The Lions are rolling into 2021 with new sponsors, new kits and even bigger ambitions
The newly-renamed Baloise Trek Lions are in the midst of a marvelous 2020-21 season. Look no further than the top of cyclocross’ biggest races. Lucinda Brand, Toon Aerts and Lars van der Haar have combined for 35 podium finishes this year. Brand has been particularly strong, scoring 10 wins (including eight in her last 10 starts) to put herself atop the women’s World Cup, Superprestige and X2O Badkamers Trofee standings.
Any way you look at the team, the Lions are among cyclocross’ elite. But the program being led by legend Sven Nys aspires to much more than simply winning races. Heading into 2021, Baloise Trek wants to create a better future for cycling as a whole.
“We have a big group of riders that we want to support, from young kids up to the elite category,” Nys said. “And I think that with the sponsors that we have now in the team — Baloise and Trek — they have the same vision about how we want to work together as a team.”
A lot is changing going into the new year, from a new title sponsor, to new faces, to a new kit. But the core of the Lions’ mission — to cultivate lifelong passion for cyclocross racing — will remain as important as it has always been. Read on to learn more about the 2021 Lions, with analysis from the man himself, Sven Nys.
A beautiful new kit
No offense to the old kit, but sometimes you just need an upgrade. Wanna see pictures? Of course you do!
A new name
What’s in a name? Well, a lot if you ask Nys. Trek has been an important partner to the Lions for many years, but making the brand a title sponsor further cements the Lions’ commitment to the future of cycling.
“It’s definitely a difference when Trek is in the name compared to when it’s not,” Nys said. “And that’s going to help us show the world how hard we are working, and not only in Belgium but more international.”
The benefits of Trek to Lions riders are obvious from a cycling standpoint: Trek has decades of technical and racing know-how, not to mention access to top-of-the-line equipment. But just as importantly, according to Nys, Trek is invested in athletes from a personal standpoint.
“The connection with our sponsors is really important. You see it directly when you can work with sponsors who are interested in the riders themselves,” Nys said. “That works also on the other side, because then the riders become fans of the sponsors.”
It's definitely a difference when Trek is in the name compared to when it's not. And that's going to help us show the world how hard we are working.
- Sven Nys
The Lions’ young riders received a crash course in elite-level racing in 2020 with so many U23 and junior races canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve acquitted themselves well so far, with under-23 riders like Yentl Bekaert, Ward Huybs, Marthe Truyen, Thibau Nys and Shirin van Arooij all coming up with regular top-20 finishes.
Nys, who is Sven’s son, and Huybs have the most experience to gain. They’ve spent the least time in the elite ranks, both having just recently turned 18 years old.
“The biggest difference [in the team] is the boys who are coming from the junior category, and almost didn’t race on the roads last season because of the virus,” Sven Nys said. “For the first time they are going to ride stage races with the professional riders, and that’s going to give them a lot more confidence, but also a lot more power, a lot more speed, because they’re going to do races from a longer distance.
“If we work together, and give them also the time to recover from those stage races, then they’re going to have a really good cyclocross season next year. And that’s something I’m looking forward to.”
Van Arooij, though just 18 herself, is already a household name to many cyclocross fans after a remarkable 2019-20 season that included an Under-19 world championship and fourth place in a Superprestige event in Middelkerke against the best cyclocross racers in the world.
Van Arooij was finding her legs during the 2020-21 season when she suffered a bad crash in Tabor in late November. There’s no date set for her return, but the Lions are supporting her in every way they can, both in her immediate recovery and preparations for the year.
The experience we have with Lucinda and Toon is going to combine with the young guns that are coming up and create a higher level. And that's something I'm looking forward to.
- Sven Nys
According to Nys, the Lions will be careful not to push Van Arooij to return too quickly, saying, “it’s better to wait a week longer than come back too early, because maybe then you do two steps back instead of one step forward.” Van Arooij will also be racing for the Trek-Segafredo road cycling team in 2021, giving her young legs some much needed mileage.
“You can imagine that if she’s riding on that level on the road, that’s going to give her so much more volume, so much more experience, when she’s coming into cyclocross,” Nys said. “The experience we have with Lucinda and Toon is going to combine with the young guns that are coming up and create a higher level. And that’s something I’m looking forward to.”
Some of the biggest racing of the year will take place in early 2021. Of particular importance to Baloise Trek is the Belgian national championships on Jan. 10, where eight Lions riders may be competing. (Unfortunately, for the Lions’ three Dutch riders — Brand, Van der Haar and Van Arooij — their national championships on the same date have been canceled.)
Aerts, who is in the midst of a strong and consistent season, will be gunning for his second elite Belgian title after winning in 2019. He’ll face stiff competition from a number of powerhouse countrymen, including Wout van Aert, who won three straight Belgian titles from 2016-2018. Meanwhile, Thibau Nys will race as an U23 rider after winning the U19 national and world championships.
Brand has her sights firmly set on the Cyclocross World Championships in Oostende, though she would have looked forward to establishing her place atop the Netherlands’ immensely talented pool of women cyclocrossers, too. Nevertheless, she can underline an already enchanted season by securing the rainbow jersey. Though she has never won a cyclocross world championship, she has finished on the podium the last three years, and should be considered the favorite to win given her run of form the last two months.
Standing in the way will be current World Champion Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, among others.
“What we see now is that Lucinda is the strongest girl in the field. She’s leading the pack in all GC classifications, so World Cup, X2O, Superprestige,” Nys said. “Yeah, that gives us a lot of confidence, but we are aware that a lot of the women that are riding with her are also pretty strong, and the sand at the World Championships, it’s something specific. So we train, we work hard and hope that she can be world champion for the first time in her career.”
Build the future
Baloise Trek is much more than a racing team. Through the Sven Nys Academy in particular, Nys is working with the help of Lions riders to teach kids the basics of cycling. Their goal isn’t just to stoke interest in cyclocross racing, but to build smarter, more confident riders who will be enthusiastic to ride bicycles safely in their everyday lives.
To that end, the Academy has been a big success. The Academy organizes skills camps for 8-14 year-olds around the Belgian school holidays, and sold out all its spots for 2021 within 15 minutes of going online.
Nys takes pride in passing down his knowledge and acting as an ambassador for the sport. And though he belongs to an older generation than the riders he’s trying to elevate, he understands the power of modern technology to convey his message. He even got creative when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Academy to cancel in-person camps by creating a video series that taught vital cycling skills. He’s also pushing his pro riders to embrace social media.
If you have a strong team that have their noses in the same direction, then one and one doesn't make two, but three.
- Sven Nys
“We’ve tried to create more content around the team, because we are working in a completely new world where social media is really important, not only for our sponsors, but also to promote yourself as an athlete,” Nys said. “And for the moment riders can make their own news, they don’t need to wait until a journalist comes and asks them some questions. So if you do that really good, that can help you a lot.”
More than anything, Baloise Trek are culture-focused. Nys is confident that the organization can achieve all of its wide-ranging goals because everyone — from the Academy, to sponsors, to athletes, to administration — wants the same things.
“If you have a strong team that have their noses in the same direction, then one and one doesn’t make two, but three. You know what I mean?” Nys said. “And that’s something I feel right now that we have with Baloise, with Trek, with riders and the staff behind the team. They are all looking in the same direction. And that’s so nice to work with.”