Standing in the mud, I wait, watching riders pre-ride the course in Tervuren. Then he appears, covered in mud. I ask now? He smiles and says give me 5 minutes. I wait and then the tap on the window, the wave to come in. Two hours before the start of the men’s race, I make my way around the fans, under the tape and into the spotless RV to sit down with Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet).
A trip to the heart of cross racing had to end with an interview with the 7-time and current Belgian Champion. The Kanibaal van Baal has dominated Belgian cross these past years winning the Superprestige series 8 times, the GvA Trophy 7 times and the World Cup overall 7 times in addition to one World Championship since 1998. In 2005, he became the first cyclocrosser to achieve the Grand Slam: he won both championships, topped the UCI Rankings and won the Superprestige and the GvA Trophy series or as he calls them classifications.
A change to Nys’ career was a return to mountain biking a few years ago with a focus on the Olympic Games. In 2008, he won the Belgian Mountain Bike Championships and finished top 10 at the Beijing Games.
At 34 years of age, he re-signed with Landbouwkrediet for four more years, racing until March 2014. The first question was simply ‘what keeps him going?’
The man is a star in Belgium, fans always surround him, his every move watched. While he is obviously aware of his palmares and talent, he answered my questions with a smile and displaying no arrogance. Total pro.
You’re 34 years old, everyone is talking about your age and you’ve re-signed for four more. What keeps you going?
The love for the sport. My ambition to win a few titles again, go to the Olympics for mountain biking, so a lot of things are really important for me in the next few years. I think I’m strong enough to ride two or three years on a high level.
You’ve won every title already so which one would you really love to win again?
Of course the World Championship because for the elite I have only one, a lot of times third, I think five times. It’s possible to win again but it’s not so easy for me because I race the whole season on a high level, almost win all the classifications every year so that’s the reason why I’m not so strong in the World Championships because it cost a lot of energy to ride a whole season on a high level.
How about changing your schedule then and not racing as much?
I know it’s important to change the schedule to win the World Championships but for me it’s not so interesting because all the organizations love to see Sven Nys is riding really hard, all my fans so that’s also the reason and my goal to ride the whole year on a high level and I don’t want to change it.
What do you think is going to happen at the World Championships?
Oh I don’t know, it’s one month from here and we’ll see what happens in the next few weeks. My shape is really good and I try to have a high level in Sankt Wendel and try to win again. Of course you’ve seen now Stybar is back, he has not raced for a month and that’s important for the Worlds because we’ve done almost 30 races at this moment, every weekend, for him that’s the only thing he can win, he is the most important threat.
You mention that mountain bike at the Olympics is also very important to you, how does that play in your scheduling and training?
It’s not so easy, I try to qualify myself this year on a few World Cups or the World Championship. And then of course after the next cyclocross season it’s really important to have a good preparation, training, mental fresh to ride in the Olympics. It’s in the beginning of August so it’s possible to be in good shape in that period of the season but it costs maybe afterwards a few races in cyclocross. But yeah the Olympics is the biggest that an athlete can have and I’m going to try to be better than my 9th place in Beijing.
What makes you so good?
I don’t know.
Is it mental, is it physical?
All parts must be really good. I must be mentally strong, doing everything for the sport, I love the sport, that’s the most important part because when you win, when you win like yesterday, today is another race, no party, I’m an athlete and I try to win today again and that’s really important. But my talent of course and the motivation to ride every day the whole year long with my bike, I love to train and I love to train hard, that’s the only reason why I am so good I think.
[The Grote Prijs Sven Nys race on the day prior to our chat was a hard-fought duel in epic muddy conditions with Stybar which came down a perfect move in the final lap. An ecstatic Nys showed his emotions as he crossed the finish line celebrating his victory in his hometown in front of his fans. Yet no party that night.]
You also seem very calm, do you feel any pressure?
No in the beginning of my career, the pressure was a little bit higher because you want to win so much but now it’s totally different. Of course there is pressure like a race like yesterday, a lot of people come for me there, it’s an amazing feeling to win that big race, it’s live on tv and of course it’s important and then there is pressure but it’s not negative the pressure. I feel myself really confident with the pressure and in the beginning of my career I had some problems with it but yeah I’ve got now a lot of experience, I’m a little bit older. Of course it’s not the first time, it was the tenth time that I won there, it’s all different than in the beginning of my career.
At the beginning of the season some were saying ‘uh oh he’s old now, he’s getting slower’. Are you worried that one day that might happen? [At the beginning of the season, Nys didn't have a win for one month until Koppenbergcross]
It’s going to happen of course, I’m also a human being. I try to hold it for a long period but of course the young guys are going to win more and more but the races that I want to win like Koppenberg, Asper-Gavere, Overijse, Baal, I won them all so when it’s going a little bit down it’s not bad I think, it’s normal. I got my age and it’s normal but with my motivation, my talent and all the training I’ve done, I think I can hold it to win 10, 15 races most of the years, that’s what I’m going to try.
Four more years also means that you are coming to the United States for Worlds. Any plan in coming before?
I’d love to.
We’d love for you to come.
Every year again they ask, for example, CrossVegas but it’s not so easy because I want to win the classifications and in the beginning there are some big races in Belgium also maybe in the last part of my career I’m going to try to go.
What can we do to get you to come?
(laughs) I don’t know. The jetlag is hard and when there are races one week later, it’s difficult but I’d love to come and I know that I have a lot people who want to see me there. For sure I’d come to the Worlds.
While the sport is obviously big in Belgium I know that you’d like to see it grow internationally. What should be done for that to happen?
It’s not so easy. The beginning of all is good athletes in other countries, then you have people motivated to sponsor, to put it on television. That’s most important part when there are good riders in the country like Lars Boom, you see immediately five, six journalists who come to the race, and then it’s growing and it’s growing. We can try to do everything we can in Belgium to let the sport grow in other countries but it’s not so easy when they are talented and motivated [riders] they see it in their countries they say oh you must ride on the road or you must do mountain biking and that’s the reason why it stops.
Yeah when you see that in Belgium it’s as big as now, it’s a sport that can grow everywhere you don’t need so many things, a nice cyclocross track and people see in one hour a lot of things, it’s not long, it’s perfect television also.
How important is television?
Most important because sponsors want to see everything on television, of course it’s really important. And then crowd is coming really close to the athletes and that’s what cyclocross is, that’s why it’s so big in Belgium.
You talked about talented and motivated athletes. Let’s say you have a pretty good athlete in the United States that wants to become better, do they need to come here?
Yeah I think so because all the Czech riders who are now strong are also coming here to learn everything, train with us, that’s really important, race with us.
Of course the most important part of the preparation we do it in summer, stage races, mountain bike races, all the long training, all the long distance training and that’s what make us so strong. And then you have the specific training for cyclocross but that’s later in the preparation in the beginning of September. But it’s a process for a whole year, it’s not only from September to February, it’s a whole year you must live like a cyclocross rider and everything you do in summer is for preparation for cyclocross. In the US they can learn a lot of it there but they are growing also, I see it.
Do you watch what is happening internationally?
Of course and now I sit on the UCI council so I know a lot of US cycling and it’s growing, they have also the classifications and nationals and yeah I see it. When Jeremy Powers and all the other guys come here, they do it good, but of course when they are here, a week later they have a race, they have jetlag, they must go back to the US for another big race, it’s not perfect. That is the reason why I don’t go to the States because when I do the Worlds in Canada for mountain bike, one month later I feel it.
Yeah for me it’s really hard. I can’t win a race in October because I was at the Worlds in Canada. Because all the details must be really good and you see it, you saw it yesterday also, winning or be second that’s a few things.
[Nys nods when I say finding that perfect line on the last lap.]
My last question. I’ve seen your son at races and on his bike. What would tell Thibau if he said he wanted to be like you?
That it’s not easy and that it’s really important that he loves his bike and that he loves to do sport and the rest is coming because when you push it it’s not good, when the family is saying ‘you must go cycling’, it stops when he’s 18 or 19 years old so he must love the bike and he can learn now everything that he sees from his dad. We’ll see what happens but he’s playing tennis also a little bit and I don’t know what he’s going to do, maybe he’s going to be a singer (laughs)
For a second, I knew what it was like to be a rock star when I opened the RV door to leave. The fans outside got all excited until they saw it was just me, and than let out a ‘oooh’ in disappointment. A few minutes later, Nys did come out to sign autographs with the fans waiting at the RV and the fans in the sponsor tent.
Sven Nys, rock star, total pro and passionate about cross.
Nys now leads once again both the Superprestige and GvA Series and is looking to win the Belgian National Championships for the 8th time this weekend. And then of course the World Championships at the end of January in Germany.