The first time I saw Sven Nys ride a bike in person was at the 2013 CX Worlds in Louisville. It was the Friday before the race weekend and Nys was pre-riding the course. The only way I can describe how he navigated the course is to say that he looked like he was locked onto a rail and being pulled along by an invisible rope. The relaxed confidence, the economy of effort, the souplesse were mesmerizing. And of course 24 hours later he would win his second world title.
This September I again had the chance to photograph Nys and along with Sven Vanthourenhout. The two Svens taught a cyclocross clinic near where I live in Chicago. This clinic was organized by XXX Racing-Athletico and was a fundraiser for the Pieter Ombregt fund.
Ombregt was a Belgian cyclist and photographer who lived in Chicago and raced with the XXX Racing-Athletico club and who tragically died after a crash in a local criterium. A scholarship fund was subsequently established in the photography department at Columbia College in Chicago to honor his legacy and support talented photography students.
To warm up, the group rode several laps of a course around the park. The course included barriers, stairs, a frenzied swarm of bees, a short run-up and a few short but tricky descents. There was also a group of day-drinking hecklers lending authenticity.
After the warm-up Nys led the group through a routine of stretching and core work. He also said that he works on flexibility by repeating the motions of things like remounting the bike, without the bike. When asked how often he did these types of exercises his reply was “every day.”
“How about in the off-season.”
About fifty riders participated in the clinic and the Svens were the only two instructors. For much of the day they split the group in two but for some demonstrations they combined everyone and jointly taught the entire group. Lots of riders had specific questions and the most popular seemed to be about tire pressure. As far as I could tell, Nys and Vanthourenhout took the time to answer every individual question. He said he runs 1 – 1.5 bar. (15-22 PSI)
Just before this demonstration Nys was asked how he knew where his pedals were when he re-mounted his bike. His first reaction was “I’ve never thought of that before.” He then rode back and forth dismounting and remounting his bike while paying close attention to the angle of his crankarms. He learned, and demonstrated, that when he dismounts his crankarms are vertical so that when he remounts his drive-side pedal will always be in the highest position possible.
Barrier hopping was a bit advanced for this clinic but with a little encouragement Nys was persuaded to demonstrate his technique for the group anyway.
One of the things that really jumps out while watching Nys in person is how effortlessly he handles a bike, including when carrying it. He goes from riding to shouldering in one very fluid motion. And when the bike is on his shoulder it appears weightless not restricting his movement at all. For the group he broke this down into its component parts and explained that if your technique is good it can save a lot of energy to run rather that try to ride certain course features.
When the group took a break for lunch Nys answered questions about his career. He was asked which racer he least liked to race against. He answered in terms of which rider was his toughest competitor: Stybar. He said that at the 2014 Worlds he had the greatest form of his career. But no matter what he did he could not shake Stybar who was able to match every move and acceleration. He said that Stybar had the best combination of technical skill and physical talent he ever raced against.
I’m not certain what Nys and Vanthourenhout were demonstrating in the above photo but it was amazing to watch. With the students in the middle of the course they rode several hot laps together. And when I say together I mean about as close together as two roadies would be in a criterium. It was amazing to watch and certainly eye-opening to see how fast and close together highly skilled cross racers can rip around a course.
Both Nys and Vanthourenhout participated in the drills and demonstrated technique throughout the day. And they both looked like they could hop back in and race at the highest level.
The last exercise of the day was a steep off camber descent with two tight turns. Nys and Vanthourenhout demonstrated the technique and then coached all of the riders through the descent. This was probably the most challenging aspect of the clinic and the sort of thing that many in the group had probably not had to tackle on local courses before. By the end though nearly all of them completed it successfully with lots of help and encouragement from the Svens.