Into the Barriers with Nys and Pauwels

For those of you not as familiar with the rules of bike racing, putting someone “into the barriers” in a sprint is like a face mask in American football or kicking a player in soccer. As with other European sports, much tradition applies in bike racing. Even though it’s a working man’s, blue-collar, dirty, and hard sport, fans get very upset when they think the racing isn’t fair.

Champions like Sven Nys are expected to behave well and not put their rivals into the barriers and thus impede their sprint. If you follow the Tour de France, the current sprinter star Cavendish, has been relegated (scored at the back of the pack, instead of the win) for similar, dangerous behavior.

Across the road and into the barriers

In this screen capture from Koksijde yesterday, Nys is seen ahead of his rival Pauwels, inches from the barrier. Pauwels later protested and lost. The high-rez photo from CyclePhotos UK shows the start of the sprint on the other side of the road, with the two likely touching each other along the way to the line.

This type of bike racing is called Cross and it’s for specially-equipped road bikes ridden on courses that combine road and off-road sections with obstacles and steeplechase-like barriers, including sand pits. If you’ve ridden your bike onto a beach, you know how fast you come to a stop. At this level, the Pros race, run, and descend through sand pits. At Koksijde, Belgium, it’s dunes. Sand pits are hard. Dunes even harder. On TV, the Pros usually make it look easy. Not in this race. Their faces look like climbers in a Tour mountain finish. Suffering.

Not just sand pits, but dunes Photo: CyclePhotos UK

In all the Cross races I’ve raced and watched, this was the most brutal I’ve seen and Nys arrived at the finale spent. His tactical move here is still being discussed and debated by fans. I’d expect all night long too in Belgium’s Pubs.

The sprint started in the barriers Photo: CyclePhotos UK

Opinions range from Nys road dirty to

Nys used his experience and Pauwels made the wrong choice. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a long finish straight and Pauwels did not get alongside Nys. It shows that although Pauwels may be the strongest rider at this moment in the season he is still on the learning curve.

The second riders position is the source of the problem rather than the action of the leader. It was a bad tactical decision by the “fouled” rider.

Watching the video again, I agree with the opinion that Nys, the seasoned veteran used his instinct and experience to ride it into the win. If Pauwels had the strength to come around him, on the other side, he’d have probably won. They were both spent and Pauwels followed him from one side of the road to another. The sprint starts at 2:41.

Pauwels is replaying that loss his head over and over again, just like CX fans are watching it on YouTube. He picked the wrong line.

Also see Cyclocosm’s analysis of the sprint.

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.

Also, “closing the door” is much different than “into the barriers.”