TABOR, Czech Republic (VN) — Sven Nys cannot stop.
At 38 years old, already the oldest man in elite international cyclocross, and mired in the depths of his worst-ever career slump, Nys is already making plans for next year. His two biggest rivals on Sunday as he sees it — Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert — are barely older than his own son, but nobody would count him out to win third world title, age or not.
Sven Nys is not slowing down. Not this year. Not next.
“I’m mentally not ready to retire, I want to win races again,” he said Friday morning, looking relaxed and confident and comfortable — perhaps the Nys of old, the Nys who won 18 races last season and came within a single bobble of winning a world championship. “I want to show myself that I can beat the young guys again next season. I want to have a really nice last year with all my fans. That’s what I want to do.
“Every rider, in his career, has some parts of his career that he has problems, physically. For me it was the first time, but is that a moment you need to say to yourself, I stop? I don’t think so.”
From the start of the season, there were warning signs of the unraveling that would ruin Nys’ 2014-15 season later on. Late last summer Nys and Isabelle, his wife of 12 years, announced they were spitting up. They publicly proclaimed the split an amicable one, and Nys said he didn’t expect it to become a distraction. In hindsight, he said Friday, it clearly affected his early season.
“The beginning of the season was really strong, and maybe I was a bit too strong in the beginning,” he said. “With the circumstances, with my wife and what happens all around, was the problem that I wanted to be too good in the beginning of the season and try to win as much as possible, and show the world I can do it all on my own also. And maybe that’s the reason I went a little bit too far, in my training, all the things I’ve done during the day. And it cost a lot of energy. That’s the reason I think that in the middle of November I felt it was over, that I was tired, it was a bit overreaching.”
Nys won early, at CrossVegas, his first race of the season and again on a difficult course in Ronse, the start of the bpost Bank Trofee. He took smaller wins in Neerpelt and Niel.
Then the season began to fray.
On the legendary Koppenberg, Nys was equal to Wout Van Aert, but he missed out on the opportunity to score a 10th career victory there after an officiating error left Van Aert’s lapped teammate, Jan Denuwelaere, on course and in Nys’ way for the sprint. In Gavere, another of Belgium’s most storied — and most difficult — races, Nys lost almost a minute’s time to a dropped chain. At the World Cup stop in Milton Keynes, the first ever World Cup in the United Kingdom, the same thing happened again.
By early December, Nys was a shadow of himself. The final straw broke in Overijse, where he abandoned and announced he would stop — and did not know when he would return.
“After the race in Gavere I lost my voice,” said Nys. “I was tired a bit. And I said, OK, it’s dangerous now. I used some antibiotics, and I raced again in Koksijde and Francorchamps. I felt in Koksijde my body was not ready to race, but then you have the new race in Francorchamps. I was mentally — I wanted to win that race. But I was not healthy enough and I went over the limit. I went over the limit to stay as leader in the Superprestige, and then it went down. When I ask myself, what is the mistake you made this season? I never had to race that weekend. I needed to rest. That was maybe the key point of the season.”
Nys, perhaps the most consistent racer in the sport, shocked Belgian cyclocross fans by putting his season on hold. Instead, he turned up at one of his son Thibau’s local junior cyclocross races, cheering on the sidelines and offering advice. He traveled to the Mediterranean to train in warmer weather and, hopefully, hit the mental reset button.
Nys returned, late in December, a different man from the one who gobbled up victories so ruthlessly for most of his career. He finished 13th in Essen and 16th a week later in Diegem. He talked about lowered expectations, about a slow buildup before the national and world championships. He raced gamely, but the frustration was palpable and the pressure from the Belgian media was relentless.
“I saw the book from the national team, and there were the victories of all the riders,” said Nys, looking back, referring to an information booklet the Belgian cycling federation put this week with information about the national team riders for the press. “For example, Kevin Pauwels won six races, Tom Meeusen two. I have four victories and it’s my worst season ever. The reason is I won a lot, most of the time more than 15 races a year. So it’s double. They never compare me with another rider, they want to see me on a high level every week.”
But despite the pressure, Nys does seem to have rebuilt. At his own race, in his hometown of Baal on New Year’s Day, he was active in the battle for the podium. He finished fifth, waving to the fans who crowded the Balenberg hillside to cheer for their local hero.
At the Belgian championships two weeks later, he stormed to the front mid-race, much to the delight of the crowds standing knee-deep in mud in Erpe-Mere. But he eventually lost a tactical battle to Klaas Vantornout, settling for fourth.
At the World Cup in Hoogerheide last week, he looked almost the like Nys of old again.
And now: the world championships in two days time. Can Nys win a third career title, here on a course that is not so different from that hometown track in Baal?
“I felt in Hoogerheide that my shape is a bit better again, but there is a gap between one or two riders — one minute, two minutes — sometimes it’s really a lot,” he said. “When they have the best level they showed the world last month, it’s going to be hard to beat them.”
And for Nys, there’s a bigger point. A championship would be nice, he explained, but it would not change the past for him. It would not erase the lessons he learned — nor would it wipe away the psychic pain and frustration he battled during the darkness, real and metaphorical, of December.
“For me, even when I win the world championships, the period that was before, I’ll never forget that,” he said on Friday. “It’s a lesson. I learn a lot from that, not only how I’ve done my training, but mentally, with all the things that happened outside the races, that’s a lesson for when I want to develop young riders. When there are some problems, with family or when he is mentally not ready to race, it’s hard to win races. So that’s a part of my career I know now for the first time. It’s interesting, I can learn a lot from it, and it helps me to be a better person after my career.”
Even if Nys returns to form, he will face another problem: the rise of Van Aert and van der Poel, two riders so young, so talented, and still with so much untapped potential. They are the clear favorites for Sunday, and surely will be the clear favorites in their first full seasons in the pros next year.
“They are really talented,” Nys said. “They have a lot of skills to win a race: Power, technically, the right mental attitude. So that’s the future of cyclocross.”
He might not beat them on Sunday, the week after, or the week after that. But he will try.
Nys says he will retire after next season, in 2016, a retirement he has already postponed more than once. But next season will not be a victory lap. The competitive spirit that earned him the nickname the Kannibaal van Baal — the Cannibal of Baal, just like it sounds — cannot be repressed. Nys will be back, and, if he has it his way, back in front.
“I don’t want to stop like that. I want to stop on the highest level. I want to have the feeling that I have done everything I could until the last day of my career. So mentally, I’m ready to prepare a new season, directly after the season. I want to work hard. I want to have a good feeling again in the races. That’s what I want. My ambition for the last season is really high.”