When I flipped on the GP Essen this morning, it took about a lap to figure out what was going on in the race. A little under four laps remained and the camera work focused on Thijs van Amerongen and Jim Aernouts, who were riding right ahead of a chase group led by Sven Nys. It could have been that Zdeneck Stybar was in the group as well, doing surprisingly well for even a two time world champion after doing little specific preparation and focusing entirely on the cobbled classics in the spring. It's hard not to love Stybar with his riding style evidencing his visible exuberance to be participating in the sport and the TV crews know this. But soon, after a lap, the situation became clear. Stybar might have been a draw, but the compelling racing - for second - was happing in that group too. The win? It was way up the track, secure in the legs of Kevin Pauwels.
Over the past years, Pauwels has ruled the top of the sport, sharing the throne with Sven Nys, Niels Albert, and, increasingly, Klaas Vantornout. Kevin thrived on fast, dry courses and it seemed the early World Cup rounds in Tabor and Plzen were tailor made for him. Lots of pedaling was good and he won the Koppenbergcross (in a depressingly dry edition) in 2012 In 2011 and 2012 he medaled at the World Championships, coming in third on both occasions. He won rounds of the World Cup, GVA / bpost Bank, and Superprestige series on a regular basis. And in 2012, he finally took home a series win with his overall victory in the World Cup. Though his power and speed were renown, his technical skills were superb as well, narrowly losing the Koksijde World Cup after a controversial sprint with Sven Nys last year and winning the terrible sandpit of a race that is Zonhoven.
A World Championship win - the final validation he needed - seemed within Pauwels' reach last February, at least until a tragically derailed and stuck chain cost him a minute. So, the beginning of this season - the first half, really - seemed off. Instead of battling for the win, he was struggling to stay in the lead group, lacking legs or making costly technical mistakes in seemingly every race. He went from winning one race in every three or four to months without victories.
On Sunday, under the lights at the Vlaamse Industrieprijs, things seemed to be back on the right track for Pauwels, finally. He rode at the front of the race the entire time, escaping with Lars van der Haar with several laps to go and dispatching him in the final lap. But in cross, things go wrong easily and with such a bounty of racing in the next two weeks - including two World Cups - it is hard to know who was going all in and who was holding something in reserve for the upcoming period. Then Pauwels won again, and this time it was in the mud.
Pauwels' major weakness has always been the mud - he struggled on heavy courses, especially those that required much running, and his skills in the mud were not to the level of Nys or Albert. So when we see him return to his winning ways in his traditional weakness, we immediately wonder if he is back - ominously - just in time for the World Championships in February. What do the past seven days mean?
As I was pondering this yesterday, the answer seemed that Pauwels was the least tired among the field. The relentless racing schedule of cyclocross leaves little room for form to trend upwards; instead, the question this time of year seems to be who still has gas left in the tank. Pauwels could have gotten in more quality training and recovery in the break from racing two weekends ago, or he dug himself into a hole early in the season as is easy to do and is now just recovering from it.
But, today's World Cup in Namur raised more questions than it gave answers. Pauwels was never in contention, finishing twelfth as affairs came to an end. Pauwels was sitting third in the World Cup rankings prior to today, a mere 12 points behind Lars van der Haar and 10 behind Philip Walsleben, and many commentators presumed he would prioritize a strong ride in Namur and potential World Cup leader's jersey over smaller targets like Essen. The course, to be fair, was as anti-Pauwels as it gets, a mire of thick, heavy mud and far more running than Essen. But it could also suggest another explanation - that some riders were backing off more in the prior races, keeping their powder dry for this week's two World Cups. Francis Mourey, who won today's race in commanding fashion, clearly was. But even among his compatriots who have been racing the same schedule - Niels Albert, Sven Nys, Klaas Vantornout - Pauwels was lagging.
My hunch is the answer is a little column A, a little column B. Pauwels does seem to be getting stronger - and his manager has been talking up this point on Sporza this week - but it is not a commanding, domineering return to the top as we might have expected from just watching Essen and the preceding weekend. Today could have been a bad race for a number of reasons, but it is also a reason to temper expectations. K-pow is not suddenly a master mudder, nor is he going to disappear. Much more insight lies ahead in the next two weeks than we can glean from the past three races, but I think we can welcome a Yoah once again to the already crowded top level of the sport, and we are better off for it.