintained his winning ways throughout an unusually long and successful career, and Kevin Pauwels, a younger rider in the midst of a dominant season that is the fulfillment of several years of potential and increasing abilities.

If you tuned in on Twitter or any of the cycling media, you probably heard of the contentiousness of the sprint. Nys attacked Pauwels before the final corner, nearly overshooting the corner as he entered the pavement on the far left side of the course. He immediately opened his sprint, steadily drifting all the way to the right side of the course, effectively blocking in Kevin Pauwels. Once Pauwels was firmly blocked in, he raised his hands in animated protest and sat up – among other things, a way to discredit for posterity your opponent’s win in the resulting photographic records.

According to post-race coverage, Pauwels declined to file a formal protest, but the UCI officials reviewed the sprint and maintained Nys’s victory. Opinions on Twitter were varied – some were surprised at the act, and some were surprised by the ruling. Adam Myerson, no stranger to contentious sprints, cyclocross, or strong opinions, said, “I hope they boo…Nys in Gieten today” (and wasn’t alone), but Molly Cameron implied that Pauwels’ should have seen it coming. And, search for “Nys, sprint” on Sunday turned up a lot of relief that Nys’s sprint at Gieten was fair and square.

It’s worth noting, however, that there are no UCI rules about a cyclocross sprint. The road rules state that Riders shall be strictly forbidden to deviate from the lane they selected when launching into the sprint and, in so doing, endangering others – which is to say that closing the door on another in a sprint is allowed, but doing so dangerously is not. Also worth noting is the comment from Pierre Churchot, a UCI official, on the ruling: “It is logical that the riders sprinted right, because the wind came from the left” [Google translation] – which legitimizes Nys’s movement to the righthand side of the road.

Cyclocosm has a useful analysis of the sprint, looking at it in the differing contexts of cyclocross and road racing: in cyclocross, physically blocking your opponent from being able to pass is part of the technical and tactical element of racing. And, there is rarely a group sprint, and if it happens, it’s at slower speeds – thus reducing the need for rules dictating behavior in the final few hundred meters.

While opinions are likely to run the gamut even among those licensed to rule based on them, one official we talked to said “Once Nys makes his initial move, which I consider the move from right to left (as we’re looking at it), he does the classic close enough to the boards so that I know you can’t get by move. Bottom line, he holds his line.” We agree: Nys’s ride was predictable, and the fact that it was a) aggressive and b) not parallel with the course’s barriers doesn’t make it illegal. In fact, a harsh view on Pauwels could say that he let himself get boxed in, a rookie move that lost out to the deep hand of a savvy, well-experienced vet who always has another ace up his fleece-lined skinsuit.

Cycling, however, prides itself on a certain etiquette and sporting behavior. Things that are not illegal are still frowned upon – like, for example, attacking through a feed zone, or when your opponent has dropped their chain. And this may be one of those things: legal but unwise.

Our attention was brought to one of Myerson’s comments – as he poetically tweeted, “It was the desperate maneuver of a dying king, faced with the reality of his successor.” Nys has certainly had a long and legendary career, and Pauwels’ success over the past several months (and his being fiercely in contention for the World Cup, GVA, and Superprestige series) does look like the possibility of a changing of the guard. Nys isn’t getting any younger – yet still he wins. Tomorrow, we’ll publish some thoughts on Nys’s career and this handing over of the reigns that’s been rumored to happen several times throughout Nys’s career.

Stay tuned for Wrap-Ups of both North American and International Cyclocross action from this weekend. Until then – your thoughts on Nys’s sprint?

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4 Responses to On the Nys-Pauwels Sprint

  1. It's unfortunate for sure, and although the footage suggests that Pauwels was indeed blocked in, the ruling didn't go in his favour, and that's life. I'm sure there will be plenty more opportunities for him to win in the future, so all is not lost.

    By the way, the line "or when your opponent has dropped their chain" made me laugh, so thanks for that.

  2. DM Gorton says:

    Do you think a man who's nicknamed 'the cannibal' cares about how he wins? Nys is a relentless winner, not a gentleman. And he showed on Sunday that he's not the 'dying king' that some would claim. Especially when it gets technical and tactical.
    I think its unsporting to throw your hands up at being outdone, and not just take it on the chin.

  3. Steven Drew says:

    I actually thought it was a superb piece of riding by Nys. We were stood on the sand dunes as they went past for the final time. Pauwels was leading and I commented to my companion that he had the race in the bag as he'd comfortably outsprint Nys. But, as you put it so nicely, he made a "rookie move that lost out to the deep hand of a savvy, well-experienced vet."

    Chapeau Sven!

  4. Mark says:

    Sven knows how to win, and if that means shutting the door in the sprint, fine. It seemed pretty clear early in the sprint that Sven was moving over to his right, but Kevin continued to try to go that way. Even when Sven was already up against the the barriers, Kevin was still trying to fit in there. Kevin brought a knife to a gun fight.

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