There are few riders who, at the age of twenty, find themselves in the spotlight quite like Thibau Nys. The son of cyclocross legend Sven, who once lived in his father's shadow during his youth, is now becoming a star in his own right. IDLProCycling.com seized the European Championship weekend in Pontchâteau as an opportunity to document the story behind this new cyclocross gem. A tale about being the child of a cycling star, living on cloud nine, a good upbringing, and more...
It's Saturday afternoon, and normally, we would now be at the cyclocross in Pontchâteau, but the weather had other plans. A storm is passing over the hotel where the riders from the Belgian camp are playing games or catching up with their families. Sven Nys is there too, having agreed to an interview for this website. He spends considerable time discussing Thibau, who, just days before, triumphed at the Koppenbergcross, marking his third win of the season. This is a significant feat for someone who modestly hoped for a few podium finishes in his debut season in the elite category.
"I'm especially surprised by the way he wins nowadays. Dominating a race like on the Koppenberg, he almost never did that in the youth categories," says Nys senior about his still very young son's breakthrough winter. "In the past, he often won in a finale, in a last round with a sprint or by executing some unique technical maneuver. Now it turns out that he has the physical and mental capacity to claim races under pressure, and I hadn't expected that so soon. It requires maturity and confidence. You have to be able to handle it."
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Thibau Nys on cloud nine heading into the European Championships
Surprise is a recurring theme in the interview because, as accomplished a cyclist as Sven was, Thibau is doing extraordinary things at such a young age. "Of course, I see that he had a great summer and gained a lot of confidence from that. Even then, he managed to take the lead under pressure, with the whole team riding for him," says father Nys, referring to Thibau's impressive win at the Grosser Preis des Kantons Aargau in June this year. Representing Lidl-Trek, he outpaced notable cyclists like Marc Hirschi and Pello Bilbao. "The fact that he has already won on the road against very prominent riders, that's all part of the story that you're crafting now. But cyclocross is something very special; it's a different discipline altogether. The fact that he succeeded right away means he's living on cloud nine. That feeling carries over into the next races."
Whether Thibau Nys is still riding that high after the European Championships, where he did not finish due to a "total off day", remains to be seen. On that Saturday, however, there was still a sense of jubilation in the Nys family. "I don't know if being on cloud nine lets you cycle faster, but I do know it means you're doing the right things at the right time. When you're not in that flow, you exert effort at moments when you don't need to, you might unclip from your pedal, you're poorly positioned... On cloud nine, everything goes a bit smoother. You can call that top form or confidence, I think it's a combination of both. It's hard to describe to people who've never experienced it, but it's nice to see my own son riding that wave."
Still, in the Nys household there is no question of a party atmosphere, not even after recent victories in Beringen, Waterloo, and of course, the Koppenberg. "Actually, we quickly move on to business as usual after a win, and that's something I recognize in myself. As a racer, I also didn't celebrate for long. It was fun for a moment in the camper, you had a good time, but in the evening, it was dinner, massage, and then bed. That's also necessary because in cyclocross, you start from scratch all over again five or six days after a victory. You're only as good as your worst performance, and for Thibau, that was in Maasmechelen. He was nearly third but fell in the last round. Then it was like: see, he can have an off day too. That's something you always have to be aware of. Thibau is very ambitious and doesn't want to dwell on a victory for too long," concludes Sven.
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The Nys family doesn't want to change Thibau
"Get used to it, I'll be around for a while," Thibau Nys wrote after his victory over Hirschi and Bilbao. A hefty dose of self-confidence, something that characterizes him. And something his father didn't have at all. Arrogant? National coach Sven Vanthourenhout shakes his head when asked. "Thibau is very popular in the group. I knew Sven at that age and seeing Thibau now, it's totally different. They are two extremes: Thibau will sit at the table in the hotel with Iserbyt, but also with his U23 peers. He has a kind of leadership quality in him and is very grateful and friendly towards the staff. Always in a proper manner, so for us as a federation, it's very nice to have him. There's really nothing bad you can say. It’s 'please,' 'thank you,' he comes to ask questions and it's always been that way. He's well-mannered and knows how it works, although he does have his own vision and customs. In that, he is very different from his dad. But you can see he doesn't forget his upbringing."
Senior Nys will listen with pleasure, for he also acknowledges that Thibau has always kept his feet firmly on the ground, despite being very extroverted as a person. "Thibau lives his own life and will never copy what others do. He follows his own interests and doesn't care if it goes against the general way of thinking. I often laughed about it during his youth. He would come home with shoes that I'd say were for Carnival in April. Somehow, he gets away with it and thinks it's cool. We try not to talk him out of anything, because as parents, we don't have all the wisdom either. Sometimes it's good to be a bit more flexible and learn from our children. This generation communicates better and works much more easily and efficiently with social media. We had to learn that; they were brought up with it."
Sven Nys talks about 'a good cocktail', where sometimes he has to be the father, but also often speaks on an equal level with his son. "I try not to always be above him but to listen to him as well. That's important, that we as adults want to learn something from the youth. That in turn commands respect from them towards us. I sometimes go with him to a shoe store, sure. I won't say I'll wear them myself, and I'll never get a tattoo. But that's also the humor in it, the pushback from us when he does something new. We are fine with it though, because it's his life and I have absolutely no problem with it. The game behind it is quite nice. He'll do it exactly because we say no, which is only part of the fun."
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"Embracing defeat" as a driving force in Thibau Nys's career
Another highlight from the timeline of Nys: "I embrace defeat, I love it," said Thibau after his bold move in Overijse, where he took a shortcut downhill past Eli Iserbyt in the final round. It was too rash, and he fell. "I find him an asset to cyclocross," says Gerben de Knegt, coach of the Dutch cyclocross team. The overtaking action in Overijse was amazing, that's what people say. "He reminds me a lot of his father, whom I of course also know well. Thibau seems to be the improved version in every aspect. He's technically superb, physically very advanced, and he has a superior sprint. A very complete cyclocross rider, with weapons he can use at any given time. In some races, with his current form, he will be almost unbeatable. I love to see him ride, even with such a move he recently made in Overijse, where he fell. I really appreciate that he tries that."
However, father Sven emphasizes that embracing defeat is something that has come over the years. "He really hates losing at board games, but I do notice that he's a totally different type of rider when it comes to performing under pressure at a young age. I had that when I was older, but I think Thibau has learned lessons from what he has seen of me. He takes that with him, and he is used to doing his thing surrounded by people," he refers to his own career as a cyclocross rider, where Thibau often accompanied him as a youngster. "In the past, he would come out of the camper playfully on his little bike, clipping into the pedals with shoes that were too big, and would ride up and down a hill. Back then, there were already people watching, and sometimes he'd even get a question in an interview. I think that has less impact on him than it did on me. For me, it was new. Through what we have experienced together, that has become a life lesson, I think."
Thibau Nys, looking up to his great example, will also have seen that nothing comes easy. He may love shoes and beautiful cars... but he also loves training hard. "I never have to push him to train, but I actually have to temper him. We often have to say that it's better for him to do an hour less rather than an hour more. He has already made mistakes in that regard, which sometimes meant he wasn't fresh enough at the start of a race. It's good that he makes these mistakes, to discover how much he needs to do. He wants to train a lot and hard because he also sees others doing it. But sometimes he forgets the reality that he is only twenty years old and that his body might not be ready for it yet. That's why I'm also curious to see his reaction at the European Championships. It might very well not be top-notch."
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The Nys team will make mistakes in 'learning process'
That much was evident. Nys had a very bad day in Pontchâteau and for the first time this year did not finish the cyclocross race. Sven had already somewhat anticipated this the day before. "There's going to be a period where it will be a bit less, although we have planned for that. We're having him do a smaller program than the competition. He's doing about 21 to 22 races, while a full-time cyclocrosser normally does over thirty. That way, you can have a few moments here and there, where you can train or just build in rest. He will join the Lidl-Trek training camp in December, which could be good leading up to the Christmas period. And he stops right after the World Championships; the next day is vacation. We have to look ahead, because there's also a road program coming up. We must not underestimate that Thibau likes to put himself under pressure all year round, so we sometimes have to pull the handbrake."
The 20-year-old legs of Nys will often dazzle, but sometimes they will also cave. For now, he impresses with the enormous progress he has made over the past few years. "It all goes very fast. I see him making progress every year, but the steps remain big. At some point, the steps will get smaller and it will be more about the details, but at this moment Thibau is really making big leaps. This is a learning process for everyone around him and we will undoubtedly make mistakes. And there's nothing wrong with that. We're going on a journey of discovery together and then we'll find out where we end up. We try to keep as many doors open as possible."
Count on big ambitions on the road as well. Because his first real year with the pros was just the beginning. His team Lidl-Trek (of which Baloise Trek Lions is the cyclocross branch) has even reserved a spot for him for a grand tour in 2024. "There is definitely the possibility to ride a grand tour in 2024 and he is also interested in that. We will make that decision in December when his coach and I will go to the training camp as well. The most logical would then be the Giro or the Vuelta and then we will see. What's most suitable? If you do the Giro, you have limited time after the previous cyclocross season. But if you ride the Vuelta, you have limited time towards the next cyclocross season. We have to consider what is best. It's also a question of whether that's going to be for the full three weeks. Given what he showed in 2023, the odds of him riding a grand tour is quite large."