Fons Wouters: Sven Nys’s Greatest Opponent?

PHOTO BY BALINT HAMVAS | CYCLEPHOTOS.CO.UK

Sven Nys’s second place at Koppenbergcross on Tuesday marks only the third time since 2001 that he’s failed to win the race. In 2002 and 2003, Richard Groenendaal and Bart Wellens won the race, but until Tuesday, Sven Nys was the master of the Koppenberg. He won the race seven consecutive times from 2004 to 2010. On Tuesday, he looked poised to win it for the 9th time, well off the front with Kevin Pauwels and Zdenek Stybar, when a light rain started to fall.

The rain made slippery an already difficult, switchbacking off-camber descent from the top of the Koppenberg – likely a bit too much for the Dugast Typhoons that Nys started the race with. So Nys pitted to pick up a bike that was equipped with Dugast’s grippier mud tire, the Rhino. But his rear wheel immediately went flat. 

A flat tire can be caused by many things  out of a rider or mechanic’s control, but we couldn’t watch this without immediately thinking of a host of problems in recent years that have been connected to Sven Nys’s mechanic, Fons Wouters. A VeloNation piece provides some background, but let’s review a handful of incidents in the past year:

  • Jaarmaarktcross, 11/10/2010 – Nys comes to the pit to take a clean bike in atrocious conditions, and finds nobody there from his staff to offer him a bike. A mechanic from another team notices, grabs one of Nys’s spare bikes, and hands it to him. Nys goes on to win the race.
  • Gieten Superprestige, 11/28/2010 – as Nys wound up a final sprint against young Telenet-Fidea rider Tom Meeusen, his pedal dramatically detached from his crank. A subsequent “investigation” by Shimano indicated that the pedal didn’t break nor were the crank’s threads stripped, indicating that it loosened. Shimano concluded that it was the mechanic’s fault – a pedal will work itself loose if it isn’t tightened sufficiently. Wouter felt wrongly blamed: “The misery is always from the top to the bottom,” he said. 
  • Diegem Superprestige, 12/27/2010 – Nys entered the final lap with Niels Albert, but on the tricky, snow-covered course, his Shimano Di2 drivetrain failed, dropping his chain, forcing Nys to stop and re-set the chain  before he could get back under way, ultimately to cede the victory to Albert. This wasn’t the first chaindrop associated with Di2 in the cyclocross season – Lars Boom and Bart Aernouts also experienced Di2 chaindrop, leading to some speculation about Di2′s ability to shift reliably under cyclocross conditions, despite a reputation for reliability under power.
  • Azencross GVA at Loenhout, 12/29/2010 – Again, Nys encountered problems setting up for a sprint against a younger rival, this time in thoroughly awful mud conditions. On the final lap, Nys planned to pit to take a clean bike with higher pressure in his tires – the better to sprint against Albert. However, coasting in to the pit for the bike swap, Wouters grabbed Nys’s handlebars before Nys had unclipped, sending Nys to the ground and putting him behind Albert, who would win the race.
  • Koppenbergcross GVA, 11/1/2011 – As rain began to fall on the Koppenberg, Nys pitted to take a bike with mud tires, only to find the rear wheel immediately gone flat. Nys told Het Laatste Nieuws that as he rode out of the pit, his rear tire was already flat, suggesting that it wasn’t flatted by something on-course, but rather was flat or uninflated when he took the bike.

Obviously it’s a bit much to suggest that Wouters is a sabateur, or in the employ of Niels Albert, or even  more realistically, out-and-out careless or incompetant. Indeed, few of these incidents can be definitively linked to culpability on Wouters’ part – we don’t know what happened to the pedal except that Shimano insisted it wasn’t a failure of their products; Di2 has shown to drop chains on more than one cyclocrosser’s bike; Nys perhaps should have gotten off his bike before he reached Wouters; and a number of things can cause a tire to go flat. 

But the case remains: there are a number of incidents associated with Wouters, the mechanic – four in the past year that have removed reasonable chances of victory from Nys. Nys, widely considered to be good-natured and loyal, is unlikely to fire the mechanic who’s worked for him for 15 years. But Nys, who has a reputation for experiencing more bad luck than most, might not be able to deal with another season full of mishaps.

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