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An interview with Sven Nys, November 9, 2006
Master of the mud
Without doubt the best cyclo-cross rider at the moment, Sven Nys appears to struggle only at world championship time, with 'just' one elite rainbow jersey in his palmarès. But Cyclingnews' Brecht Decaluwé says one must look beyond that.
Four times winner of the World Cup, a six-times winner of the Superprestige (the second most important competition), four-time Belgian champion... with almost 140 victories under his belt. In 2005, he completed the grand slam: he was Belgian champion, world champion, winner of the Superprestige, the Gazet van Antwerpen trophy, and, not surprisingly, ended the season number one in the UCI rankings.
Already impressed? No? Maybe that is because cyclo-cross doesn't get much recognition outside Belgium. Cyclo-cross isn't an Olympic sport and Nys acknowledges this situation, but wants to win an Olympic medal; he now combines cyclo-cross with mountain bike in an effort to grab gold in Beijng 2008.
Nys lives in Baal, a small town near Brussels in the Flemish speaking part of Belgium. Married to Isabelle, the future of cyclo-cross is assured with their son, Thibau, who's almost four years old now.
Cyclo-cross is a hard sport where riders fight each other on muddy or frozen courses. Often obstacles - like stairs, planks and artificial hills - make the job even more difficult.
Nys not the all time best?
When you ever get the chance to see Sven Nys competing in a race you'll probably get the impression he's just cruising around. He seldom seems to have a hard time, nor does he look nervous at a big race.
"It's true that I'm very relaxed. Also in the big races, not much has changed in comparison with the past. Nothing in this cyclo-cross world is new for me," Nys explains. "People expect a lot from me over here, but I can handle it really well. Maybe that's just because I'm growing older," the thirty year-old laughs. "But that's not old, certainly not in cycling. It's the age where you're at your strongest; an age where you got to grab what you can and that's just what I'm doing."
In Belgium, cyclo-cross is big, very big. In the past, there were big names like Roland Liboton (five-times world champion) and Eric De Vlaeminck (seven-times world champion), and people are still inclined to compare these legends with their current day heroes. Recently Liboton claimed to be the best rider ever, so we asked Sven Nys about that.
"If Liboton says he's the best, then it'll be like that," says Nys diplomatically, "but I never raced against him so we'll never be sure. I just want to be seen as one of the best of my generation, so I'm not going to compare myself with Liboton or De Vlaeminck."
This reply tells us a lot about the man behind the rider. Not that Nys is boring in his replies, but he always thinks before saying something. "I try to stay sober, I'm just Sven Nys and I can have a bad day just like everybody else. I believe in what I say, so if I don't believe in something I'll keep my mouth shut about it."
This is a big difference with his main rival Bart Wellens (Fidea Cycling Team). Last year in Overijse, Wellens karate-kicked a Nys fan while riding his bike; he was suspended for a month as a result.
"Bart [Wellens] has a completely different character than me; he's light-headed and often says things he might regret afterwards," says Nys. "But that's probably what attracts some supporters towards Wellens, as they like that side of his personality."
"I wrote every single word"
Although Sven Nys doesn't think about retiring he has already written his own biography: 'Ik, Sven Nys'. The 240-page book was been launched a few weeks ago but has already been printed a second time. Nys worked three years on the book; it was something he felt he had to do after he barely missed out on a third World Cup in 2004.
"I'm very proud of that book as I wrote every single word, supported by my family. I never thought I could do something like this. The biography is about all the things that happened for the first time in my life, and I can't win more than I did. It's about how I became a professional rider, how I got this far.
The current UCI leader also has a website in Dutch and English, but Nys says, "To be honest, I haven't got time for the website. My free time is limited as every minute of the day is occupied by something."
Will we see Nys abroad?
Cyclingnews also asked Sven Nys about cyclo-cross in places other than Europe. For example, how good are Jonathan Page and Ryan Trebon?
"To be honest I don't know anything about it, only the names you hear sometimes over here. It's difficult for me to judge the level of competition as I don't know the races. Sometimes I'm wondering about showing myself over there, and I would want to, but we don't get the chance to do it.
"I would love to do it but probably better in a few years. Right now, it is so busy over here that it isn't feasible to cross the ocean to ride some races with jet lag in the legs, and then ride a World Cup race somewhere in Europe during the next week. I'm one of the best over here and they just can't do without me, not even for one weekend."
American riders might wonder what kind of advice Nys has for those who want to be the best in their sport. "I'm sure there's a lot of talent but they'll have to prove it over here [Belgium]... this is the place to be! Even the European riders need to race here," he says.
'Cross can't get bigger in Belgium
Cyclo-cross is extremely popular in Belgium; crowds of 15,000 people show up every weekend and get spoiled with beer tents, food stands and VIP accommodation for at least 1,000 people. Riders often show up with a mobile home, and the bigger teams have a bus for all their riders.
Organising races demands a big budget and some organisers outside of Belgium have decided to discontinue. Even in Belgium, organisers of the Witloofcross in Vossem have decided to call it a day.
Sven Nys doesn't think cyclo-cross can grow bigger than it is now: "Especially in Belgium, the sport has reached it's limit," he says. "If the other countries want to make it grow, they'll have to put in extra effort like searching for sponsors, but most of all, training the youth."
After the muddy race on the Koppenberg, Nys expressed his satisfaction with these hard races. "I've been waiting for these conditions all summer long. There's so much spectacle in 'cross, where something could happen any minute, with crashes all over the place," he laughs, who happened to be the only man who didn't crash on the Koppenberg.
So how long will this love affair with the mud continue? "I have no idea, maybe I'll continue like my team-mate Richard Groenendaal (now 35). I just like cyclo-cross, otherwise I wouldn't trudge through the mud against my will."