The 34-year-old began his career by following the footsteps of his older brother Tim, winning the junior world title in 2002 and the U23 world championship in 2004. But tragedy struck the next season, when Tim Pauwels was racing an early-season Superprestige race in Erpe-Mere, he suffered a ruptured aortic aneurysm and died during the race.
Already quiet and shy before his brother's death, Pauwels continued on an upward trajectory in the sport but struggled in the spotlight off the bike. On the bike, however, Pauwels was one of the top names in the sport, meticulous in his preparation and precise in technique. After turning professional in 2006 he had to go up against the likes of Sven Nys, Niels Albert and Zdenek Stybar, but clawed his way up through the ranks.
He landed his first World Championship medal at the elite level in 2010, and went on to finish third five separate times. A consistent performer, Pauwels won the overall World Cup in 2011 and 2015 and the GVA Trofee in 2012.
However, in the past several years, since the retirement of both Nys and Albert and Stybar's move to road racing, Pauwels was quickly eclipsed by newcomers Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert, managing to bring home only two victories in the past three seasons. His last C1 victory came in Oostmalle in 2015.
"This is an important decision, but if I had not taken it now it would have been next year," Pauwels said according to Sporza. "Unfortunately, I can not deliver the performance I want because of my back and my age, and I'm getting less and less quick in the beginning of the races."
"I can still go hard when I want: in training and in competition. If things are going well, it's fun, but not like yesterday in Hoogstraten if you're just riding around."
After two dry seasons, Pauwels claimed a pair of C2 races this season and had a handful of top-10s in the World Cups. Ranked 19th overall, he was not selected for Belgium's squad for Worlds.
"I still won in Hasselt and Zonnebeke, but it was not too great a year. ... Besides those two victories there were too few other good performances.
"At the beginning of the season I already had in mind that this might be my last. I will try to make the best of the next two weekends, for myself and for the fans, who still keep coming to the cross, even if they're less than before."