How Sven Nys created the cycling academy of his dreams

The Sven Nys Academy is inspiring the next generation of cyclocross stars, and so much more

Last November, early in Baloise Trek’s impressive cyclocross season, Sven Nys found himself worrying about technology. Registration has just opened for the Sven Nys Academy, which hosts a series of skills camps for kids ages 8-14, and he wasn’t sure how well servers would handle the sudden surge of internet traffic.

“It’s crazy how many people were sitting next to the computer,” Nys says. “I was watching and I thought, ‘Let’s hope the system is working.'”

The system held up under the deluge of sign-ups. Within 15 minutes, the 2021 calendar was sold out — roughly 800 kids, all wanting to learn how to ride their bike like the cyclocross legend.

In February, Baloise Trek finished one of its best seasons ever. Toon Aerts was UCI’s No. 1 men’s rider, Lucinda Brand won every major competition including a world championship, and the Lions were UCI’s No. 1 elite mixed team. The Sven Nys Academy is one way that the Lions hope to perpetuate their success, by inspiring a new generation to fall in love with cycling. The sign-ups were a testament to how well the program works. In the four years since its inception, the Sven Nys Academy has only grown.

A gaggle of excited campers.

For Nys, the enthusiasm is bittersweet. It means, sadly, that the academy doesn’t yet have the bandwidth to take in everyone who wants its help. 

“It makes me really happy, and a little bit disappointed, because we want to give all the kids chances to come to our academy,” Nys says. “It’s not easy. We spend a lot of time also with the Baloise Trek cyclocross team. We have so many obligations that time is, for the moment, our most difficult situation to create more volume and space for the kids.”

The popularity of the camps is due to the fact that they aren’t just for those hoping to compete in cyclocross. The five-day sessions, organized around the Belgian school holidays, take in kids of all skill levels and interest in cycling. The program is particularly well suited to the current period of time, when so many people have turned to their bikes as a way to escape their homes and get some fun, socially-distanced exercise in the midst of a pandemic. The academy groups riders by their abilities and goals, and emphasizes safety on roadways, where scores of riders are discovering that drivers don’t always have their best interests in mind.

You do more than help the sport; you're doing something for people all over the world.

Nys, above all, wants to inspire confidence. Bicycles may have special utility these days, but that doesn’t matter much if riders are too afraid or uncomfortable in the saddle to derive the benefits. 

“If through our program, kids have better skills on a bike, and they ride with their bike to school, it’s also much safer,” Nys says. “And then you do more than help the sport; you’re doing something for people all over the world.”

The idea for the Sven Nys Academy arrived, conveniently, at a time when Nys could have suffered his own crisis of confidence. Though he is one of the most decorated cyclists ever, winning major races late into his career, Nys realized that he wouldn’t be able to stay a professional athlete forever. He needed another outlet where he could pour his passion and energy for cyclocross.

Sven Nys leading some "hands-on" training.

“I thought, ‘OK, when I can’t win a race anymore, I need to win in a different way,’ Nys says. “I decided to give kids the chance to create passion for the sport. And the feeling I have now is that I can put my hands in the air again and say, ‘Hey, this is a victory. It’s not my own, but it’s a victory for the sport.'”

Given Nys pedigree, it’d be fair to assume that his academy is performance-minded. He won two world championships and six overall World Cup titles over the course of a nearly 20-year elite racing career.

Nys does see the academy as a way to identify elite potential in riders and encourage them to pursue racing through his development team. He doesn’t feel like he’s doing young talent a disservice by making his camps all inclusive, however. In fact, casting a wide net is his way of making sure no one falls through the cracks. Not only can the Sven Nys Academy create better everyday cyclists, but it can also help make sure the next generation of cyclocross stars is just as thrilling as the current one.

We saw directly that more girls were interested when they could train with only other girls ... we said, 'OK, next year, we're not just going to do one day, but we're going to organize a girls week.'

That includes finding ways to encourage young girls to participate. When the academy was started in 2017, Nys estimates that 90 percent of the kids were boys, even though the camps were open to all genders. On a hunch that many girls were apprehensive about training with boys, the academy offered a girls-only day, and spots sold out within two weeks. 

“We saw directly that more girls were interested when they could train with only other girls,” Nys says. “And we said, ‘OK, next year, we’re not just going to do one day, but we’re going to organize a girls week.’ And the rest is history.”

The academy is constantly tweaking its program to serve potential riders. There’s no better example than its response to the pandemic. When the first in-person camp of 2020 was canceled due to Covid-19, Nys began an online academy. He and his son, Thibau, took their bikes to the Sven Nys Cycling Center and began recording videos demonstrating bike skills and proposing challenges for riders who couldn’t receive their instruction directly.

The Sven Nys Academy is open to all genders, and has added a girls-only week to its calendar.

To get riders outside, Nys encouraged them to create their own skills courses in their backyards and make videos demonstrating what they learned. The academy held contests in which riders could win prizes like jerseys from Lions riders. The online academy was so successful that Nys plans to do it again even if all of the 2021 camps take place without a hitch.

“During the year we’ll give the kids movies and instructions, like how they need to test new things — going downhill, jumping on and off the bike, doing a wheelie — all those things,” Nys says. “So it’s not only six or seven weeks during the year, but 365 days that they can see us and they can learn from us.”

Though the academy has always focused on up-and-coming riders, the pandemic, once again, has created new challenges that Nys would like to address. There are more e-bikes than ever out on Belgian roads, and they are popular among riders who are new to cycling or riding again for the first time in years. E-bikes give people a new way to access the physical benefits and freedom of cycling, but they can handle a bit differently than the traditional bikes that many riders are used to.

They are motivated because at a certain moment they feel, 'Hey, wow. Yesterday I couldn't do that, today I can.'

Nys wants to create a series of electric bike days open to all ages, with the same goals as the cyclocross camps: Focus on the fundamentals and encourage progress every day, no matter what your skill level us relative to anyone else.

“We ride on the road and teach them what’s happening when a car comes from left or right, how they need to react, that they need to give information to the rider before or after them to create safety in a group,” Nys says. “And if they can do that a day later, they feel that they can do more on the bike. 

“They are motivated because at a certain moment they feel, ‘Hey, wow. Yesterday I couldn’t do that, today I can.'”

"During the year we'll give the kids movies and instructions, like how they need to test new things — going downhill, jumping on and off the bike, doing a wheelie — all those things." - Sven Nys

Current Baloise Trek riders show up at the camps to reinforce an atmosphere where, above all, self-confidence and self-sufficiency are the primary objectives. Any personal progress is worth celebrating, but it’s even easier when Aerts or Brand are nearby to pat you on the back. 

“I can tell you the smile is bigger than their faces when they see, for example, Ellen Van Loy at the girls week last year,” Nys says. “They want pictures with her, they want to ride with her and they want to show Ellen what they learned during the week. This is something that kids are never going to forget.”

The rider visits are an example of how Nys hopes the academy program becomes self-perpetuating. He wants the campers who one day become cyclocross stars to pay forward everything that they learned. If the model works as it should, then the Sven Nys Academy will only continue to grow as it has, exerting a positive influence on the world.

I can tell you the smile is bigger than their faces when they see, for example, Ellen Van Loy at the girls week last year.

The program’s ambitions sound lofty, but that’s a reflection of a man who has rarely fallen short while aiming high. And the number of people who want to participate in the Sven Nys Academy is proof of concept. Nys is creating a nexus of passion, education and talent that is so unlike anything in the cycling world that it could only have come from one of the sport’s rarest talents.

“I’m always reflecting on what I would have wanted in my younger years,” Nys says. “And if you see what we are creating right now, to me, that would have been a dream come true.”

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