Niels Albert gets to raise his arms, but Kevin Pauwels leads the competition. A screwy start to a new and intriguing format.
On Sunday, World Champion Niels Albert crossed the finish line of the GP Mario De Clerq Cyclocross event in Ronse with his arms raised. In 'Cross, that's a pretty reliable sign of who had the best day, but the newly minted bpost Bank series has turned this simple truth on its head, at least for the day. For Sunweb's Kevin Pauwels had taken the intermediate sprint, worth a 15 second deduction, ahead of Thijs van Amerongen (-10") and Albert (-5"). Albert's end-of-race victory got the Arc-en-Ciel another 15" redux, with Pauwels having sewn up second for the 10" bonus and clinging to a 5" bonus-based lead. [Stay with me here, math-haters.] So when Pauwels crossed the line 4" down on Albert for the finale, he still had one last second in hand at the end of the day, and Pauwels, not Albert, is officially the series leader today after one round.
This came as a bit of a blow to the bpost Bank system, new to the sport, of keeping a running time for all its races (with five minute caps for stragglers), like a stage race in the road cycling world. Or maybe a boon -- since this is our first data point, people in favor of this kind of bedlam will have several weeks to laud the setup, or tear it down, depending on one's preference. In any event, one thing we can all agree on is that as first impressions go, this was anything but bland.
Now, close shaves make for great arguments. Back here in the States, we can (and did) carry on all day about the horrible NFL replacement officials, whose greatest sin was gifting a game to the Seattle Seahawks when one of their guys gained almost-simultaneous possession of the ball with a Green Bay Packer defender in the Seattle end zone. Game winning touchdown or game saving interception? The former, says history, and most people disagree, but the real culprit is the lack of any real-time detectable difference between the two outcomes -- unless you see things in split seconds.
Here, Pauwels could have done the world a favor by not finishing in less than five seconds behind Albert -- and he threatened to comply for a while, certainly most of the last lap, when his deficit seemed more like 10-15 seconds. Even as he crossed the line, there was plenty of debate as to whether he did so at +4 seconds or +5. Albert groused about the confusion, which was eventually "settled" by a study of transponder times showing 3.93 seconds separating the pair.
Maybe this kind of thing was bound to happen, given the way Cross separates into a top tier that is constantly engaged in desperately close combat. The intramural war between Pauwels, Albert and Sven Nys should rage on all year, once again, and there will be much rejoicing (or rending of garments, or both). Personally I would say that Ronse was a tricky choice to debut the system, having hosted a two-up sprint last year and not generally being the most selective course unless raced in a torrential downpour (see Nys, 2010).
But... so what? The vast majority of races are decided by bigger gaps. Next up, the Koppenbergcross, went to Pauwels last year by 33 seconds and Nys by more than a minute the year before. Small gaps shouldn't mean anything by the time the final score is tallied.
About the only interesting thing, so far, is whether the system encourages a new tactic, whereby guys go harder into that intermediate sprint, even at the expense of the final result. Is Pauwels' "win" a roadmap to success? I doubt it, not unless you can keep your final losses to four seconds or less. But then there's the counter-tactic: a guy like Albert who feels like the strongest rider but not the strongest sprinter will likely be compelled to either defend the sprint, or -- dare I say it? -- employ team tactics (!) instead. Pauwels is pretty quick in most sprints. Could Nys and Albert each send a rabbit up the trail to grab the bonus times, and then pull off? Would these two collude against Pauwels and his sprintyness -- not the most respected quality in this gruntfest of a sport? Sounds weird, but what's harder to imagine, this kind of alliance or letting Pauwels nab 15" before anyone's legs get too heavy?
Stay tuned. For now, all I can say is that while you can argue about who if anyone lost yesterday, Albert or the system, there's no debate about who won: Sporza, a few Belgian newspapers, and us DDIFPs.