Sven Nys and the Changing of the Guard

Photo by Luc Claessen/ISPA

We keep coming back to Adam Myerson’s comment that Sven Nys’s controversial sprint against Kevin Pauwels at Saturday’s World Cup race in Koksijde was “the desperate maneuver of a dying king faced with the reality of his successor.” It seems that every year, there will be a flurry of commentary suggesting that the end of Sven Nys’s reign is imminent.

At 35 years old, Nys probably is looking at his last handful of years of what is already considered to be a legendary career. His nickname, the Cannibal of Baal, makes it difficult to avoid comparisons to the Cannibal of road cycling, Eddy Merckx, and a glance at the span and depth of Nys’s palmares suggests that that comparison isn’t unwarranted. This is Nys’s fourteenth season. Since his first major series victory in 1998-1999 season (the Superprestige, in which he won five of the series’ eight races), he has achieved the following: eleven overall Superprestige series victories; eight overall GVA Trophy series victories; six overall World Cup series victories; seven Belgian National Championships; a World Championship. Note that these “series victories” are not wins of races within these series, victories in the season-long competitions. And, in fact, in 2006-2007, Nys won each of the eight races in the Superprestige series.

Only once since 1998 has he failed to win at least 10 races in a season (in 2000-2001). He averages 17 wins per season, maxing out at a mindblowing 28 in 2006-2007.

But cycling loves its underdogs more than its heroes, and the cycling media regularly wonder if Nys is relinquishing the crown of cyclocross kingdom. First, to Lars Boom, then to Niels Albert upon his World Championship victory in his first year out of the Under-23 ranks; then to Zdenek Stybar following his ascent to the top level of the sport; and now, to Kevin Pauwels, who’s been winning races at a top level since 2009 and has exhibited outright dominance over the last few months. Adding to this has been the fact that Nys’s seasons are not without hiccups – periodic lulls, mechanical issues (or mechanic issues?), and other mishaps are enough to make even staunch fans wonder if the end is in sight.

But Nys is no ordinary champion. The man simply isn’t fading away – unlike, say, Bart Wellens. Wellens – affectionately called “Bartje” – has been a major player since his first Belgian National Championship, in 2000. His career reached a peak between 2003 and 2007, which saw two World Championships, two more National Championships, and series victories in the World Cup, Superprestige, and GVA Trophy. But in the years since, Wellens has struggled to win major races. At only 33 years old, he’s got time left, but the story of his career seems to be that he peaked in his late 20s and began a process of declining performance.

For all of Nys’s hiccups and competitors, he’s still winning and winning. Nys has experienced no comparable decline in performance. He’s never vacated the pinnacle of the sport – he’s just been forced to occasionally make room for another rider or two at the top.

If he were handing the reigns over, they’d be gone by now.

Perhaps the best course of action would be for people to stop wondering if any mishap is a sign of a changing of the guard and only to analyze things in this regard in hindsight. A dirty move is just a dirty move; commentators may be tempted make a bigger story out of it, but hold your tongues, folks. Nys isn’t done. After all these years, the man remains one of the top riders in the world, and the proof in the pudding is Nys’s victory over Pauwels in a clean sprint on Sunday in Gieten.

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One Response to Sven Nys and the Changing of the Guard

  1. Steven Drew says:

    I'm not usually one for web posting but Adam Myerson's comment is daft. Without wishing to appear a Nys fanboy (I'm not, I promise!), I still think his tactics on Saturday were those of a supreme winner rather than a king whose crown has slipped.

    As you imply, rather than dwell on whether he's past it (how bored would we be if it was 2006/07 over again?), let's cheer that there are a growing number of riders capable of challenging for the win, or at least podium. Pauwels has clearly been very impressive, his gran is funny, Meeusen is getting stronger, Aernouts was great on Saturday and even Peeters is getting closer. Hell, Albert will be back soon and it's raining in Europe so it can only get better! There's lots to like.

    This week, I'd be more worried about Stybar and whether his road season has blunted his 'cross effort.

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