In July, Sven Nys tallied a major win in the offseason before his last season in cyclocross begins. For the fifth time in his career, he won the Belgian National Title in mountain biking, beating Jeff Luyten and Kevin Van Hoovels to the top step of the podium. Announcing that his career as a mountain biker is complete, Nys will likely not look to defend the colors after his last year as a cyclocrosser, although last March, he did suggest that he may consider continuing on the road.
Although it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, Nys also gave an ultimatum to his cyclocross season, according to Het Nieuwsblad. If he wins the Cyclocross World Championship, he will forgo the other February and early March races that traditionally mark the end of the European season. The following is a short excerpt from an interview with Sven Nys in Issue 29 by our European contributor, Christine Vardaros. For the full article, and quality content like it, pick up your back copy today, mailed first class, or get a digital version for quicker gratification. Read it here.
by Christine Vardaros
While most cyclocrossers are fully focused on their upcoming season, Sven Nys has been bouncing his thoughts among past, present and future. By March 2016, he will be officially retired from professional cycling. Hence, in addition to getting body and mind prepared for one last season of battle, his attention is pulled to reminiscing over his lifetime accomplishments, as well as on what’s to come post-racing-career.
Nys turned professional in 1998, and in his 16 seasons as a pro, he’s been a two-time World Champion; nine-time Belgian Champion; seven-time World Cup overall winner; 13-time Superprestige overall winner; eight-time GVA/BPost Bank Trofee overall winner; and has collected more than 140 victories.
If he were any other cyclocrosser about to retire, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But when someone of Nys’ caliber hangs up the bike, it becomes not only a major event in his home country of Belgium—where he’s been elevated to celebrity status—it becomes world news, affecting cyclocrossers everywhere.
Why retire now, when he’s still one of the toppers of the sport? “I need to set goals—this is how I work and live my life as a professional, I need to set a point and say, ‘OK, there… it’s finished,’” he says. “I can’t train and say to myself, ‘OK, we’ll see what’s going to happen. If it’s not possible any longer, I quit.’ Instead, I am choosing to stop on a moment where I am good enough [to compete for the win], but where I feel it’s enough.
“And when I stop on a high level, it’s also more possible to accomplish my goal of developing young riders, because the young guys only know the last few years of your career. Basically, the level at which you retire determines how people see you afterward,” Nys explains.
“My career was really long, from 1998 to 2016 as a pro, so you need to know when it’s time to go,” he adds. “And for me, this is the point when it’s going to happen. I’m not afraid of it. I have goals for after my career, and you need to know when it’s enough. For me, I’m really confident with my retirement date.”
More than 50,000 Belgians would seem to agree—his retirement party, which will be held at Antwerp’s 16,000-seat Sportpaleis arena, is already fully booked two days in a row. “In 2016 I’ll turn 40, so we’re going to finish my career with a big bang. It’s really not possible to retire in a nicer way than this,” says Nys.
Before the retirement parties get underway, though, Nys has much work to do. After a month off the bike following his final cyclocross race of last season, Nys returned to training at the end of March. His first step was to get some base training in. He also spent some time at the gym working on his core. Three weeks into training, he headed off to Mallorca, Spain, for a two-week camp with his Crelan-AA Drink teammate Sven Vanthourenhout and team manager Jan Verstraeten.
Only a few days after his May 2 return, he kicked off his offseason racing with a mountain bike marathon in Houffalize, Belgium. Considering it was three and a half hours and 82 kilometers—much longer than a cyclocross race—his third place spot was quite impressive. “I felt strong and confident again. I could race for the victory until 2 or 3 kilometers before the finish, and then I lost 40 seconds to the winner. But I was racing against guys who are really in shape and are preparing for the European Marathon Championships the following week,” Nys explains.
Although this race may have been held too early in the year for his liking, it did fit well into his preparation strategy for his offseason mountain bike competition goal of a fine performance at the newly created European Games. The games will be held in Baku, Azerbaijan, from June 12 to June 28. As for his overall offseason racing schedule, Nys plans to keep it lighter than in years past to ensure he’s fresh for the upcoming ’cross season, which he expects to be difficult—not only physically, but mentally as well.
“A lot of emotions will be flowing, I think. There is also a lot of interest in my last year of racing. Everybody wants to talk about what’s going to happen next… like, how do you prepare for it, is it going to be mentally hard. I need to go to television shows, interviews. I knew that this would happen, because it is something special, and I want to enjoy it and try to be as strong as possible for the last season. I’m also not planning as many offseason races, because I am a bit older and I need to recover more than before.”
With Nys’ resources spread so thin, he still manages to make room for what matters most to him—his 12-year-old son Thibau. “It’s really nice to spend time with him. When I am home and recovered a bit, I try to go to Thibau’s races, like I plan to do the next few Sundays. We ride our bikes a lot together too, like when he comes from school,” says Nys, adding, “Finding time for myself, though, is not so easy when you’re busy like I am.”
For the record, although the Belgian tabloids claim Nys is back together with Isabelle Nijs, the rumor is not true. “The magazines needed something to write, but it is better for me to say nothing than to talk about it—because otherwise I’ll be in that magazine for the next six weeks, and that’s not what I want. Isabelle and I are happy with how it’s going right now—with Thibau.”
As for the upcoming cyclocross season, Nys explains, “I want to win races. That’s for sure, and certainly the races that are important ones for me. Definitely everybody knows which those are—the classics like Koppenbergcross, Asper-Gavere [Superprestige], Koksijde [World Cup], my own race in Baal, the National and World Championships. There is a new European Championships in cyclocross as well [for the Elite men].
“There are a lot of goals, but I can’t win them all anymore, something I’ve done six or seven years ago. But there is a way to prepare as good as possible and try to win a few of those races and that’s what I want to do. Hopefully I don’t get injured or sick in a moment where it’s dangerous to lose some shape.”
What remains equally important for Nys is to grow the sport outside Europe. “We’ve been doing this the last few years with the world championships in Louisville, for instance, and with CrossVegas, and now this year with the first two World Cups in Vegas and Montreal. It is important for me to have a good shape for these two races—not only to help promote the sport internationally, but to gain valuable UCI points that I lost in the World Cup last year, which is not good for my start position.” His plan pre-CrossVegas is to have a training camp again in Mallorca just prior to CrossVegas, so he is sure to be on terrain with an ideal climate, but where he knows the area and can be relaxed. Just as in the last two years, he will fly to Las Vegas the Saturday before the Wednesday race. Immediately after Montreal, he returns to Belgium.
While he may want to perform well, he feels very little pressure. “I’m a happy person with all I’ve done in my career. I can say that from the first day as a professional to the last, I wouldn’t want to do any day different than what I’ve done. I took the maximum out of my career—and I’m really proud of it. There are just so many special moments in my career. I won so many nice races with a lot of emotions. It is not possible to choose a moment that tops all others.”
But when pressed for more detail, he divulged, “Definitely I have four world titles which are really special, two under-23 and two elite. My second one in the US was really special because it was the first time on another continent, and held a day earlier than planned. It was hectic, with a lot of promotion of the race.”
CYCLOCROSS undergoes metamorphosis
Considering Nys earned his first Belgian cyclocross champion title more than 20 years ago, as a junior in 1994, he has clearly borne witness to a real metamorphosis of the sport.
“The biggest difference I’ve observed is the television coverage. It used to be that only a few races were shown on television, but now almost every classification event [Superprestige, BPost Bank Trofee, World Cup] is live on TV. There is also much more money coming into the sport from sponsors. That’s due to the new VIP treatment the race organizers are offering to the sponsors. In the beginning of my career, when sponsors came to a race, they were standing next to the track with no special treatment like they do now, with their big VIP tents alongside the track, complete with food and flowing drinks,” explains Nys.
“There are also now cyclocross-specific teams,” he adds. “When I started my career, we needed to sign a contract with a road team. The tracks also changed. When I started, there was no pit. We changed our bikes in the track. We had three, sometimes four places we could change a bike, but they were on the track, not alongside it. Even the bikes changed completely. They are now more than one kilo lighter, maybe two. A lot of equipment is completely changed. The sport is getting to be more like Formula One than cyclocross as I knew it.”
This marks the end of the excerpt. For the last half of the full interview, including Nys’s thoughts on the changing culture of cyclocross and the new generation of racers, pick up your back copy today, or get a digital version.