Debate continues to rage in Belgium after the tumultuous sprint finish between Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) and Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor) at the end of the third round of the World Cup in Koksijde on Saturday.
Neither Nys nor Pauwels succeeded in getting away alone during a thrilling battle, and it all came down to the final sprint. Pauwels is regarded as the faster man, but in Koksijde it was Nys who crossed the line first after leaving no room for Pauwels to pass him on the inside.
Pauwels’ angry gesticulation towards Nys afterward made clear that he didn’t appreciate his rival’s tactics in the sprint. Had this happened in a small event, the clash would scarcely have caused a ripple, but with the Worlds set to be held on the very same course in two months, Belgian nerves were strained after the race.
Immediately afterwards, Nys admitted to closing the door in sprint, but said it was done within the rules and was a tactic he had learned from racing against Pauwels’ current directeur sportif, Mario De Clerq.
“I felt that I had to start the sprint and I don’t think I made a mistake, I rode my own line before Kevin moved up,” Nys said afterward. “I closed the door regularly before Kevin was next to me. I’ve learned these tricks from somebody who’s now coaching Kevin. It’s up to the jury to decide. I rode where I expected Kevin to come from, but I would never put somebody else in danger.”
Pauwels’ Sunweb-Revor team lodged an official complaint after the race, with De Clerq offering an explanation. “It’s not about the movement to the right but about Nys touching Kevin’s handlebars twice with his knee. That’s over the top.” Pauwels, too, voiced his frustration to Belgian television on crossing the line, saying “It was like the sprint in Gavere [in 2010 – ed.] but now it was even more obvious. Today I was almost next to him, and if I had continued my sprint I would have crashed.”
After a lengthy wait, however, the commissaires decided to reject the Sunweb-Revor complaint, and Nys kept his victory. Pauwels and Nys kept their peace for the podium ceremony alongside third-placed Bart Aernouts (Rabobank-Giant), but they would return to the argument at the post-race press conference.
Nys recalls De Clerq in 2002
Pauwels was a late arrival to the press room after the podium protocol, and Nys jokingly told reporters that he was not going to wait for his rival before offering his take on the race. “We weren’t waiting for each other in a race either so let’s get started with it,” he said.
Nys described the controversial sprint in detail, and admitted that he had almost overshot the final corner of the course. He seemed surprised by the allegation that he had touched Pauwels’ handlebars with his knee. “I don’t think he ever rode next to me. You fight to win a race. Besides, he had the option to ride at the other side.”
The 35-year-old Nys said that he was nonplussed by Pauwels’ angry gestures at the finish, and reminded reporters of the 2002 Belgian championships at Koksijde, in which a second-placed Erwin Vervecken demonstrated his annoyance with Pauwels’ manager Mario De Clerq’s winning sprint. “A few years ago, we saw the same scenario here. It’s always on the limit. Moving left at that point would’ve been stupid,” Nys said.
De Clerq was listening in on the press conference from the doorway, and he was annoyed by the comparison Nys made between the two sprints. “He’s a good talker, but I’ve got nothing to do with this,” De Clerq said. “The sprint with Vervecken is 10 years ago. He had every chance to pass me back then. You can’t compare this with sprints from 1972 between Eric De Vlaemynck and Albert Vandamme either.
“The problem is that Kevin never had the chance to choose the other side of the road. The result is that he now lost five points which might be crucial at the end of the World Cup series.”
Pauwels keen to avoid polemics
Pauwels spoke in measured terms by the time he arrived at the press conference. “I was surprised when Nys overtook me before the corner but I felt I was still able to win,” he said. “When exiting that corner, I immediately was on the right-hand side of him with my wheel so I had no other choice than to stay there.”
While Pauwels was keen to avoid the polemics, his Sunweb-Revor management team continued to make their grievances heard, and De Clerq was searing in his criticism of the commissaires. “The men in the jury have no balls. If you do this in a Tour de France sprint, then you’ll be sent home,” De Clercq said.
Manager Jurgen Mettepenningen claimed that Nys’ presence on the UCI Athletes’ Commission meant that he had received preferential treatment from the jury.
“You have to keep in mind that Nys is part of the UCI riders’ commission,” an angry Mettepennigen said. “You can’t expect that delegates from the same UCI will judge against him. The men who opt not to disqualify this have zero race intelligence. One would wonder what function the UCI has. Kevin is the moral winner, and if Nys wants to win this way then that’s his choice. The reactions from the crowd at the ceremony said enough.
“It’s always Nys. He’s getting older and in the past he would have ridden away solo. That’s not happening anymore and then he’s doing things that don’t befit a true champion.”
Though disappointed with the outcome, Pauwels himself was mindful of the bigger picture, and knows he has another chance to cross swords with Nys in Koksijde in January.
“I was glad that I was good,” he said. “I expected to be much worse and now I believe in my chances for the world championships.”
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