Sven Nys wins his second Elite World Championship over Klaas Vantornout in Louisville, KY. © Nathan Hofferber
by Robbie Carver
Richard Fries, with his characteristic hyperbole, called Sven Nys to the start line. “This is not a man,” he said, “but a deity.”
It was the language of an announcer, meant to excite, to call upon the incredible legacy of the veteran racer. The crowds let forth a roar that reverberated across Eva Bandman Park: it had certainly worked. Yet, despite the exaggeration, there was an element of truth to Fries’ words—in the Greek sense, at least—because in the microcosm of our little world of cyclocross, Sven Nys is our demi-god, our Achilles. He is the man who possesses inhuman skill, drive and strength, yet is haunted by a tragic flaw: his near complete inability to win a World Championship. What unfolded before us on the muddy, raucous course at Louisville was the final test in this hero’s journey. “To find what you have long sought at home,” one can almost hear the Fates tell him, “You must first journey to distant shores, where tornadoes, hail, floods and strange people await you. There you must prove yourself.”
Louisville, like those Pantheon stories of old, ended with a man being placed among the gods—of cyclocross. And, just like those stories, the hero had to fall before he could rise.
“This is possibly my last World Champion- ship,” said a frustrated Nys after he was bested on the sands of Koksijde—a course on which he had won a record six victories—at the 2012 World Championships. Seventh place on the day most expected him to win, Nys had no response. “I thought that I was in the shape of my life,” he told his public after. “But if that’s not enough, then you start to draw conclusions. If I ever want to be World Champion, the greatest opportunity would be in Koksijde.” The man known for his control, his surgical racing, had broken.
Mr. Superprestige. The Kannibaal van Baal. The General. The Tactician. In his 14- year career, Nys has become one of the most decorated ’crossers in history: eight Belgian National Championships, 59 Superprestige victories and 11 overall Superprestige titles, eight GVA overall titles, seven World Cup titles. Over 300 individual victories. By contrast, Bart Wellens, Nys’ main rival for much of his career and the racer closest in age, has won 69 races. Nys was the first ’crosser ever to win every major title in a single year—the “Grand Slam” of the World Championship, Superprestige, GvA, World Cup, and the number one ranking in UCI points—which he did in 2005. But, until this February, the most dominant racer of his generation had only a single Elite World Championship title to his name.
For the seven years after he won the 2005 World Championships in St. Wendel, doubts had plagued Nys about his ability to perform on this one day, this most important day, the day by which all other days are judged. Commentators wondered if it was the pressure, or the adrenaline, or that by racing every race to win, he didn’t allow himself to peak for February, the way the greats like De Vlaminck (seven-time World Champion) and Liboton (five times) did. The underlying point was clear: until you win again, you are not one of the greats. By the time he crossed the line at Koksijde, dejected again, those doubts had become too much. I am too old, he seemed to be saying. They are too young.
“Maybe I’m not made for this. I pulled it off one time and it’ll remain the only one.” Nys’ phenomenal career would be forever marred by this single disappointment, his failure to again wear the rainbow jersey. It was a fact that, at the close of 2012, he had resigned himself to.
We all know how Louisville ended, but to read the rest of Nys’ saga and relive the World Championships, order an archive copy (in print or on iTunes) or subscribe to the all-access digital version of Cyclocross Magazine Issue 20, available in print or digital format! And make sure you’re subscribed for Issue 21, since it will feature Vos’ side of the Worlds story with her win in the Elite Women’s race.