"A Sprint that will be Talked About"

Nov 27 2011

If you missed yesterday’s World Cup Cyclocross race in Koksijde, consider yourself unlucky. Aside from the usual train of heinous sand sections, this year’s Elite Men’s Race finished with a two-up sprint, won very controversially by Sven Nys.

As someone who’s watched a lot of road sprints, it seemed like a pretty obvious case of Nys closing the gate on Pauwels—and I certainly wasn’t the only one who thought so. On the road, Nys would have been relegated to second at best, and likely full-on disqualified, but after a protest and some deliberation (“a sprint that will be talked about” was how Nys’ Sporza interviewer styled it in English) the result was left unchanged.

The UCI’s official explanation of the decision—that Pauwels wouldn’t have been strong enough to get by—is…well, the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from the UCI over the years. Aside from the fact that it’s essentially impossible to assess exactly how strong a blocked rider might be, it also makes the counterproductive implication that it’s totally OK to cut people off, so long as they wouldn’t have beaten you anyway.

But as nonsensical as the “official” announcements of race directors can be, they also tend to reveal certain implied rules of the sport. When Mark Renshaw was kicked out of the 2010 Tour for headbutting (generally just a relegation) it wasn’t his actions that got him bounced—it was the fact that his teammate, Mark Cavendish, went on to win the stage. The officials couldn’t punish Cavendish–he’d done nothing wrong—but relegating the Australian would be essentially no punishment, since he hadn’t been riding for a result anyway. The message: don’t use dodgy riding to give your teammate an advantage.

So assuming the UCI officials aren’t crazy—or, as Mario De Clerq gamely suggests, swayed by Sven Nys’ position as one of the greatest ‘cross racers of all time, and a member of the UCI cyclocross commission to boot—what’s the major difference between road and cyclocross sprinting that sees Nys keep his result while, say, Giuseppe Calcaterra gets relegated?

First of all, the final sprint in cyclocross just an entirely different animal than what we’ve become accustomed to seeing from the modern road peloton. In flat stages at the Tour de France, the final kilometers are the battle ground of some dozen sprinters who’ve been keeping themselves rested and fresh all day long, before slingshotting off megawatt trains of domestiques to top speed for a final, all-out, all-or-nothing burst.

Behind them, nearly 200 others, often exhausted and essentially blind, cling desperately to the wheels in front of them just hoping to make it to the next day of racing without losing time. The bunches are huge, the speeds are incredible, and the collateral damage from a split-second mistake can be enormous.

A cyclocross sprint, on the other hand, comes following an hour-long, non-stop, full-on effort, punctuated by dozens of unsustainable surges as riders try to put daylight behind their rear wheel or draw back their rivals. Technical course features open gaps, and it’s rare to see more than a handful of riders contest a final charge. When they do, it’s a low-speed, nearly-cooked effort, on a short, straight-line finishing stretch. There’s room to manoever, plenty of road for everyone, and in the event that disaster does strike, the fallout is limited.

But I think it’s the very reality of a cyclocross race, rather than any consideration for safety, that plays the largest role in sustaining a result like yesterday’s. While position and line selection is important in road racing, in cyclocross it’s a constant consideration—as soon as you exit one corner, you’ve got to be mentally assembling your approach to the next.

The focus on where you’re putting your bike is relentless—it is as important as wattage in preserving your position, closing the gap to the riders ahead of you, and—most relevantly—denying the riders behind you an opportunity to pass. To suddenly apply the stricter (if somewhat more capriciously enforced) rules of the road sprint to cyclocross would be to suddenly alter this equation, turning the tables away from the very unique set of skills that are the essence of ‘cross.

In his post-race interview (or at least the English portion of it) Nys was unambiguous about saying he’d gone to the opposite of the road specifically to get in Pauwels’ way. What made it legal, Nys contends, is that Pauwels wasn’t yet alongside him.

The implication seems to be that Pauwels’ attempt to ride though a not-quite-wide-enough opening along the barriers was the Sunweb rider’s own poorly-calculated decision, same as if he’d tried to dive for the inside line through a corner earlier on the course, and gotten stuffed by riders ahead of him who’d set up more sensibly.

Of course, Pauwels had a different story, claiming that Nys’s knee banged into his front wheel and handlebars as the Landbouwkredit rider drove him from one side of the road to the other, before pinning him against the barrier. And if that’s true, by Nys’ own admission, he ought to be punished.

Sadly, without the all-determining helicopter camera shot, there’s no way to determine exactly how the barrier-to-barrier dance between Nys and Pauwels went down. Pauwels’ body English certainly suggests contact, but there isn’t anything definitive in the photos and videos I’ve seen. If nothing else, the last few seconds of the race are a great example of how, in cyclocross, leading out a sprint early can actually play to your advantage.

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