N. Y. S. Those three letters have dominated the sport of cyclocross for almost fifteen years. Sven Nys has won virtually everything, and virtually every year, since he turned professional as a 21-year-old with the fledgling Rabobank team back in 1998.
Six World Cups, eight GvA Trofees, eleven Superprestige series tell only part of the story of the rider who has without doubt been the greatest ever proponent of the winter sport; even at the age of 36 he’s still the rider to beat on a weekly basis.
I caught up with the Kannibaal van Baal, Mister Superprestige, De Koning van de Koppenberg as he and his Landbouwkrediet-Euphony team took the opportunity for a two-week training camp on the Mediterranean Island of Mallorca, as the road Worlds dominated European cycling.
The most important thing to ask him - for US readers - was about his decision to go back on his original statement that he would never ride the World championships again. Sven Nys will be in Louisville, Kentucky next February after all, so I ask him about his reasons for his change of mind.
“In the beginning I was disappointed, after the race in Koksijde, because it was, for me, a big chance to win the World championships again,” he explains. “I won the Belgian championships two weeks before, against the same riders, and then you think ‘okay, this is one of the chances I can have.’ I think Koksijde is a specific track, where I won a lot of World Cups, so that is the reason why I thought it’s possible to win again.
“Then the race didn’t go well for me, I felt that it was not possible to win, and I was disappointed,” he continues. “Then, after the race, I said ‘maybe this was my last chance to win a World championship.’ I’m 35, it’s a track that I really like, and then I said ‘okay, I don’t think I’ll do it again, because all the press and all the spectators all say, weeks before, ‘there’s only one guy who can win’, and ‘now you’re going to win,’ and it’s always the same every year.
“I thought for me it’s enough, I said ‘now it’s finished with the World championships,’ I’ll try to do what I can the best, and that’s to win overall rankings, win the most victories in the season.”
Nys’ big problem is that, while he dominates the rest of the field on a weekly basis, for a variety of reasons it just doesn’t work out at the World championships. Despite his massive list of victories, he still has just one elite rainbow jersey in his wardrobe.
“I’m better in the whole season than I can do in one day’s race,” he explains. “When the World championships must be over seven or eight races, I will win seven or eight times; but that’s what my disappointment was about.”
Despite this though, the importance of spreading the message of cyclocross, and the appearance of its biggest ever star in the United States, overruled his personal disappointment and made him think again.
“But afterwards, I was sitting in the UCI cyclocross commission; of course they want me to go to the Worlds in the US,” he says. “A lot of fans say ‘why don’t you go, there is a chance you could have a good result over there, you are still strong enough.’ A lot of people out of the US told me that I need to come over, and then I said to myself, okay, I’m going to do it.’
“Maybe it’s good for cyclocross overall that I come; a lot of fans in the US want that I come, so that’s one of the most important reasons.”
When I spoke to Flemish TV commentator Michel Wuyts back in April [see peloton issue 12], he named Nys as the “savior of cyclocross”, because of the way that his style and success had rejuvenated a sport that was suffering something of a decline. While Nys himself has no way to deny this, his modesty does prevent him from taking all of the credit for himself.
“I’m not alone I think!” he laughs. “I’m one of the reasons that cyclocross is getting bigger here in Belgium, but I’m not doing it alone, because there are other riders; it’s necessary to have important races, there are spectacular organizers.
“But yeah, they saw when I was really young that I had a talent, that I can ride more than ten years at a high level,” he concedes. “Sponsors were interested, the television was interested, the press; spectators were coming more and more. I saw a big growth as soon as I started, until now, and maybe I have something to tell in that story of course, but I’m not alone.
“There are a lot of guys who have raced on a high level against me,” he adds, “and they are also necessary of course.”
While Nys is very much the elder statesmen of cyclocross, it wasn’t always that way. As a neo-pro in 1998 he was up against riders many years his senior, while nowadays he’s the one that the young riders are aiming to beat. Over the years he has managed to adapt though, to meet the different challenges.
“It is true that I raced against the third or fourth generation for the moment,” he smiles. “In the beginning I was the youngest; I jumped all the obstacles, I won the races with my technique. Afterwards, I was riding against riders of my own age; then I was a little bit stronger and won most races. Then I come to a younger generation, and now - for the moment - they are two generations younger; it’s me against riders from twenty to twenty-five.
“I’m 35, so I saw a lot of guys coming, and the only thing that doesn’t change is I’m still riding on a really high level; and I’m really happy about it.”
On his entry to the professional ranks Nys also rode a number of road races at a high level. My own first memory of seeing Nys in action was at the 2001 Paris-Roubaix, where he was part of one of the first groups chasing the leading pack, from which Servais Knaven escaped to victory; the thousand-yard stare that Nys bored through me - as he looked without seeing, straight into my eyes - is still one of my most poignant personal memories of the Enfer du Nord.
If he could perform at this level in some of the biggest races of all, why did he turn his back on a big career on the road, I ask.
“Because I saw that cyclocross was getting bigger and bigger; that you can earn your money in Belgium when you are a professional cyclocross rider,” he explains. “I saw that when you are one of the most important riders in cyclocross it’s really a good feeling.
“I can do some good road races in my career, but now I have a career that was 15 years long, riding on a high level. Every time I race, I race for the victory, and to do that in the road: that’s not so easy!
“I chose something that I can do the best,” he adds. “Cyclocross.
“I know that I can be at a high level in the races, like Paris-Roubaix or the Ronde van Vlaanderen, but I never can stop doing cyclocross, because my heart is with cyclocross; that’s the most important reason. At the end of my career I know in myself that I have made the right decision. I see how cyclocross has changed in the last ten years, and I’m really happy that I’m one of them.”
Of all those classification victories in the World Cup, GvA Trofee and Superprestige - which he has only failed to take at least one of, twice in his entire career - it’s tough for Nys to choose between them. Each series has its own set of characteristics, which makes it difficult for Nys to name his favorite.
“They are all special, and every general classification is different, against other riders,” he tells me. “Sometimes I knew one race before the end that I’d won it, but at the end of my career it was more often that in the last race the decision was made. Sometimes it’s the mental part; when I win against the younger riders, its mentally that I know what I need to do; with the points, and who I must look at. Sometimes it’s not important to win the race, but to know who is winning the race.
“In the beginning I wanted to win every race, but now I’m a little bit more experienced. Every general classification is different and, of course, they are all special for me.”It may not be possible to name a favorite series, but it is not so tough for Nys to tell me what his favorite race is...
“Now I can say that my own race is my favourite,” he smiles. “All my fans are there; it’s in the middle of the cyclocross height, in the winter; it’s in a classification; I won it more than ten times, and they all want to beat me over there.”
The Grote Prijs Sven Nys, run every year on New Year’s Day, in his adopted home town of Baal, in the south of Flemish Brabant, has been won by the rider it is dedicated to in 13 of its 15 editions. This is not through any sentimental charity from his rivals though, he says, but simply because the course is designed to suit his strengths.
“They have a lot of difficulties to beat me over there,” he explains. “It’s a track that’s really fit on me. I can show what I can do in that specific race. It’s not so easy because everybody expects me to win that race, and there is a lot of pressure, but for me it’s special; it’s one of the most important races of the season for me.”
Since the GP Sven Nys was first organised in 2000, only Mario De Clercq - in 2002 - and Lars Boom - in 2006 - have been able to beat him on his own course, and he finished second on both of those occasions.
One of the big mysteries of Nys’ career is that, despite all those years of dominance, he has just that one World title: taken in the snow of Sankt Wendel, in eastern Germany, in 2005. For Nys though, its no mystery, and has a lot to do with the way that he has ridden for the rest of the season leading up to the race.
“There are two reasons that are really important for me, I think,” he says. “The first reason is that I always try to ride the whole season on a high level; every classification, I mentally, physically try to have my best shape, and most of the years I won at least one classification - but sometimes three. It’s mentally so hard to come to a World championships where there are some riders I can beat in a season, but they are only thinking about that important race.
“When they - in the classification races weeks before the World championships - do it only thinking mentally about the World championships, it sometimes makes five or six percent at the end of a World championship,” he explains. “That’s the reason that I won only one time as a professional cyclocross rider.
Despite the fact he only has one rainbow jersey - and one gold medal - his medal collection is one of the biggest in the sport, with plenty of silvers and bronzes.
“I was eight times on the podium!” he laughs. “I can’t say that it’s not good, but there was always one or two guys who are a little bit stronger; not many, but maybe that’s the biggest reason: that I have three classifications to go for the victory. That’s one big reason.”
The courses also have a bearing on Nys’ Worlds chances, he says, with the more intimate and technical tracks of everyday racing in Belgium too tight for the size of the World championship occasion.
“The other reason is that the World championships in cyclocross are, most of all, tracks that are fast,” he says. “Not cyclocrosses like, for example, the Koppenberg, Asper-Gavere, my own race, Overijse; races where the power is really important.
“The last ten years we have eight or nine times the race was really fast; difficult to win when you are the favourite,” he explains. “That’s also the reason why I said last year that Koksijde was maybe one of the most important tracks to win again, because it’s specific; and it’s the power.
“That’s my disappointment, but that’s a big reason. You must seen the races over the last ten years; most of the times, really, really fast. No mud; everywhere three, four meters wide; not specific, strong, or high climbs.”
Nys career has been built on the fact that he is often the only rider to get up some of the steeper slopes, where others have to dismount; he was also one of the first riders to bunny-hop hurdles; while his relative power sees him cope well in the thick mud of the Flanders fields, and his technique makes him the best in the ice and snow.
“I need my technique, I need my power to win the race; the mud, and the running, and the real cyclocross tracks that all the fans want to come to; that’s also a reason.”
Another factor in Nys’ rivals’ successes in recent years has been the fact that many of them have suffered injuries mid-season, which has seen them fresher at the end of the season than those that have ridden straight through.
The current World champion, Niels Albert, took his first rainbow jersey in Hoogerheide, Netherlands in January 2009, having missed six weeks of the season after rupturing his spleen the previous November. In November of last year he was hit by a car in training and fractured his wrist; once again he returned from an enforced layoff and win the World title.
“There are a lot of guys in the last years who have had injuries in the middle of the season, don’t race the classification races and then they come to the Worlds,” says Nys. “The only thing that they think about is the World championships; the other races are all just preparing for the Worlds.
“But for me, I need to win the races to win the overall classifications.”
It hasn’t just been Albert, Nys says, that has indirectly benefited from the freshness of an injury layoff in recent seasons.
“I saw it with Niels Albert, I saw it with Lars Boom, with [Zdenek] Štybar,” he says. “The last five or six years I was always against a rider who didn’t race all season.”
Nys has been at the top of his sport for fourteen seasons and, while he is not as prolific a winner as he was during his peak years in the middle of the last decade, he can still win the toughest races; but sadly all things must end.
At 36 years of age, Nys has announced that he will retire in two seasons’ time, when he is 38, but I ask him if there is anything that could change his mind.
“No,” he says flatly. “It’s finished after the season 2013/2014. It’s finished. I’m really happy with everything I won, and what I have done in my career. I’ve tried to compete on a really high level until the last day, but sometimes you need to say ‘okay, now it’s finished, now I need to do something else.’
“I want to train young riders; to do something in the organization of some events,” he adds. “I have a lot of things I want to do but, after that season, it’s finished for me. I want to make promotion in different ways for cyclocross.”
He may have taken just one elite World title - Eric De Vlaeminck won seven - and his total of eight Belgian titles is still two away from the record - Roland Liboton won ten - but Nys is, by every other measure, the greatest ever cyclocross rider. No doubt on his retirement, the World - and especially Belgium - will begin the fruitless search for the next Sven Nys - just as it did after the retirement of Eddy Merckx - but will the sport survive without him, I ask...
“I think so,” he smiles. “There is a life after Sven Nys in cyclocross; there are guys that are riding really fast. The most important thing about cyclocross in the next five, six years is that we have international riders who are riding on a high level; to have more international races again - not only in Belgium but over the whole World - that’s also really important that we now come to the US, to promote our sport.
“I raced also now, last weekend, in Switzerland,” he adds. “I can race also in Belgium, but I say to myself ‘it’s also important that we promote our sport in Switzerland, and other countries in Europe.’
“I’m really happy with everything I won and, for me, it’s now important to promote my sport again.”
Make the most of Sven Nys when he goes to Kentucky next year because, win or lose, you’ll never see his like again.