PORTLAND, Oregon (VN) — The fans didn’t seem to notice Sven Nys as he walked through the muddy field. A keen eye would recognize his elfin visage, but the growing crowd was distracted by other things — a ramp jump into a pond, the pandemonium of the ball pit, a drum line — this was Singlespeed Cyclocross World Championships, after all.
Still, there was Nys, the two-time world champ and six-time World Cup overall winner, standing amongst the weirdos, coated in muck. So we walked up to cyclocross’s most famous man to talk about mud, tattoos, and the overall state of cyclocross.
“There is time now to do some fun things,” Nys said. Dominant throughout his 18-year career, Nys said he came to Portland, Oregon to experience this uniquely American alleyway of his Belgian sport.
The 40-year-old is retired, but he’s not done riding his bicycle through mud. So when the opportunity to come to SSCXWC, he obliged. “There was also a question from Trek to do a fun race during the season. It’s a combination of Trek and me that wants to do something like this,” he said.
When asked about the state of European cyclocross, Nys admitted that, back home, elite racing isn’t booming like it was when he raced. “It’s on a plateau right now. Well we had a lot of successful years with a lot of interesting riders. People who are now leading in the sport are really young. So a lot of fans stopped coming to cyclocross. And it needs to grow again.”
This season’s prominent rivalry between Dutchman Matheiu van der Poel and Belgian Wout Van Aert may satisfy avid fans, but it has yet to fully blossom. “Let us give them a little bit of time,” Nys said. “They are really young and they need to grow also in that kind of things.”
In Portland, it was clear that the Belgian appreciated the broad base of participants drawn to the sport for revelry, rather than elite-level racing. After all, what race in Europe features a mud pit filled with the inflatable fit balls you’d find at a yoga studio?
Over the years, Nys has been open-minded about how cyclocross can grow and thrive. He was supportive of the first world championships outside of Europe, in held in 2013 in Louisville, Kentucky, where he won his second rainbow jersey. And he raced Cross Vegas, another event with American ‘cross flair, before it was a World Cup. Global ‘cross events, he said, can learn from single-speed worlds.
“Cyclocross needs to be fun,” he said. “That it’s different than other disciplines. That everybody can do it. It’s not so technical that if you have a cyclocross bike, you can have fun in the mud. That’s the feeling we all have, even when you are a professional cyclist.”
Based on his demeanor and actions, Nys had fun in Portland. In his familiar, aggressive position, he sped across the muddy turf. Eventually, more people recognized him, even though his skinsuit had a tongue-and-cheek misspelling of his name (S. Nice). But he didn’t look exactly like the rider we watched win dozens of World Cups and Superprestige races. There was a broad smile across Nys’s face. At one point, he took a moment to boot a yoga ball at the crowd. And by most accounts, “The Cannibal from Baal” was generous enough to give Adam Craig a clean shot at another winner’s tattoo, the race’s dubious laurel.
Yep, we’re pretty sure Nys let Craig win. After all, had Nys won, he would have been required to get the legendary winner’s tattoo, which is hard to miss.
“If I win, I need to have a tattoo. That’s the rule,” he said before the race, as pandemonium reigned in the morning “B” race.
Flush with titles and trophies of his own, Nys wasn’t in Portland to win this not-so-serious, definitely unofficial worlds. “The reason is to have fun on the bike to promote cyclocross overall. That’s why we are here.” By “we,” Nys meant himself and Trek, but really, the sentiment encompassed all — a man wearing a “Star Wars” X-Wing pilot costume, standing next to Nys at the start, a wizard holding a beer bong in the middle of the track, the “dancers” on the course’s one-dollar shortcut. Everyone.