How does the most famous cyclocross racer celebrate retirement after a 20-year professional career? With a two-day, sold out show at Belgium’s Antwerpen Sportpaleis that accommodates 16,000 fans, which could only be pulled off if your name is Sven Nys.
De Kannibaal van Baal held his two-day retirement party last weekend for 32,000 of his most dedicated supporters. The evening covered Nys’ life, from his days as a BMX racer through his future plans. There was also entertaining bike racing, music, video clips from family, fellow crossers and fellow athletes and more that gave everyone more insight into the great champion.
Going into the show, many journalists were a bit nervous about what to expect. It was the first of the two shows he was putting on that weekend, so it was one big question mark. It could go either really cheesy or they would pull it off, matching it to Nys’ illustrious career. All we could do is watch in anticipation, along with the other 16,000 spectators who filled the arena. Backstage, before the festivities got underway, VRT posed a few questions to this 39-year-old legend. Here is what he had to say:
VRT: You twice sold out at Antwerpen’s Sportpaleis, with 16,000 fans per day. What do you think?
Sven Nys: “It is simply crazy that the whole area is full for two days in a row for one athlete that performed in a small sport for 20 years. Way above my expectations.”
VRT: Your top mission now?
SN: “To get more people to do sports, first of all for their health.”
VRT: The race that had the most impact on you?
VRT: Your best season?
VRT: Where does Sven Nys enjoy riding most?
SN: “The Koppenberg [cross]”
VRT: Who was the hardest competition you encountered?
SN: “Complete athlete? Lars Boom.”
VRT: Who was the most fun to race with?
SN: “Bart Wellens. With him it was always an experience. He’s raced through my whole career. But when we came across each other it was always a warm welcome. We have a lot in common, and shared a lot of passion. He is simply a very spontaneous, cool guy.”
VRT: Which Sven Nys record will never be broken?
SN: “I dare to say that winning the Superprestige 13 times will be very hard. That will, in any case, take 12 years [before it happens] [laughs].”
The actual show kicked off with Nys riding around the extravagantly built-up cyclocross track that included everything found in a typical cross race except, of course, mud. There were flyovers, a sand section, stairs, power climbs and barriers. When Nys came into view on the far end of the arena, everyone went absolutely berserk!
After his grand entrance, the festivities mainly followed the timeline of his life. First was the BMX show, where some of his former competitors came out to greet him. He was so taken aback that he couldn’t remember all their names. Next were various BMX stunts. But what really got the crowd going was when the riders took turns riding and jumping over Nys as he obediently lay on the ground, arms and legs spread.
The first cross race of the evening was a time trial including fellow racers such as Lars van der Haar, Vincent Bastaens, Tom Meeusen, Eli Iserbyt, Michael and Dieter Vanthourenhout, Ben Berden, Toon Aerts and best friend, teammate and fellow-retiree Sven Vanthourenhout. One time around the mini track and the times were in, with Nys coming out on top.
Next was the jumping contest seeing who could travel the farthest distance. Again, the winner was no surprise as Meeusen was on hand to woo the crowds with his mad anti-gravity skills.
Finally, there was a multi-lap event that lasted around 15 minutes. While it was fun to watch the guys take turns attacking each other, the most enjoyable bit for me was the Le Mans start. Watching cyclists run in cycling shoes will never cease to entertain, a fact confirmed by the crowd’s reaction as well.
Between the races, the audience was treated to some unique performances. The most unexpected of all was that of Sven Nys’ 13-year old son Thibau Nys, also a bike racer, who played DJ for his dad. Thibau kicked it off quipping, “Forget cyclocross, I’m gonna be a DJ.” He got folks going so much that even Sven was inspired to get off his chair to bust a move. Watching cyclists dance, I was reminded, is something that I love just as much as seeing them run.
Nys was also serenaded by Gabriel Rios and Sioen, two of Belgium’s famous singer song-writers. During Rios’ performance, the stadium lights were turned off so all you could see around the enormous open space were flickering lights from cell phones, matches, lighters–you name it.
In addition, Nys was comically sung– or rather rapped–to, via pre-taped video, by fellow retired athletes including tennis player Kim Clijsters and two-time cyclocross world champion Bart Wellens (from the hospital where he was getting back surgery). A very special guest video message to Nys was also played courtesy of Swiss road racer Fabian Cancellara, recent winner of Strade Bianche, which impressed not only the audience but Nys himself. Nys said he got to know him better through their mutual sponsor, Trek.
But the video that brought tears to Nys’ eyes was that of his parents, mom Vera and dad Cois, shown early on in the show. Vera said,
“We never had to teach Sven how to ride a bike like other parents had to do with their kids. He could just do it. When he was six or seven he started to be really good on the BMX and he didn’t stop until he was 15. I’m really proud to be the mama of Sven Nys. That’s really true!”
To wrap up the evening, Nys walked to the middle of the cyclocross track and gave a “spontaneous” speech, as he called it, stating that this is how he is; just a guy who would rather speak from the heart than with something prepared.
He talked about his grade school teacher who believed in him way back when, then thanked all his sponsors that helped him to achieve so much, and lastly thanked–in a slightly cracked voice–all his supporters and cyclocross fans in general. It was a beautiful moment that touched each and every person in the arena. Nys then ended with singing a Belgian folk song, substituting in the word Svenneke [small Sven], for all to sing along.
After Nys disappeared off the stage, the “schlager music” festival got underway. The Belgian king of schlager music, Kristoff, was also present to entertain the folks. He did all his big hits, as well as his version of Niel Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”–twice–while dancing lines, otherwise known as Belgium’s version of the polonaise, busted out everywhere.
It didn’t take long before people were drunk as skunks, falling all over the place.
On the main ground floor, the expensive “standing-only area,” I was amazed by the shenanigans happening all around me. People were absentmindedly rolling off each other, pulling out their best bizarro dance moves, jumping on top of each other and spilling beer everywhere. And roaming amongst the inebriated crowds were all the big stars of the cyclocross world, including Nys himself! I also spotted a bunch of others including Tom Meeusen and Jan Verstraeten. I loved to see that they were all going to the beer vending stands personally to collect rounds of beers for their buddies.
The one face I must admit that thrilled me most to see was 1994 Koksijde World Champion Paul Herygers. My friend and fellow journalist Julien Gielen was kind enough to not only introduce us but take a photo of us together! I can now confirm that he is one former World Champion who is still in great shape, if his muscular waist is any indication.
Did Nys pull off a show fit to match his name? According to everyone I’ve spoken with who bore witness, the definitive answer is YES. We were all thoroughly entertained and walked away knowing more about him as well as why he came to be the big name in ‘cross.
He may still be at every cyclocross race over the winter as Telenet-Fidea manager, but he will be sorely missed at the start line–the guy who got the most cheers at every single race he entered.