Cyclocross star Thibau Nys hit the dirt running as he opened his first full season at elite level with back-to-back victories at Exact Cross Beringen and the UCI World Cup in Waterloo this September. The latter also made him the third youngest winner of an elite-level World Cup and the third to achieve the feat before turning 21.
But there are no prizes for guessing the two who did it younger – Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. The comparisons are there to be made, but they’re not something Nys himself buys into, rightly wanting to avoid the pressure of matching the achievements of the pair both off the road and on it.
‘It’s easy to make the comparison because we are kind of walking the same path,” said Nys to Cyclingnews last month at the Lidl-Trek training camp in Calpe.
“On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to compare because both are so exceptionally good, not only in cyclocross but also on the road. What they’re doing is out of this world, so it’s really dangerous to compare with those guys.”
This was exactly the sentiment Nys’ father Sven had after his son took the historic win in Waterloo to take away that external pressure, but living up to the status of his father’s achievements could be all the more overwhelming.
Sven Nys is a bona fide legend of the cyclocross world, with two World Championship titles to his name and hundreds of elite victories at all of the top races. It’s a lot to live up to for young Thibau, but Nys junior is relishing every moment of it – delighted to have his uber-experienced and successful father there to mentor him during the pair’s time with Baloise Trek Lions.
“I have the feeling I don’t cope with it as I don’t see it as a struggle or a thing [the pressure of his father’s success]. The only struggle I have, or I feel the last couple of weeks, months, and years is just trying to get the best of myself and this is already challenging enough for me,” Nys said.
“I’m just doing my own thing and I never compare myself to him or anything like that. I learned a lot from him and he’s always there to help. I expected these years to learn less and less but actually, it’s the opposite. He is the best person to have close to me walking this path.”
Even in terms of racing the big guns in Van Aert and Van der Poel, Nys Senior is one of the few to beat the pair in cyclocross since they have come to dominate and win eight world titles between them.
Van Aert’s aforementioned World Cup win as a 20-year-old came in Koksijde in 2014. A year later the same iconic venue saw Sven Nys’ final elite victory and 50th World Cup triumph after a three-year drought.
Second on that day was Van Aert after an epic battle with Nys all the way until the final corner, third was the youngest-ever elite cyclocross world champion, Van der Poel. No mean feat for a 39-year-old at the back end of his career.
On Thursday, Thibau Nys will head to Koksijde as the 21-year-old facing up to two icons of the discipline in Van Aert and Van der Poel, but he had already adjusted his expectations before the pair even started their off-road seasons. Nys is confident, certainly, but realistic in the challenge they present.
“It will be way more difficult to win or to be on the podium, but you just change your goals from winning or a podium to maybe a top five for or to follow them for six out of eight laps or five out of eight laps,” said Nys.
“They are so much bigger than the sport. It’s an honour to ride against them and I don’t feel sad or shit because they start riding which drops me back in the group a little bit more.”
At the time of speaking, Nys was coming off the back of a well-deserved break ‘to balance the mind and the body out after some mentally and physically busy weeks’ before making his return at the Antwerp and Gavere World Cups.
There he was ninth and 13th respectively, but his last result at the GP Sven Nys was a sign of his form building again with sixth and some time on the front before Van der Poel came storming through for his eighth win from eight starts.
“I think I made a big step up compared to last year, especially in the first five weeks,” said Nys. “I was where I wanted to be – even maybe a bit better than I would have thought, but of course, then I dropped down a little bit.
“When you start the season so high and you win three races, become the World Cup leader, try to dominate every race, then on a certain moment you start to you feel like you lose the grip of the situation, it’s a bit hard. But that’s also why we are here [training camp] to try to pick up the same rhythm again.”
The highlight for the 21-year-old of his early season was one interlinked with his family history at the legendary Koppenbergcross. His father Sven was triumphant nine times in the mudfest up to the iconic berg and Thibau picked up a tenth win for the family with his emphatic victory there in November.
He even held up the 10 digits for 10 Nys family wins as he crossed the line, pointing to his dad past the finish on what was an emotional day all around.
“When you would have asked me like five, 10 years ago what was the one race you want to win – It was Koppenberg and I’ve already won it,” said Nys. “To finish it off was the best ever. I still think about it every day.”
Ambitions on the road
Nys’ success on the cross bike is expected given his obvious pedigree and the fact he’s already been world champion at junior and U23 level, but in today’s more multi-discipline cycling landscape, he’s riding road for Lidl-Trek and also looking promising.
He took wins at the Tour of Norway and Grosser Preis des Kantons Aargau and narrowly missed out at the Tour de Romandie, Tour of Hungary and Tour de Wallonie.
Nys’ confidence is evident. He betrays a little annoyance that he perhaps missed out on some wins despite having a very successful first elite road season by most rider’s standards. But then Nys, of course, isn’t any other rider.
“Before the season, those wins would have been a surprise but then when I came back from altitude camp and I started at Romandie, I was already second in the first stage. Then in Hungary, I was second on the Queen stage where I had the feeling I could win but there was some guy who got away in the last kilometre which was out of my control – but I had the legs to win,” he said.
“I already felt like I had two or three chances where I had the legs to win and was able to win but it just slipped out of my hands. So then of course in Norway, it was not a surprise anymore but the relief was really big.”
It’s not clear how Nys will develop, as riders making the jump from cyclocross to the road have taken different paths in recent years. Van Aert, Van der Poel and Zdeněk Štybar became cobbled Classics headliners, but Julian Alaphilippe, for example, made his name in the Ardennes, going on to net punchy stages of the Tour de France and hilly World Championship courses. Nys can go in any direction.
Asked if the Tour of Flanders was the type of race he believed was suited to him, Nys said: “It’s 100% the type of rider I would want to become, but the question is – is it the right type of rider I will be?
“Maybe I need to go for stages in Grand Tours at the Tour de France or the Giro, I don’t know. With a more hilly parcours than, for example, Flanders or Roubaix with 10-minute climbs because I don’t know if I’m really the type of rider for the Classics season. Maybe the Ardennes, that’s also possible.”
His programme will be largely similar to 2023, with a start in April’s Tour de Romandie expected after recovering from the cyclocross World Championships in Tabor. So it won’t be 2024 when he starts attacking the cobbled Classics, but Nys sees a possibility to grow into those races in future.
“It will only help me if I ride another really good road season with some nice stage races, then maybe the year after come into the Spring Classics,” Nys said.
“We’ll maybe do like one or two and take it step by step which will help me a lot. It’s way better than just throwing me in now and seeing what happens.”
There is a possibility he could be on Grand Tour debut in 2024, but only a slim one depending on performance, with stage racing again in Norway and Hungary expected if he doesn’t reach the level required for three brutal weeks around Italy.
“We’ll also see in the preparation towards Romandie. I will do the same full preparation of the guys to do the Giro, so we’ll see how that develops,” he said. “Maybe I’m ahead of my programme and maybe it’s even possible to start.”
Lidl-Trek are currently meant to be led at the Giro by a strong Italian trio of Giulio Ciccone for the GC, Andrea Bagioli for support and stage hunting and Jonathan Milan to chase sprints and defend his maglia ciclamino. Nys is signed on with the American squad until 2027 after extending recently, so if 2024 isn’t his year to make his Grand Tour debut, he’ll have plenty of time to do so.