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Sven Nys: The final finish line

Photo: Balint Hamvas
Photo: Balint Hamvas

Louisville, Kentucky
February 1, 2013

For Sven Nys there was nothing routine about it: the transatlantic trip, the unfamiliar venue, the crazy weather that careened from almost summer-like conditions mid-week to single digits by Friday. But Friday’s announcement still threw a wrench into the routine.

The whiplash weather that week had touched off storms upstream in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and the rising waters of the Ohio River and its tributaries were forecast to overrun the low-lying Eva Bandman Park by the end of the day Saturday, just hours ahead of the marquee event of the first cyclocross world championships held outside Europe. The two-day race schedule would be consolidated, the weekend’s four races run in tight sequence on Saturday.

A year earlier, after a disastrous 2013 championship race in Koksijde, Belgium, that saw him finish seventh — last among the Belgian contingent who swept that race — and a minute off countryman Niels Albert’s winning pace, Nys, then 36, had toyed with the idea of giving up on championship races completely. But the gravitational pull of this American worlds was too much to resist, and Nys chose to take the start.

It was a fortuitous decision. He rode a perfect race: patient and smooth, coming to the front only at the race’s close. A lap to go and snow falling hard, mixing with the mud beneath their wheels, only Nys’ compatriot Klaas Vantornout could match his pace. The two were even until Vantornout snagged a pedal on the course barriers at the top of the stairs, lost a step, and you know the rest. Nys cruised through a final lap and reached the pavement alone. It was not his first championship, or his most elegant race, but even on the ground in Louisville, without the benefit of hindsight or a clear view of the race’s significance, it was clear we had witnessed something special: cyclocross’ greatest active rider — arguably greatest ever — winning the biggest race ever held outside of Europe.

No wonder Nys, now 39 and looking ahead at his final season on the bike, points to it as one of the climactic moments in his career.

Baal, Belgium
July 2015

Sven Nys is sitting by the pool behind his house — a comfortable but surprisingly modest, tidy, ultramodern home — in Baal, Belgium, not far from the course for his namesake cyclocross race. The summer sun is shining; it is pleasantly warm. Still months away from the beginning of that final season, Nys looks relaxed and at ease in black shorts and a t-shirt bearing the logos of his Crelan-AA Drink team. We are talking about his plans for the future and reflecting on a pro career that reaches back into the Clinton administration. The man has been racing, and racing very fast, for a long, long time.

“The race in Louisville was for me really important,” says Nys. “Because — not only for myself, I was 36, it’s not so easy in that part of your career — but, for the first time in another continent. The promotion of our sport over there. All those things combined made that it was for me one of the most important days of my career.”

Nys, perhaps because of the significance of his name to the sport, perhaps because of his role on the UCI’s Cyclocross Commission, where he has been the athlete representative since 2009, is among cyclocross’ leading proponents of expansion into more international venues. The long trip, the schedule change, racing in an unfamiliar venue — none of it appeared to bother Nys in Louisville, his motivation boosted by his awareness of what earning a second world title in Louisville could do, not only for him, but for the sport itself.

“I felt myself ready on every day to race for the world title,” he says, looking back at what is, in hindsight, clearly a career-defining moment. “The track suits me really well. The weather circumstances were changing a lot, and that helped me. If you see that race, it’s not something we saw many times on the world championships many times the last 15 years. … I felt during the whole season before that there was a lot of interest for the world championships over there. … There was a lot of promotion for the race, good organization, and the atmosphere to do all three or four categories in one day, it was, for them, really exciting. They saw from early in the morning until the evening nice races. It was really special, and I felt that I had the whole crowd cheering for me and that was crazy.”

Like a lot of riders born in the late 1970s, Sven Nys’ career was born not on the road or a mountain bike trail, but on the jumps and whoop-de-doos of a BMX track. It was only at 15 years old, with BMX’s popularity waning, that Nys decided to try something new.

“[BMX] was getting down, and there was not so much interest anymore and I was 15 or 16, and I wanted something else. Danny De Bie was [cyclocross] world champion during that part of my life and he lives not so far from here. I said, ‘Hey, maybe I combine BMX with cyclocross. We’ll see what happens.’ And I directly felt that it suited me really well.”

Nys still remembers his first race — 1991 in Pittem, a village in western Belgium, maybe 40 minutes west of Gent. Nys raced as a nieuweling — a newcomer, in English — the youngest racing class in Belgium.

“I was seventh,” he says. “It was a small race for amateurs. I was 15 years old and I was seventh because I could jump a ditch. I jumped over it and I felt directly, ‘Hey, I can use my BMX skills to do something special in cyclocross.’ For me it was half-an-hour race, it was much longer than my BMX races that were 350 meters long. In the beginning it was suffering with the distance.”

Nys quickly graduated to better results. Buoyed by endurance earned when he started racing on the road, Nys was selected to race with the Belgian national team at the 1993 world championships in Corva, Italy, just a season later. He finished 21st, almost four minutes from the leaders — but he was just 16 at the time. He remains one of the youngest riders ever to line up for a world championship race.

It was the beginning of a career that would eventually transcend sport and become a cultural phenomenon. At home in Belgium his name is synonymous with cyclocross itself, and his fans are legion. It was a hugely fortuitous choice for the sport, but Nys cannot pinpoint the moment or reason he decided to try that first race.

“Sometimes things happen — why? I don’t know,” he says. “Because I saw it on TV, because there were a few big guys coming not so far from here. So, yeah, I chose something, I don’t know why.”

If Nys cannot say what originally attracted him to cyclocross, he can point to a good reason for his early success: parental support.

“My parents were really important. When I started with the BMX when I was five, we traveled all over Europe to go to every race all over Europe,” he says. “In the beginning it was here in Belgium, but afterwards it was the world championships, European championships. We made our vacation of it. … At that part of your life, your parents are the most important part of what you’re doing. Without them it was not possible.”

They are still supporting him.

“My father is driving the truck every race,” says Nys. “My mother doesn’t always go to the races because she’s staying with the kids of my sister, but the big races they are always there.”

Though it is big business in northwest Europe, cyclocross still grows its stars from grassroots. Nys’ parents and their continuing support is typical. Marianne Vos’ father still anchors her pit crew and her mother serves as her soigneur. Kevin Pauwels’ parents, too, are the core of his support team. Lucien Wellens, father of Bart Wellens, became an outspoken supporter and media representative of his son, especially after several seasons appearing on the Belgian TV show “Wellens en Wee,” which followed Bart through several cyclocross seasons.

Parents play an outsize role in cyclocross, and Nys clearly attributes a big part of his success to the quiet but steadfast support of the people he calls his most important supporters.

“My whole life, every emotion, negative or positive, they were there,” says Nys. “My father is a bit quiet, he’s not in the front pages like, for example, the father of Bart Wellens. He’s different, my father is more in the background. He was at the world championships in Louisville, but nobody saw him. He was there, and he was enjoying it, and it was okay. But he is always there and he wants to do everything with me. He was at the Olympics in Beijing, and now he’s going with me to Vegas for my last World Cup over there also.”

But parental support alone can hardly explain how Nys grew from a brash, preternaturally talented young rider into the sport’s elder statesman and most popular figure. Nys’ early promise was confirmed by two under-23 world titles in 1997 and 1998, but success in the youth categories does not always translate to professional success, let alone a rise to the stature Nys has attained. Nonetheless, if there had been any lingering doubts about his potential, Nys wiped them away by winning the Superprestige overall title and six of the 11 individual races of the series in his first year as a professional during the 1998–99 season.

Nys says that his under-23 success gave him a hint of what was to come, but that he never anticipated the success — world titles in 2005 and 2013, nine Belgian titles, more than two dozen series titles, and more than 300 career victories — and longevity he has enjoyed.

When you are young in a sport as unpredictable as cyclocross, says Nys, you never look ahead to such a big future.

“You are always nervous that there is something going to happen, that you are going to be sick, that you are going to have a bad crash, that you are not developing yourself the next year anymore, that there are coming young guys who are getting stronger than you,” he says. “It’s always struggling with your own thoughts. How far can I go? It’s always a bit nervous when the season starts. ‘Is it still strong enough? Am I still stronger than before? How well prepared are the other athletes?’”

But Nys never did have a bad crash — or a crash bad enough to derail a career, anyway. Strong young guys did come — Lars Boom, Niels Albert, Zdenek Stybar, Kevin Pauwels — and Nys rose to meet them all.

He calls Stybar, who more than once stole a world championship from Nys in the closing minutes of a brutal one-on-one battle— in Sankt-Wendel, Germany, in 2011, and in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, in 2014 — his greatest rival.

“I think he is the best cyclocross rider I raced with,” says Nys. “The guys [from the beginning of my career] had good skills, but Stybar was complete. He has a big engine, he was technically really strong. He was smart. He loved his sport really well.

“For us it was really important that he was a cyclocross rider internationally. I say always that I see a young Sven Nys in him. It’s true. When I thought, ‘I’m gonna accelerate,’ he was also there. It’s strange, but I felt sometimes that when I wanted to do something, he was also there. And we thought the same things. And he was younger, he was really strong in the sprint and technically really good. For me he was rider who had — he was a complete cyclocross rider.”

Those championships notwithstanding, even Stybar, now a star on the road in his own right, could not rival Nys’ steady success on the ’cross bike. The inevitable question of what such success has cost him in personal sacrifice, dedication to the job at the expense of life itself, Nys simply brushes aside.

“I never saw it like that,” he says. “Even until today, I don’t see that I need to work for it. For me it’s part of my life, it’s not something that I say, ‘Hey, did I miss some important things in my life [because of it]?’ No. I feel more that I am lucky I can do something that other guys can’t do.”

But it can’t be so simple. Nys has successfully met newcomers on the field of play for the better part of two decades, but he faltered last season. In the wake of a divorce from his wife of 12 years, Isabelle, he stumbled for the first time in his career. Nys, whose ability to devour races and competitors alike earned him the nickname Kannibal van Baal — the Cannibal of Baal — had not earned fewer than 10 cyclocross victories in a season since his third year as a pro. Last year, overmatched by a trio of young riders, newcomers Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert along with Lars van der Haar, who is quickly becoming a seasoned elite racer, Nys earned just four.

For Nys, it will forever be a lost season, one he chalks up to an uncharacteristic error, an overcompensation for everything that was going wrong in his personal life that summer. Nys, in his own words, simply overtrained.

“It was too busy,” he says. “Physically and emotionally. And that’s something that broke during the month of November. I think the biggest mistake I made was in August, the problems were in July and afterwards there was no rest anymore. But my shape was really good and my results were really good. … I was so strong, during the European championships on the mountain bike I was top-five. The beginning of the season I was — in Las Vegas, in Ronse — I was really, really strong. But this is the level I need to have in November, December, January. So it was too early, and with the emotions that were here at home, privately, I didn’t have any rest anymore. And then it was going down from one day to the other. And then you can’t do anything about it. It’s over.”

Now, Nys stands at the precipice of a final season and a final chance to redeem last year’s disappointments. Seven or eight more laps around each of Belgium’s legendary courses, and a final farewell in a two-night celebration in Antwerp — two nights because the first sold out within hours — and then it will all be over.

That season will start at CrossVegas, the first World Cup race ever held outside Europe, a race that has belonged to Nys since his first start there two years ago, his final appearance in a North American race.

There will be an early climax on the slopes of the Koppenberg, where Nys will be chasing a record 10th win in a race he cites as one of his all-time favorites. It is arguably the race that has most defined his career.

“When it rains, you need to have technical skills, you need to have the power, you need to be really smart,” he says of it. “Don’t take too many [chances] — you need to save energy during the race to win that race. That’s the only way you can win it. So you need to have experience. And the atmosphere over there with the people. It’s one of the first races where all people came out to see cyclocross during a year, the first of November. It’s an epic race.”

In one of the lowest moments of his bitter 2014-15 season, Nys missed out on a chance to claim that 10th win at Koppenbergcross when Jan Denuwelaere, a lap down, interfered with Nys’ sprint, handing Wout Van Aert the victory that set his breakout season in motion. The question of whether an officiating error or more sinister collusion between Denuwelaere and Van Aert, teammates on the Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace team, was ultimately to blame touched off a frenzy in the Belgian media, even though Nys himself tried not to engage in too much finger pointing. It was the beginning of the unraveling of Nys’ season. And he will surely be chasing redemption this year.

There will be other opportunities as well. He will have chances in the plunging, sandy coliseum-like party pit at the heart of the Zonhoven Superprestige race, and a final chance in the slippery mud of the forest in Gavere. He’ll cover the dunes of Koksijde and the inhuman steeps of the new Superprestige stop on the Formula One racetrack at Spa-Francorchamps. The true climax will surely come at his final world championships, on Belgian soil, in Zolder, where race organizers have said they anticipate a turnout of 80,000.

Beyond Sven Nys’ kitchen is a wide staircase that leads down to a long basement hallway. Walk down the stairs, and about three-quarters of the way down the hall you come to a nondescript door that leads to a windowless room. It is not a small room. A set of built-in shelves run the full length of the right-hand side of the room, and, once upon a time, it probably seemed like the shelves were more than sufficient for their task.

They were not. The shelves now overflow, almost comically, with trophies. In the back corner are perhaps half a dozen cobblestones, handed out to the winner of the Koppenbergcross. Toward the front are glass plaques from the old GVA Trofee series — now the Bpost Bank Trofee. Various cups, in gold and silver, spill from the shelves onto the floor, while across the room another set of mismatched shelves, apparently a later addition, brims with awards and other trinkets. There are oversized, floppy Basque berets, prizes for the winner of the old World Cup stop in Igorre, Spain. There is an Olympic race number — number 40 — from the London games. There are stacks of jerseys, Belgian champion’s driekleurs, world champion’s rainbow stripes, a CrossVegas jersey and an old Velo magazine man-of-the-year jersey in a pile on the floor. There are medals, photographs, paintings, a black Colnago — a brand Nys spent most of his career with before moving to Trek in 2014.

It is everything that is left from years and years of toil and pain and joy and success on the bike. There will not be so many additions in this final season, a fact Nys himself acknowledges. He will shoot for top-five finishes, he says. He hopes to win but knows that at 39 years old, opportunities will be fewer. And there are new priorities. The Sven Nys Cycling Center, to be built atop the Balenberg hill, home of the GP Sven Nys, is slated to be opened by spring of next year, but it is already at the forefront of his thoughts. Nys hopes it will support the development of young athletes across the range of off-road cycling disciplines.

Retirement will be a major transition Nys acknowledges, perhaps as big a challenge as anything he has done before. He is ending a life that has been measured out in kilometers pedaled and races started and beginning again with something totally new. Retirement is a mountain all athletes must climb eventually, but for a man who has been for so long the face of his sport, it will be a daunting, Everest-sized climb, a complete reboot of work and priorities, schedule and focus. It is a challenge he is eager to meet.

“It is completely from zero,” he says, reflecting on where he will start the life that lies ahead. “It’s not easy, but what I have done in my career until now, I’m really happy with it. I’m satisfied, I don’t want to race longer anymore. I’m ready to do something else with my career. What I won, what I lost, every day I’ve done in my career I’m really happy with it. So it’s normal. You know when you are a cyclist that sometime it’s going to stop.”

There will be plenty to keep him busy. The new center, television commentary — something he already has dabbled in — his role as an ambassador for cyclocross and cycling in general will surely keep him in the public eye. And, says Nys, he hopes he can devote more time to his most important project: fatherhood.

Nys’ son, Thibau, 13, has embarked on his own journey in cycling. Nys says he sees potential for greatness there, but that he hopes only that Thibau is having fun.

“I love to see that he is riding his bike and that he’s enjoying it,” he says. “For me it’s not important that he is winning or losing. That’s the same like he says to me.”

For now, Nys says, he will try to enjoy his final year on the cyclocross circuit. It will not be a victory lap — he wants to win, to see what his 39-year-old legs can do. He believes he can still show the young guys, some of whom will be barely half his age, a thing or two. It is something he never tires of.

“For me it’s like I started [my career] a few weeks ago,” he says. “It’s crazy, but I never thought about it, to retire or say, ‘How long am I riding my bike already?’ I felt that it was flying. It is because I love what I’m doing, day by day, the whole year. And that’s the most important part of it, that I feel that what I’m doing is what I want to do.”

He will not be sorry to stop, he says. He has no regrets, no hole in his resume to fill. He has done it all. It is not the medals and trophies that crowd the basement room in his house that he will miss. It is not the adulation or the adrenaline or the anticipation of race days. It is the routine: cranking through practice laps on dreary winter afternoons and long, sunny summer days spent turning the pedals.

“For me, the most scary thing is not that I can win no races anymore, but the training and riding my bike during a whole day,” says Nys, a little wistful. “That’s what I’m going to miss. Because I need to work, definitely, I need to do other things. Hopefully I have time enough to ride my bike, because there is nothing more beautiful than doing that.”

February 2016

A couple of days before his final world championship race, Sven Nys told me how strangely typical everything felt.

“It feels like it’s a normal world championships for me and maybe that’s a reason that I feel it’s OK that I’m going to retire,” he said. “For the moment, I don’t feel anything different than the years before. It’s just business as usual, that’s what I feel. It’s crazy, but it’s like this.”

One of Nys’s greatest assets as a racer has always been his preternatural focus, his ability to rise to the occasion for nearly every race of the season and, simultaneously, to attack the most important events as they were just a routine muddy Sunday afternoon in another Belgian potato field. If you want to understand his remarkable list of achievements — nine world championship medals including two wins, 13 Superprestige titles, nine Trofee titles, and six World Cup titles, Nys’s steadiness is the answer.

So I had no trouble believing that he was approaching this race like any other, that his emotions were not likely to get entangled with his performance. At the same time, it would be a final championship, at home in Belgium, in front of the record crowd the race organization had predicted. How could anybody — even Nys — not feel something?

The answer, simply, is that he did feel something.

Halfway through the championship race two days later, Nys connected with the front and attacked, earning himself a little gap. The crowd, predictably, went berserk. The move blew open an already thrilling race, and as Nys ripped down the course’s most dangerous descent, he became transformed.

Suddenly here was the old Nys, the Nys who would never be brought back again after a move like this. His eyes gleaming, his face set with purpose, here was the the man they called the Kannibal van Baal. Nys would not win the race, or even earn a medal. But this moment, like an echo of past greatness, was no less electrifying for that fact. I was right there at the bottom of the descent, shooting photos for VeloNews. And even through the lens of my camera I could see Nys was surfing the wave of emotion, enjoying one last shot of pure racing adrenaline, as he tore around the course at the head of the race.

And although he did not land on the podium, it was not a bad day for Nys, who finished fourth, waving and blowing kisses to the crowd just as if he had won. Anybody could see, in the tear-streaked, quavering-voice interview he gave to Belgian TV after the race that all the emotion he bottled up so well before the race had come pouring out. I’ve covered Nys up close for almost a decade; not once have I seen him as emotional as he was in Zolder.

Nys had been as methodical as ever in his final season. He posted steady results. He was not the dominant force he once was — Nys’ heir apparent, Wout Van Aert, filled that role, winning what the Belgian media called the Grand Slam: the Belgian and world championships, the World Cup, and the Superprestige and bpost Bank Trofee titles. But Nys was not far behind. He stood on the podium 16 times, twice on the top step. One of those wins came in perhaps the season’s fiercest duel, a one-on-one battle with Van Aert in sandy Koksijde. Through it all he was as unflappable as ever.

So that final, emotional championship race was a well-earned release, both for Nys’ fans and for the man himself.

It’s not so often you encounter a champion who so dominates a sport as Nys dominated has cyclocross. It’s even less common to see them retire with as much grace as Nys, who — aside from the last few hundred meters of that world championship — has not taken a victory lap. The sport as a whole will surely feel his absence next season, though it seems that in Van Aert, cyclocross’s next great champion has emerged just in time, and with a readymade rivalry with Mathieu van der Poel in hand. Still, the legion of fans Nys has brought to the sport will have to find a new champion; and until they do attendance and interest in the cyclocross, even in ‘cross-crazy Belgium, may well suffer.

But Nys is not going away. In December, he announced he will take over the Telenet-Fidea team and its highly successful youth development program, a program that should dovetail nicely with Nys’s plans for his namesake cycling center. Helping to grow the next generation of cyclocross champions will be a fitting second act for a man who has so singularly influenced modern Belgian cyclocross.

First, however, will come a long parade of celebrations and tributes, including that two-night farewell extravaganza. These on top of a string of farewell ceremonies that have played out alongside the podiums of race after race all season long.

My guess it that all the pomp and circumstance will be anticlimactic. Sven Nys may have secured his legacy in no small part by what he did for the sport off the bike, but it’s what he did on the bike that cemented his greatness. His perfect farewell already happened, in that indelible moment of the sport’s most towering figure seizing control of its biggest race one last time, his heart no doubt thumping with excitement and exertion, beating out the rhythm it was made to beat, beating out the song of a champion.

All photos by Dan Seaton, except the Nys portrait and the photo of Nys’ trophy room, which were taken by Balint Hamvas.