At the Back was a column in every VeloNews magazine for decades. It was a place where riders and staff writers would share personal stories in their own voice. This year, we are going to be running an At the Back column every week for members to enjoy. In this piece from February 28, 2000, John Wilcockson and Kip Mikler debate whether country or team should come first at the world championships.
Nys was wrong!
Imagine this scenario: It’s the Olympic basketball finals. The U.S.A. versus Yugoslavia. In the last seconds of the game, the score is tied and Chris Webber is takin’ it to the hole. The American jukes around several players and then runs into a roadblock: Vlade Divac. Suddenly, Divac, a teammate of Webber’s on the Sacramento Kings professional NBA team, steps aside. The U.S.A. takes the gold.
Sound far-fetched? Well, yes. And not just because Divac is now a U.S. citizen. That situation would never happen in basketball, but in bike racing, it’s not far-fetched at all. In fact, it happened at the cyclocross worlds in January , with Sven Nys — the bunny-hoppin’ Belgian — playing the part of Divac. At the expense of his teammate Mario De Clercq — and of all the screaming fans of Belgium — Nys took a dive.
Dutch Rabobank rider Richard Groenendaal won the race, and whether it made a difference or not, he did it with the help of Nys, also a member of the Rabobank team. When Groenendaal was leading, Nys refused to help De Clercq chase him down. More accurately, he refused to give De Clercq — not a Rabobank-sponsored rider — a chance to win. He shafted his country and himself.
In the last third of the 60-minute race, as he circled the course on De Clercq’s wheel, Nys had to endure the jeers and taunts of the fans of his own country. He also took plenty of abuse from De Clercq — who, you might remember, pulled his own questionable move last year when he chased down a teammate to score a rainbow jersey. But while De Clercq’s 1999 move may have shown poor sportsmanship, Nys’s was purely business. He admitted as much when, after the race, he said he told his Belgian teammates before the start that, for him, Rabobank came first.
But wasn’t this the world championships? Nation versus nation? You might have thought so. Fans from Belgium, fans from the Netherlands, fans from America, and the rest of the world watching riders wearing the colors of their counties might have thought so, too. But we were all duped.
It’s a sticky situation. Bike racing is a team sport. And the teams are funded by commercial interests. For most races, this arrangement works fine. But once in a while — at events like the worlds or the Olympics — fans are supposed to be treated to a different sort of show. For many, it’s more exciting this way. For the Dutch fans who painted their faces and sang Dutch fight songs, it was supposed to be more exciting this way. For the boisterous Belgians, who cherish their nation’s stronghold on cyclocross, it could have been more exciting this way. Same for the bell-toting Swiss and the outnumbered American fans.
But no, the Super Bowl of cyclocross had a sour ending. The race was fixed. You could see it in the eyes of Nys, who at 23, had to feel the disappointment of a nation.
When the biggest ’cross race of the year was over, the thrill of victory looked more like the agony of defeat, as our three protagonists took the podium. The one in the middle cried tears of joy, perhaps not believing his good fortune. And the two that flanked him also cried — one from frustration, the other from shame.
Wow, another great moment in sports.
Commercial support of professional bike racing is good. It’s what has allowed the sport to develop and it’s what keeps it going. But once a year at world championships, and once more every four years at the Olympics, can’t countries count on more than commercialism?
– Kip Mikler
Nys was right!
Imagine this: It’s the Sydney Olympics. The men’s mountain bike cross country race. Out in front with a lap to go of the fast, rolling course is Christoph Sauser of Switzerland. A half-minute back are three chasers: Cadel Evans of Australia, Miguel Martinez of France, and Filip Meirhaeghe of Belgium. The crowd is screaming for Evans to make a move … to take the gold medal that seems to be his destiny.
But Evans is just sitting there on the wheels of the two Europeans. Meirhaeghe claims he is tired, and so Martinez is left to do the pulling. The little Frenchman keeps turning his head, shouting at Evans to help him close the gap. But Evans refuses to help. The crowd is puzzled. What’s wrong with their man in gold and green?
The answer is not hard to find. All season long, Evans races for the Volvo-Cannondale team, as does Sauser. They travel the world together, eat together, sometimes room together, share the same soigneur and mechanic. Evans knows he has the form and strength to bridge a 30-second gap; but when he made a dummy attack on the previous lap, Martinez and Meirhaeghe soon caught him. The Aussie knows that if he works with Martinez to catch Sauser before the finish, the odds are that the fast-finishing Meirhaeghe will take the win. And what about Evans’s employers at Volvo-Cannondale? What would they think?
Well, it’s unthinkable, Evans realizes. He can’t chase down his teammate and knows that both of them will probably lose the gold medal. So, Evans stays where he is. Sauser wins the Olympic title.
Is this scenario any different from that of Rabobank teammates Richard Groenendaal and Sven Nys at the world cyclocross championship? No.
Is this any different from what is common practice in road cycling world championships? Probably not. Nobody raises an eyebrow when, say, a Mapei team rider from Belgium says he won’t chase a Mapei rider from Italy. And few negative comments are heard when riders from different countries, who normally compete for the same trade team, agree to ride for each other.
That’s what happened at the 1993 road worlds in Oslo. A neo-pro named Lance Armstrong was hoping to do well, and he had the support of all his U.S. teammates — and the support of the riders on his trade team, Motorola. Those riders came from eight different countries and were linked by radio to the Motorola (and U.S.) team director Jim Ochowicz. Armstrong won the race. Was it wrong that he received support from his Motorola teammates – Americans and Europeans alike? Maybe. Maybe not.
Why then are we so upset that in January’s cyclocross worlds a talented young rider named Nys carried out his pre-race promise not to chase a Rabobank teammate? The fact was that Mario De Clercq — the Belgian who was asking Nys to help him chase down Groenendaal — wasn’t strong enough to go with the aggressive Groenendaal when the Dutchman made his first-lap break. And he wasn’t strong enough to close that half-minute gap near the end. Was De Clercq worried that if he had towed fellow Belgian Nys up to the leader that a fresh Nys would have taken the title, and not him?
– John Wilcockson