Inside Shirin van Anrooij, Thibau Nys and Lars van der Haar's successful seasons
Sven Nys’ vision came to full fruition in 2022-23. He oversees an entire cyclocross ecosystem that encapsulates young children taking their first pedal strokes to World Championship-caliber pros. And at every level — from the skills camps led by the Sven Nys Academy, to the burgeoning junior racers of the AA Drink Young Lions, to the big name stars of Baloise Trek — his programs flourished.
Thirty-one-year-old Lars van der Haar had perhaps the best season of his career, winning four races and the Superprestige overall while finishing No. 2 in the UCI rankings. Thibau Nys and Shirin van Anrooij were two of the best U23 riders in the men’s and women’s fields, respectively, both winning U23 World Championships, and in Shirin’s case adding three elite World Cup wins. Meanwhile, the AA Drink squad racked up a mind-boggling 92 wins and 212 total podiums among its 80 young riders.
Van Anrooij and Thibau Nys, Sven’s son, were perhaps the best examples of what Nys wants to accomplish. They’ve been within his system for several years. Thibau is a former AA Drink rider, in fact. And gradually, they’ve revealed the potential to become two of the very best riders in the world.
“What we saw in the past, two seasons ago, is that they would have some special days,” Nys says. “But what you see right now is that they are, every weekend, on a high level.”
Both riders matured tremendously over the course of the season, growing more confident with every race. They’re absorbing a firehose of new experiences, and growing with every up and down. Both Thibau and Van Anrooij are riding on the road for Trek-Segafredo this season as well, giving them even more race days and opportunities to learn the ins and outs of high level racing.
By contrast, veteran riders like Van der Haar are finding ways to fine tune their skills and their schedules, eking out every bit of race efficiency now that they’ve mastered the daily rigors of the sport.
“With Lars it’s all about details now, like trying to find a little bit more time during the summer season to jump barriers because he sometimes needs a few seconds to recover,” Nys says. “With Shirin and Thibau, it’s growing, it’s getting more power, it’s getting more confidence step by step. And all those races on the road are going to give them more volume, more strength, and that’s going to help them also develop in cyclocross.”
Lars’ accomplishments were perhaps underappreciated by the cyclocross world at large. Admittedly, the news cycle was dominated by the impressive accomplishments of riders like Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. But though those two riders scrapped over the lion’s share of midseason race wins, Van der Haar was often nearby in the standings, and few riders could match him in terms of front-to-back success. From September 25 to December 3, he missed the podium only once in 17 starts while winning three races, including the prestigious Koppenbergcross. He closed the season on a similar run, finding the podium in six of his last nine races and winning the Dutch national title.
“He’s not busy with thinking about what riders he needs to compete with. He’s only busy with working and developing himself,” Nys says. “And at World Championships in Hoogerheide, he was only 15 seconds behind the two big guys. So we know there is a gap, but we also know that he has won in the past on the Koppenberg competing against Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel.”
Nys credits the top-down leadership of veteran riders like Van der Haar and Lucinda Brand — the 2021 world champion, who bounced back from early season injury to take third at Worlds this year — for mentoring younger riders and taking pressure off them while leading the team’s podium ambitions.
The AA Drink program helps feed Baloise-Trek from the junior level. Thibau Nys, Ward Huybs and David Haverdings were all former Young Lions, and 17-year-old Seppe van den Boer will be called up to race for Baloise-Trek beginning with the 2023-24 season.
AA Drink isn’t designed to be a feeder system, however. Sven Nys has a long history of going fast, but he wants to spark joy for the sport of cyclocross, foremost, regardless of whether its riders go on to race professionally. And because the program is focused on the fun aspects of cyclocross, the junior riders that do emerge from AA Drink with pro potential often have an enthusiasm for racing that can sustain through long careers.
“It’s a team where we don’t put pressure on the riders,” Nys says. “We bring them into competition for the first time. We give them a little bit of knowledge. But it’s all about growing, it’s all about first time competition. And at a certain moment you see that there is talent.
“Even when riders develop with us and then go to another team, it’s good for us. … It’s not only about promoting the professional athletes, but promoting cyclocross in total.”
The sky’s the limit for Thibau and Van Anrooij, and Sven Nys and company are dedicated to making sure that the two young riders don’t burn themselves out before they reach their full potential. Baloise-Trek works with their road programs, not against, and manages their workloads so that they can be effective across the calendar.
“It’s really important that we let them recover,” Nys says. “Shirin’s calendar, for example, was 20-22 races. If you compare that with Lars van der Haar, who almost raced 40 races, that’s a huge difference. If you do 35 or 40 races and then need to go to the road, you’re physically and mentally finished. And that’s something we need to avoid.”
According to Nys, his two young stars are “smart enough to know that you can’t do everything.” Again, the institutional knowledge surrounding them is important. Thibau and Van Anrooij are 20 and 21 years old, respectively. There can be a strong urge among fast riders at that age to succeed as quickly as possible. Having wise and successful resources like Nys, Brand and Van der Haar nearby to preach patience helps them focus on steady progress.
“I think we are lucky that those two riders, Thibau and Shirin, also have the experience from people around them,” Nys says. “But they also know themselves that they need to stay calm, that they need to wait and focus on certain races, and also recover and train.”
Van Anrooij and Thibau made the most of their cyclocross opportunities. From Van Anrooij’s barnstorming holiday period to Nys’ elite bronze at Belgian National Championships, they consistently rode with the passion and joy that Sven Nys tries to instill at every level. Ditto Van der Haar, who, at 31, looks as spry as ever. Not only did they win, but they’re excited to keep pushing themselves as they head into bright futures. There may be no better sign of a successful season than that.