With his victory in Hasselt Saturday, Kevin Pauwels caused a slight rift in the cyclocross atmosphere, a nearly imperceptible blip picked up mostly by elderly fans, the same ones who've been waiting for the feeling that a storm is approaching, to signal the real cyclocross season. The first half of the season is officially over, with today's Druivencross representing a quasi-official midseason marker, and alone at the top of the sport is a guy who, well, might not be keeping the spot warm for Sven Nys.
His win in Hasselt is arguably Pauwels' most convincing. Glued to Wout Van Aert's wheel for a couple laps, Pauwels and co began separating by the second trip through the sand -- never to be caught by Nys, among others, again -- and it was the son of pig farmers from Kalmthout who slowly wore out his opponents, Van Aert and the Fidea duo of Meeusen and van Kessel. Re-watch if you like:
Pauwels' season-long consistency has placed him firmly in the top spot of the world rankings, his 220 points placing him comfortably ahead of his ploeg-mate Klaas Vantornhout and nearly 60 points clear of anyone resembling a rival. If he can extend his hot streak of the last three weeks, where Pauwels has won at least once a weekend, he may well take over two of the sport's three main competitions: he is closing fast on Lars van der Haar in the UCI competition, and is tied for first in the Superprestige. His win Saturday at the BPost Bank's Hasselt round even put him within shouting range of Nys, in the one competition where the Old Master is doing anything.
The season is shaping up to be Pauwels' second act, after the 2011-12 season in which he won the World Cup and GvA series (BPost Bank's precursor), while finishing second in the Superprestige. That magical season came with 11 victories, and he's a long way from those numbers right now, but it's not clear how bothersome that factor is. He's won plenty of races, so my hunch is that in his mind currency consists of series wins and of course a Belgian and/or world championship. Those plums are still out there, and for now, a steady diet of podium places has him exactly where he wants to be. With his chain attached and everything.
Why now for Pauwels? I'll offer a menu of options to explain.
- Depleted competition. What? Aren't we entering a new Golden Age, led by the Wunder-teens? It looks that way, sure, but they're kids. It's gonna take time. Albert's retirement deprived Pauwels of his most threatening rival, all things considered. And yeah, I mean that. Because...
- Sven is the God of the Fields, always will be, but his presence is looking a bit more mythical than real right now. He may be the world's awesomest 38-year-old, but still. Of course, we worried at age 36 that he might be nearing the end. Then we worried at age 37. To our credit, when he was only 35, we didn't worry that much. Now he's duking it out with riders who could literally be his kid (they aren't).
- The other explanation with Sven is that he plans to peak for the World Championships again, and he may have determined that he needs some recovery after an early start to the year. Honestly, I'm not sure how that works, but regardless, his body may just be tiring a bit.
- Weather has been in Pauwels' favor. His smooth style works well on those days when technical skill is the key, or at least hasn't been swamped by the need to just blast through endless heavy mud. It hasn't been bone dry by any means, and even when the mud has arrived Pauwels has done fine. But mostly it's been a little damp and sticky, and Pauwels has thrived.
- His chain stayed on! I almost hate to mention it, because the Universe's grudge against the guy seems to have a hair-trigger. But the mechanical problems that took so many results off his plate the last two years have not shown up lately. Also, I think he had back problems last year, and obviously he's not suffering now.
I suppose you could put Van Aert up there with Pauwels, certainly as the season's other star. Wins at Koppenberg and Koksijde were truly meaningful steps and great races, even if the secondary results aren't always there. Anyway, Pauwels has been the sport's most consistent rider by a long shot. In 19 starts, he's won four, had six other podium places, and has only finished outside the top four 6 times. Since Oudenaarde he's been seventh and fifth once each, and been on the podium of every other start (before mailing it in at Sunday's Druivencross).
Of course, it's too soon to call this a great season. Such praise is reserved for after Kerstperiode, the spate of races from Christmas (or shortly before) through the new year. If Pauwels stands alone atop the sport on January 5th, then we can sing the hosannas and dream of the great titles that have eluded him since his junior days. Me, I'm warming up, just in case.