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Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games) saved his best for last on Saturday, winning the Noordzeecross at Middelkerke.
But his best wasn’t good enough to take the Superprestige series title from world champion Mathieu van der Poel (BKCP-Powerplus), who finished second on the day to clinch the overall by one point over Pauwels.
After a daylong battle with a powerful lead group Pauwels laid down a powerful acceleration going into the bell lap to leave the rainbow jersey and Wout Van Aert (Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace) in his dust.
Series leader van der Poel, who led Pauwels by just two points coming into the finale, chased hard, but couldn’t close the gap, and the Sunweb man hit the finishing straight alone, soloing to his third victory in the eight-race series. But the Dutch rider hung on for second, assuring his overall victory, with Van Aert third.
Van Aert led them off the line but Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea) quickly took over, leading Van Aert and van der Poel, trailed by Pauwels and Lars van der Haar (Giant-Alpecin), who was sitting third on the overall, five points down on the leader.
Van Aert took over again, only to see Meeusen bunny-hop the barriers and onto the front once again. He took a slight advantage into lap two.
The pace forged a lead group containing Meeusen, van der Poel, Van Aert, van der Haar and Pauwels. And soon it was the world champion on point, driving through a long sandy section. Van der Haar locked onto his wheel, with Pauwels third, and Van Aert and Meeusen bringing up the rear.
Van der Poel got a gap when van der Haar struggled with a short drop into a sand pit, in turn slowing the others. Van der Haar led Pauwels in pursuit, but Van Aert and Meeusen were distanced.
With seven to go van der Poel led the Pauwels-van der Haar chase by six seconds, with Van Aert and Meeusen fighting to get back on terms.
Sailing through the sand
Going through the sand van der Haar rocketed away from Pauwels, up to van der Poel and onto the front. Pauwels followed suit, but gradually.
Van der Haar accelerated again and into the lead. But again the drop into the sand pit gave him trouble and the others caught back on. Van Aert and Meeusen were closing in, too.
As they hit six to go the group was back together — and then Meeusen attacked on the paved finishing straight. Van Aert led the chase this time, and they retrieved him early in the lap.
Meeusen kept the pressure on, though, and Pauwels was either having trouble matching his pace or saving his matches; in any case, he slipped to the rear of the group.
Again the Telenet rider took advantage of his barrier-hopping skills, opening a gap over the boards, extending it with a wheelie through a short ditch leading to the pavement, and leading the way into five to go. Van der Poel followed, but the others were gapped.
Then van der Poel gave it some stick. But he couldn’t ride the sand and the others caught back on.
The rainbow races away
Van Aert was next to have a go, but he made no headway, and van der Poel resumed control of the five-man lead group. After hopping the barriers he punched it and took a solid five-second lead into four to go.
Van der Haar led Van Aert and Pauwels in pursuit; Meeusen seemed to have finally run out of gas. Then Van Aert came forward to lend a hand. But going into three laps remaining van der Poel still had five seconds over the pursuit, now fronted by Pauwels.
The Sunweb rider put in a big acceleration just ahead of the sand, but struggled once in it, and both van der Haar and Van Aert got past him as van der Poel rode it cleanly.
Over the bars
And then van der Poel took a header, doing a nose-wheelie into the sand pit, and just that quickly the quartet was back together.
Van der Haar shot to the front going up the flyover and had a quick look behind to see where the world champ was. Then he punched it, leading van Aert, Pauwels and van der Poel into two to go.
Van Aert attacked as the foursome hit the pavement, but the others marked him. He accelerated again and pried open a few bike lengths, chased by Pauwels. This time it was van der Haar who struggled in the sand, and as Pauwels and van der Poel chased Van Aert the Giant rider lost contact.
Pauwels dragged himself back up to Van Aert, then took the lead riding over the barriers, leaving van der Poel to chase alone in third.
Pauwels punches it
Bell lap: Pauwels lit it up going into the final lap, leaving Van Aert and van der Poel a half dozen seconds behind as he shot across the finish line.
Pauwels rode the sandy straight cleanly, but so did the world champion, who gapped Van Aert and took control of second place on the course.
Then Pauwels had his own problem with the sandy drop-in, having to dismount as van der Poel rode it cleanly. The gap abruptly narrowed, to perhaps four seconds.
But Pauwels stayed calm, popping over the barriers and keeping his pace high. He hit the pavement first, and as van der Poel botched the ditch crossing for the first time, the Sunweb rider powered off to the victory. Van der Poel hung on for second with Van Aert third.
Van der Haar crossed fourth with Meeusen fifth.
When the final points were tallied, van der Poel had the overall title with 106 points. Pauwels wound up second with 105, while van der Haar finished third with 99.