LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (VN) — For Sven Nys, considered by some to be the greatest cyclocross rider in history, the sport’s greatest prize — the rainbow-striped world champion’s jersey — has long remained elusive.
Until Saturday, despite being by far the most consistently successful rider in the sport, Nys had won just a single world championship, in Sankt Wendel, Germany, in 2005. On Saturday, nearly a decade later, Nys claimed his second. Fittingly, given’s the 37-year-old’s status as an elder statesman for the sport, dedicated to promoting the growth of cyclocross globally, it was also the first elite men’s championship title ever awarded outside Europe.
“For me, it’s really special,” he said in a post-race press conference. “I’m not the youngest any more. I try to do a lot for international cyclocross all throughout the year, to promote our sport. And to win here is maybe more special than to win in my home country.
“Definitely, that’s also something special, with maybe 60,000 people, while here there were maybe five, six, seven thousand. But I felt myself, the whole week, really, really relaxed. And the respect I got from everybody over here helped me a lot. I hope after my career I can do a lot for cyclocross, also outside of Belgium.”
If Nys has grown into a role as an international spokesman for the sport, his ascent was driven by the wild support of legions of fans in his home country of Belgium, where he has near-iconic stature. But it was also driven by his almost superhuman consistency, which itself derives from his ability to deliver big results in almost any conditions and at any time of year. That consistency has netted him dozens of major series wins, eight national cyclocross titles and some 300 individual wins.
Nys has long argued that his goal is to be good in every race, and that world championships, while a special prize, are not a primary target for him. He told VeloNews as much after today’s race.
“It’s really nice to win this race,” he said, “but next week there’s another race, and I want to win also, and for my career [another championship] was not necessary anymore. I won so many races, I was totally relaxed today. And it was definitely special to win here — and yeah, it’s a really nice day — but people like me also when I’m not a world champion.”
After finishing seventh at the 2012 world championship race in Koksijde, Belgium — a race he was heavily favored to win — the disappointed Nys said he was finished with world championships. But a campaign by American fans to bring the sport’s biggest star to the championships in Louisville helped to persuade him not to walk away.
Even before the race, Nys said he was glad to have made the trip. On Saturday, he reiterated those sentiments, saying he was impressed by the support and enthusiasm of the mostly American crowd.
“For the world championships in Belgium, there were more people,” he said. “But over here I didn’t feel that there were 20,000 or 30,000 people less. It was a good atmosphere, everybody was yelling for all the riders, and that’s what we want. We want a positive atmosphere to race our world championships, and I felt that.
“So for me, the race, the organization, what they did today, with all the stress they’ve had with the weather, it worked.”
On his way to the second championship, Nys benefited from the misfortune of two of his countrymen. First was Kevin Pauwels, who suffered his second technical disaster in as many races.
A mechanical at the end of a snowy World Cup race in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, cost Pauwels any chance at the overall World Cup title. On Saturday, he found himself at the side of the course trying to free a stuck chain while the race simply streamed away from him.
Second was Klaas Vantornout, whose brief tangle with a course fence in the final minutes of the race gave Nys the gap he needed to go clear for the win. Nys, himself no stranger to misfortune at championship races, including a costly fall in Hooglede-Gits, Belgium, in 2007 that resulted from a collision with a plastic block knocked onto the course by a television moto, said he nonetheless believed he would have won anyway.
“I race a lot with Klaas, I know him. You need to use your experience,” he said. “I know normally I’m the fastest of the two, that’s positive, but normally it’s not a sprint over here. You need to be in the front in the last lap, and try to have a gap before the obstacles, because there I was the strongest.
“When I have a gap before the obstacles, it was favorable for me to win the race. That’s also what happened.”
Nys argued that it was his experience and tactical sense — not just his power on the bike — that won the race. And, indeed, the so-called Kannibaal van Baal rode an impressively patient and savvy race. He and his Belgian teammates slowly reeled in Frenchman Francis Mourey’s early escape, then Nys parried attacks until Vantornout’s momentary lapse opened the door for victory, a door Nys immediately slammed shut.
“This is a victory that I earned — it’s a victory of experience for me, not only power,” he said.
Nys, who has one year remaining on his contract with trade team Crelan-Euphony before he can contemplate retirement, said the second championship would tidily cap his career, but that he remains hungry for wins and would continue to be a factor next season.
“There is a new motivation to try to win as many races as possible in the world champion’s jersey,” he said. “Mentally I’m young. My body is a little bit older, but mentally I feel myself to be still young. Every day I’m motivated to train hard to focus on my job. And for me this is not a job, it’s a hobby, and I like to do it.
“[After] next year we’ll see. But definitely next year I’ll be strong enough to win.”