Sven and Thibau Nys: The past and the future of cyclocross
Merckx, Nys, Zabel, Backstedt, Van Poppel, Knetemann, Roche, Dekker, Knaven – all big names in cycling history. Their sons or daughters follow in their footsteps, often under scrutiny. It is difficult not to compare the son or the daughter to the father or the mother. “This has many advantages for Thibau,” explains former cyclocross world champion Sven Nys of his son, “but also drawbacks that people often don’t see.”
In Belgium there is a new Nys, Thibau Nys. From his first races, he immediately made an impression. He became the junior world champion and won almost every race he started last season. This year he made his top-flight debut, in a season full of ups and downs.
I met Father Sven and his son Thibau to discuss their love of cyclocross, the media pressure on Thibau and Sven’s role as father and team leader.
“It was not obligatory for me to ride cyclocross,” Thibau Nys said in response to his most frequently asked question. “I have played tennis at a fairly advanced level, but cyclocross has always been my first love. That’s what I’ve known since I was a kid. I never intended to have a career in tennis anyway, but cyclocross or cycling, yes.
The Nys family, and therefore Thibau’s life, has always been at the center of the Belgian media. The divorce of Thibau’s parents, his first years on the bike, all his shopping, his girlfriend. Everything he does is under the microscope in the land of cyclocross freaks. the DNA Nys The documentary series is now in its fourth season.
“I get asked this question a lot,” Thibau says of the media scrutiny he has faced since childhood. “But I always answer that I never knew anything else. My life has always been like this and I have nothing else to compare it to so I don’t know if it’s necessarily good or bad. For my girlfriend, it was harder to deal with, I guess.
Father Sven has a dual role in the life of his only son. He is not only the father of the young and talented Thibau, who only turned 18 last November, but also his team manager at the Baloise Trek Lions. Due to the lack of U23 cyclocross competition this year, the 2020 junior world champion was thrown into the deep end and forced to ride with the elite men straight away. This created additional obstacles which meant that young Nys was not selected for the Belgian squad at the cyclocross world championships this coming weekend.
“It was a tough pill to swallow,” says Sven. “We didn’t expect that either, but we have to respect the decision of the national coach. I think Thibau was on his way back after a few injuries over the Christmas period and was once again getting stable in his results, but there are more races to come. These are important lessons for him too.
For Thibau, his non-selection was of course a disappointment but he shows remarkable resilience and maturity for an 18-year-old.
“I think I should have had a place on this team and I would have loved to show what I can do, but to be honest that didn’t stop me from sleeping at night,” he says. “It is also more like [any other race] because there is no authorized audience this year. The additional bonus that a world championship would have had in Flanders has now disappeared.
Sven looks at his son and admires the way Thibau copes with chess. “Now that he’s an adult, I have to learn to let go,” he says. “I admire how quickly he can let go of negative things. As a pilot, I really learned this much later than he currently does. Dealing with or letting go of negativity in your life is really a talent that you do. owns Thibau and at a very young age too.
The comparisons between the two cyclocrossers are natural. Thibau has his father’s big shoes to fill: two elite world titles, nine Belgian championships and no less than 50 World Cup victories. And that’s just part of his father’s long list of successes in cyclocross, mountain biking and on the road.
“There is a lot of pressure on him, but results are not the most important thing in his career,” Sven said of his son. “I hope he has a great career, but that’s not the most important thing for me. I hope he will take very important life values away from this sport. Learning from setbacks and losses, jealousy, learning new languages or learning to work as a team, are so much more important for the rest of your life than titles. These are things that no school can ever teach him.
Thibau has watched his dad run his entire life, but he’s a different runner than his dad. Sven was not the best sprinter and generally tried to avoid rivals to avoid this sprint.
“Thibau is so much more explosive than I am, but we are also similar in some ways,” says Nys senior. “We’re both always on the lookout for new things. Sport is also evolving. In my day you didn’t have the equipment they have now. Having disc brakes for example allows you to take sharper turns and faster descents. We have different tire profiles. In my day, we didn’t have click pedals. It’s great to witness the development as a team coach and also as a father. ”
Young Nys smiles when his father explains his lack of explosiveness and remembers the best race he has ever seen his old man do: the Koppenbergcross in 2012. On the last lap, Sven, then 36, drove accelerated dramatically and overtook the then world. champion and his biggest rival Niels Albert. Nys won the Koppenbergcross for the ninth time.
“I think it’s his best race ever and I’ve watched a lot of his old races,” explains Thibau. “The Koppenbergcross is also my favorite race and this edition is the best because I would have made exactly the same race decisions as him that day.”
Nys and Nys are the past and the future of cyclocross. It is a sport well established in Belgium. In the men’s peloton, there are usually only three nationalities on the podium: Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, represented by Tom Pidcock. The female side of sport is much more international.
“When I was a junior, there were many nationalities at my races,” says Thibau Nys. “But most of these guys will soon choose another goal, like road racing or mountain biking. Almost none of these guys choose cyclocross as their primary focus, unfortunately. ”
“In women it’s a little different,” says Sven. Baloise Trek Lions is a team made up of both male and female cyclocross stars like Toon Aerts and Lucinda Brand, so he knows both sides of the story.
“I had this conversation with Lucinda the other day,” says. “We see the change in women’s cyclocross coming now. Professional cyclocross riders earn more than most road cyclists. This allows them to focus entirely on cyclocross and [is] attract different riders. Look at the cash prize for winning the Giro Rosa (€ 1,330) against a victory in a single Cyclocross World Cup (€ 5,000). It’s 10 days of racing against an hour.
“In men’s cycling there’s a lot more money to be made on the road, but with female cyclists it’s exactly the other way around. But the image of cyclocross is changing. Now we see how guys like Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and also Julian Alaphilippe show what a solid foundation in cyclocross can do for you. You get better bike skills and move better in the peloton. It will attract more male runners to the sport I’m sure.
Thibau Nys also sees what Van Aert and Van der Poel are doing on the road.
“This summer I’ll be doing more road races with the team,” says Thibau. “It will give me a good idea of my qualities, of the type of driver I am and how far I could go. But first, I want to end this cyclocross season with, hopefully, another place in the top 10.
While Thibau is at the start of his career, Sven is at a point in his life where he can reflect on his spectacular career. He has a wish for his son.
“If I look back at what I’ve done, I don’t regret a day,” he says. “If I had to start all over again, I would do the exact same thing. I have no regrets. He is not a copy of me. I can advise him on things and tell him what I would decide, but in the end he is an adult now and makes his own decisions.
“He’s a sane young man with a good philosophy of life. He has the talent to grow as a runner, but he has to go his own way and decide his own path.