The Weight of Being Sven Nys

With Lars Boom’s (Rabobank) victory in the most recent round of the cyclocross World Cup at Pijnacker coming hot on the heels of Niels Albert’s (Palmans) win in the Tabor round, many are wondering if Sven Nys’ (Landboukrediet) iron grip on the ‘cross World Cup is coming to an end. The Belgian has dominated the sport’s premier series since 2003, and when he won the season opener in Kalmthout over Albert, it looked like this season could be more of the same. But with the strong, consistent challenge Albert and Boom have brought over the first three rounds, tongues are starting to wag.

That’s a little unfair, really. After all, time waits for no man, and Nys is now 32 years old. And you can’t really expect one man to consistently dominate nearly every race of the WC for years on end, can you? Maybe not, but the fact that people see Nys’ failure to win two consecutive WC races as “faltering,” particularly when he finished fourth in Tabor and third in Pijnacker, speaks to the expectations he’s earned. What did Nys do to forge these chains? Let’s have a quick look at the five previous WC seasons:

  • In the 2003-2004 season, Nys stormed the first three rounds of the WC, winning in Turin, Italy, St. Wendel, Germany, and Wetzikon, Switzerland. He faltered a bit in the second half of that six-race series, with the remaining victories going to Ben Berden (at Koksijde), Bart Wellens (at Nommay), and Richard Groenendaal (at Pijnacker). Groenendaal rode consistently all season and took double points in the final round to win the overall.

  • The following season, Nys took out seven victories (Pijnacker, Wetzikon, Milan, Hofstade, Nommay, Hoogerhiede, and Lanarvily) in an 11 race series. The remaining four victories were distributed to four different riders.

  • Nys surrendered just two WC victories during the 10 race 2005-2006 season, netting wins in Kalmthout, Tabor, Pijnacker, Wetzikon, Milan, Hofstade, Hooglide-Gets, and Lieven. Wellens won the round in Igorre, and Erwin Vervecken took the series finale at Hoogerhiede.

  • The 2006-2007 season showed no sign of a letup, with Nys winning seven of the 11 rounds, this time in Aigle, Kalmthout, Pijnacker, Koksijde, Igorre, Nommay, and Hoogerheide. Vervecken and Wellens again accounted for two victories (in Hofstade and Milan, respectively), with Frenchman Francis Mourey winning in Milan and Radomir Simunek taking out his home-country round in Tabor, Czech Republic.

  • In 2007-2008, Nys won half the races in the eight race series.

All told, from the 2003-2004 season through the end of the 2007-2008 season, Nys accounted for 29 victories out of 46 WC races. That’s 63 percent. And that doesn't account for all the WCs where, despite not winning, he was still on the podium. Sure, it’s not a very original nickname, but they don’t call him “the Cannibal” for nothing.

But while batting .500 in last season’s WC is nothing to sneeze at, it was also an early sign of possible chinks in Nys’ WC armor. During that season, Dutchman Boom became the first rider other than Nys to score more than a single victory in the series since 2003. In fact, he netted three, taking his first WC win at Pijnacker in his native Netherlands, then scooping the final two races in Lievin and Hoogerheide. And he picked up the world championship title in there as well. This year, in addition to his WC repeat at Pijnacker, he also won the Jaarmarktcross Niel round of the Gazet van Antwerpen Trofee series on November 11.

Obviously, Boom’s potential was realized last season, his first in the elites after already netting a U23 World Championship, and you can hardly be called a “revelation” when you’re wearing the elite World Champion stripes and have three WC wins on your palmares. So that leaves the 22-year-old Albert as the revelation of this ‘cross season. Similar to Boom, he clinched the U23 World Championship in his final year in that category, and marked his debut in the elite class with a win at the Erpe-Mere round of the Superprestige series the same season. Albert has been successful in the SuperPrestige this year as well, winning the Veghel-Eerde round ahead of Boom and Nys on November 2.

By winning the WC at Tabor and finishing second to Nys and Boom and at the Kalmthout and Pijnacker rounds respectively, Albert is sitting in the driver’s seat of the WC competition, with 1065 points to Nys’ 965. It’s far from an insurmountable lead, and there are six races left in the series. But at least in the early season, Albert is showing a consistency rivalled only by Nys over the last several years. Boom currently sits third with 668 points after a slow start, but is clearly on form now.

But before we trade the cowbells for church bells and announce the death of Sven Nys, there are a few other historical markers we should take into account. First, while Nys has been beaten at the last two rounds of the WC, he hasn’t dropped more than two WC races in a row since the 2003-2004 season. That bit of history tells us that when the gun goes off on November 29 in Koksijde, in front of Nys’ adoring home crowd, the Cannibal is going to looking for dinner again.

It’s also worth noting that, as he’s long proclaimed when defending his Є8,000 start fee, Sven Nys races every race to win (and yes, I believe he does use the third person when he says so). That season-long focus on victory has often cost him some form late in the season, and is the most often-cited reason for his relative lack of success at the World Championships, where he’s netted only one elite title, in 2005. While it may have cost some rainbow bands, Nys’ hunger for wins has led to plenty of wins in the sport’s other two showcase series, the GvA Trofee and the SuperPrestige, which he’s won on seven occasions. This year, he’s already won the SuperPrestige opener at Ruddervoorde and the GvA Trofee opener on the Koppenberg. Those wins and his win at the WC kickoff in Kalmthout have kept Nys well in the hunt in all three major series. That means that, while he’s facing new challengers and enduring a few recent injuries over the last several weeks, there’s still plenty of racing left for Nys to regain some traction and extend his dominance. And nobody rides a full season like Nys. Or maybe he’s finally keeping a bit in reserve in hopes of netting that elusive second World Championship.

Only time will tell, of course, and that’s what keeps things interesting. But whichever way things go, it’s clear that the generations are starting to turn in cyclocross. The old guard (which along with Nys still counts standouts Vervecken, Wellens, and Groenendaal among its active numbers) is starting to give way, and with both Albert and Boom having only 22 years on the clock, either may be on the way to launching a dominant streak of their own. But let’s hope not – this year’s three-way competition in the major series so far is far more compelling than another year of the Sven Nys show.