Merckx, Nys, Zabel, Backstedt, Van Poppel, Knetemann, Roche, Dekker – all big names in the history of cycling. Their sons or daughters follow in their footsteps, often under immense scrutiny. It’s hard not to compare the son or daughter to the father or the mother. “It has many advantages for Thibau,” explains former cyclocross world champion Sven Nys of his son, “but also disadvantages that people often do not see.”
In Belgium there is a new Nys, Thibau Nys. In his first races he immediately made an impact. He became world champion as a junior and won almost every race he started last season. This year he made his debut in the elite ranks, in a season with many ups and downs.
I caught up with father Sven and son Thibau to chat about their love of cyclocross, the media pressure on Thibau, and Sven’s role as both father and team manager.
“It was not a must that I should do cyclocross,” Thibau Nys says in answer to his most-asked question ever. “I played tennis at quite an advanced level but cyclocross has always been my first love. It’s what I’ve known since I was a kid. I never intended to make a career in tennis anyways but in cyclocross, or cycling, yes.”
The Nys family, and therefore Thibau’s life, has always been a focus for the Belgian media. The divorce of Thibau’s parents, his first years on the bike, all of his races, his girlfriend. Everything he does is under a magnifying glass in the cyclocross-mad country. The DNA Nys documentary series is now in its fourth season.
“I get asked this a lot,” Thibau says about the media scrutiny he had to deal with since he was a kid. “But I always answer that I never knew anything else. This has always been how my life was and I don’t have anything else to compare it with 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 double role in the life of his only son. He is not only the father of the young and talented Thibau, who turned 18 only last November, but also his team manager at the Baloise Trek Lions. Due to the absence of an U23 competition in cyclocross this year, the 2020 junior world champion was thrown in the deep end and forced to ride with the elite men straight away. It has created extra hurdles which resulted in the young Nys not being selected for the Belgian team at the cyclocross world championships this coming weekend.
“That was a hard pill to swallow,” says Sven. “We also didn’t expect it but we have to respect the decision of the national coach. I feel Thibau was on his way back after some injuries over the Christmas period and was becoming stable in his results again but there are more races to come. These are important lessons for him too.”
For Thibau, his non-selection was naturally a disappointment but he shows remarkable resilience and maturity for an 18 year old.
“I think I should have gotten a place in that team and I would have loved to show what I can do but it hasn’t kept me awake at night to be honest,” he says. “It also feels more like [any other race] because there is no public allowed this year. The extra bonus a world championship in Flanders would have had, is now gone.”
Sven looks at his son and admires the way Thibau copes with setbacks. “Now he is an adult I need to learn to let go,” he says. “I admire how fast he can let go of the negative things. As a rider I really learned that much later than he does right now. Coping with or letting go of the negativity in your life is really a talent Thibau has and at a really young age too.”
Comparisons between the two cyclocross riders is natural. Thibau has the big shoes of his father to fill: two elite world titles, nine Belgian championships, and no less than 50 World Cup wins. And that’s only a part of the long list of his father’s successes in cyclocross, MTB, and on the road.
“There is a lot of pressure on him but results are not the most important thing to get out of his career,” Sven says of his son. “I hope he has a nice career but it’s not the most important thing for me. I hope he takes away some very important life values from this sport. Learning about setbacks and losing, about jealousy, learning new languages, or learning about teamwork, are so much more important for the rest of his life than titles. Those are things no school can ever teach him.”
Thibau has watched his father race for his entire life but is a different rider than his dad was. Sven wasn’t the best sprinter and usually tried to ride clear of his rivals to avoid that sprint.
“Thibau is so much more explosive than I was but we are also similar in some ways,” Nys senior explains. “We both are always looking for new things. The sport evolves too. In my time you didn’t have the equipment they have now. Having disc brakes for example enables you to take corners sharper and descents faster. We have different tire profiles. In my time we didn’t have click pedals. It’s great to witness the evolution as a team coach and as a father too.”
The young Nys smiles when his father explains his lack of explosiveness and remembers the best race he ever saw his old man do: the Koppenbergcross in 2012. In the last lap Sven, then 36 years old, accelerated spectacularly and rode clear of then-world champion and his biggest rival Niels Albert. Nys won the Koppenbergcross for the ninth time.
“I think that is his best race ever and I watched a lot of his old races back,” Thibau explains. “Koppenbergcross is my favorite race too and this edition is the best because I would have made the exact same race decisions as he did that day.”
Nys and Nys are the past and the future of cyclocross. It’s a sport with a strong foundation in Belgium. In the men’s peloton there is usually only three nationalities on the podium: Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, represented by Tom Pidcock. The women’s side of the sport is much more international.
“When I was a junior there were many nationalities at my races,” Thibau Nys says. “But most of these guys will soon choose a different focus like road racing or mountain biking. Hardly any of these guys choose cyclocross as their primary focus unfortunately.”
“In women’s racing it’s a bit different,” Sven says. Baloise Trek Lions is a team with both men and women 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. The pro female riders in cyclocross earn more than most riders on the road. This enables them to focus completely on cyclocross and [is] attracting different riders. Look at the prize money for winning the Giro Rosa (€1,330) versus a victory in a single cyclocross World Cup (€5,000). That’s 10 days of racing versus one hour.
“In men’s cycling there is much more money to be made on the road but with the female riders it’s exactly the other way around. But the image of cyclocross changes. We now see how guys like Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and also Julian Alaphilippe show what a solid foundation in cyclocross can bring you. You get better bike skills and move through the peloton better. This will draw more male riders to the sport, I am sure.”
Thibau Nys sees what Van Aert and Van der Poel do on the road too.
“This summer I will ride more races on the road with the team,” Thibau says. “That will give me a good idea of my qualities, what kind of rider I am, and how far I could get. But first I want to finish this cyclocross season with hopefully another top 10 place.”
While Thibau is at the start of his career, Sven is at a time of his life where he can reflect upon his spectacular career. He has one wish for his son.
“If I look back at what I have done I don’t regret one day,” he says. “If I had to do everything all over again I would do exactly the same. I have no regrets. He is not a copy of me. I can advise him about things and tell him what I would decide but, in the end, he is an adult now and makes his own decisions.
“He is a sensible young man with a good life philosophy. He has the talent to grow as a rider but he must go his own way and decide his own path.”