When he is not managing the Telenet-Fidea cyclocross team, Sven Nys has stayed busy in his retirement putting on a good show for cycling fans. He raced the 2016 SSCXWC as Stan Nice, and then last year, he jumped in a Cat 4 race in Chicago and showed that he, one of the sport’s all-time greats, still has it.
Single speed ’cross and riding stairs are pretty familiar for the cyclocross legend, but this year, Nys decided to take on a challenge that is a bit more out of his comfort zone. Last month, we broke the news that Nys (aka Stanley Nice of Waterloo) would be toeing the start line at the 2018 Dirty Kanza 200, and over the weekend, his gravel racing début finally arrived.
Nys still puts the hurt on his young team from time to time and cyclocross stars have had no problem with gravel success, so when folks were not chattering about aero bars, they also spent some time speculating on whether Nys could ride into the top ten against a field of heavy hitters. Fans only had to wait until Saturday for 206 miles of Flint Hills gravel to help tell the story.
Although Nys has accomplished things such as “winning World Championships” and becoming mega-celebrity in Belgium, in Emporia, he was still a Dirty Kanza rookie like many of his fellow competitors. “This was the first time. I’ve ridden a few gravel sections in Belgium, but not in a race like this,” he said about his previous gravel experience.
How did Nys end up in Emporia? For him, it was pretty simple. “We have a new bike and we want to promote it,” the Trek-sponsored athlete said. “If you want to promote a new gravel bike then you need to come to the Dirty Kanza. That’s normal. I said okay, I want to do it together with Jens. It’s been an unbelievable adventure. Respect to all the riders who are starting and finishing this race.”
The new bike he was riding was Trek’s new Checkpoint gravel bike. Trek provided Nys with a white Checkpoint with custom paint done by Trek’s David Cestelli.
An Ominous Start for Nys
Nys’ Dirty Kanza adventure got off to a rough start. Nys has been busy with his team and other commitments in Belgium, so he cut it relatively close with his travel plans. Many other athletes spend months dialing in the perfect plan to succeed at the DK200, so Nys was trying to do things a bit differently.
The Belgian legend planned on arriving in Kansas City on Wednesday to give himself a few days to adjust to the time change. Unfortunately, factors out of his control crunched his travel schedule. “It was not easy to come here because I traveled for 40 hours due to an emergency landing,” Nys said. “The pilot got sick and the plane turned to Ireland. I waited there for one day longer and then came here. It was Thursday evening when I arrived, so I have pretty bad jet lag too.”
Despite arriving in Kansas City on Thursday evening, as one would expect from someone who has completely embraced his role as an ambassador for the sport and his Trek sponsors, Nys was still seen at the Gravel Expo in downtown Emporia talking to fans and posing for pictures.
Still, as U.S. cyclocrossers experience when they head to Europe to race, the time change can take a huge toll on performance, and that’s just for one hour of racing. In a way, Nys would have to be superman to survive the grueling Dirty Kanza trial of grit, endurance and suffering.
Sven’s Race Day
As covered in our race reports, Saturday morning started ominously with lightning outside town and rains that started around 5:30 a.m., just 30 minutes before the scheduled start. After a 30-minute rain delay, Nys and his riding partner Jens Voigt were at the starting line. Voigt also jumped in the Legends race at the Trek CX Cup last fall, so he also knows a thing or two about putting on a show for his fans.
Although Nys registered for the event as Stanley Nice and Voigt as Jon Vogt, the two retired stars both received call-ups under their real names along with the other big cycling stars at the event. Nys lined up next to 2016 DK200 winner Ted King, and the two headed out onto the course along with over 1,000 fellow gravel grinders.
The Dirty Kanza is legend for its unforgiving nature. Rough gravel, sharp rocks, blazing temps, mercurial weather, all of it makes the 206-mile challenge that much more difficult. Many a DK200 podium dream has been shattered by flats or the oppressive heat.
Nys started the race at the front, providing a trusty wheel to follow for other riders who recognized his cyclocross skills. Eventual second-place finisher Josh Berry said he followed Nys’ wheel early in the race as the large lead group dealt with the hilly terrain early in the race.
Unfortunately for Nys, he experienced the wrath of the Kanza gods early on. He flatted not once, but twice, and when he reached the first checkpoint, he was already 10 minutes behind the lead group. “I just had bad luck a couple times on the road really fast after each other,” he said about the flats. “That was in the beginning of the race, and then you need to push a little bit and that cost me later in the race.”
A consummate competitor, Nys stuck with it and set out solo to chase down the leaders. If he had a companion, it was the Trek film crew that was in Kansas to document his gravel adventure and the occasional rider who went home with a good story.
Nys made it to the second checkpoint at mile 100 in Eureka as the toll of jet lag and a pre-race diet not exactly dialed in for success started to take its toll. Nys stuck with the chase through mile 75, but then succombed to the combination of his travels and Kanza’s ruthlessness. As great as he is, Nys was not superman on Saturday, and he abandoned the race due to stomach issues caused by his crazy travel schedule.
After returning to Emporia, Nys was still in good spirits when I ran into him at Checkpoint 3 in Madison. He stayed at the Trek tent to chat with nearby fans and cheer on Voigt, who was still giving the Dirty Kanza gravel everything he had. Voigt rode with the lead group through the big climb near mile 65, and then gutted through the next 140 miles with his trademark good cheer that belied the suffering he was no doubt experiencing.
Nys Talks Gravel
Despite the unfortunate end to his race, Nys was very positive about his U.S. gravel experience. “It’s the same atmosphere [as U.S. cyclocross],” he said. “People who love the sport who are a little bit insane and crazy about all new details. The new bikes, the new materials. It’s really cool to come over here again. If you’ve seen how popular gravel has become the last few years, it’s crazy.”
He also expressed his respect for the other riders. “What you see is all the riders motivate each other,” Nys said. “It’s a big event. It’s a big adventure, and it’s not easy to finish this race. If you have a problem, if you’re sitting there with cramps and you have a bad day, everyone asks if they can help you. That’s really nice.”
I finished up our conversation by asking what seemed an obvious question: Would there be more gravel in his future?
“Yeah maybe there’s another gravel race coming,” he replied. “We’ll see. For the moment I have a busy schedule in Belgium with the team. I’m going to the Tour de France to commentate some stages. Maybe we can do it a little later. I’ll be back in the U.S. at Trek in August and then of course for the World Cups in September.”
For now, we will look for Nys’ voice during the Tour next month and behind the barriers coaching his Telenet-Fidea team at the Waterloo and Jingle Cross World Cups this fall. And who knows, after his positive experience at the Dirty Kanza, maybe the January 1 GP Sven Nys will include a pre-race gravel fondo.
Stay tuned for a profile of Nys’ DK200 Trek Checkpoint. For more from Kansas, see all of our Dirty Kanza 200 coverage.