Sven Nys explains what has made 2023 so special
Every weekend, the same refrain. With metronomic consistency, the Baloise-Trek Lions have stepped onto the podium at major cyclocross events this season, very often at the tippy top.
The numbers: Of the first eight men’s World Cup races, Baloise-Trek riders have won five, divided among four different riders. Two Baloise-Trek riders have shared a World Cup podium five times this season, giving the men three of the top four spots on the overall standings.
The team has won seven total World Cup races, with Lucinda Brand winning two as part of an eight-race podium streak coming off of injury. Joris Nieuwenhuis has won two Superprestige races as part of his career turn into a full-time cyclocross racer. And we haven’t even mentioned Shirin van Anrooij, the 2023 U23 Cyclocross World Champion who is rejoining the squad in regular capacity for the Christmas period after taking time off for recovery and training.
The team is succeeding at a level rarely achieved. Just ask someone who has seen it all. Sven Nys is a 50-time elite Cyclocross World Cup winner, and a two-time World Champion. He is also the general manager of Baloise-Trek, and founder of the Sven Nys Cycling Academy. He called this season thus far “the most successful year we have ever had.”
You feel that it's more like a family than it's a team.
- Sven Nys
“And it’s really nice that we see that everyone supports each other, they help each other in the race, but also outside of the race,” Nys says. “You feel that it’s more like a family than it’s a team. When they go on training, they push themselves to a higher level. When somebody has a bad day, they support each other. And that makes the team much stronger.”
Thibau Nys’ win in the World Cup opener in Waterloo (Thibau, as you may have guessed, is Sven’s son) set the tone for everything the team has accomplished thus far. That Sunday, he and Pim Ronhaar — just 21 and 22 years old, respectively — put the field on its heels by forming a 1-2 Baloise-Trek attack at the front of the race. Eli Iserbyt, a veteran rival, wasn’t able to contain both riders, and Thibau rode away for his first career World Cup win. Baloise-Trek took four of the top five placings with Ronhaar in third, Joris Nieuwenhuis in fourth and Lars van der Haar in fifth.
Cyclocross racing is largely an individual sport, but Thibau’s win, and many of Baloise-Trek’s successful weekends thereafter, are examples of what selflessness and teamwork can look like within the discipline.
Baloise-Trek’s cohesiveness is no accident. Nys and staff do everything they can to make sure that riders feel like they’re in a team, and not simply athletes who happen to be wearing the same kits on race day. Baloise-Trek’s Wednesday practices are a great example. Every Wednesday, the team gets together for a group practice. No matter where they are, or where they had been the previous weekend within a hectic calendar, the riders and staff meet up to train and ride as a group.
Ronhaar and men’s U23 rider David Haverdings will often ride two hours on their bikes to get to practice. Brand bought a small house near the training area where she can live during the winter. The Wednesday practice has become a vital part of the riders’ week.
“We come together, we drink some coffee in the morning, we prepare ourselves to go on a training for two hours, and then come back,” Nys says. “We focus on the things that we think are necessary for the weekend that is coming. But not only that, after the training, riders want to stay for one hour, two hours, to talk and eat something together. We are there as staff also, and we can talk a little bit, have fun. The person who has won a race brings some cake. It’s always really relaxed, and that helps a lot because on weekends they need to travel, they need to race, they need to focus.”
Baloise-Trek also emphasizes having the right riders on the roster. That means that even if the team has a chance to sign an established talent to the squad, it will only sign them if they’re willing to buy into the team culture. Nys doesn’t want riders who only want resources and equipment in exchange for wins.
Nieuwenhuis is a good example of the Baloise-Trek recruiting philosophy. He joined the team in 2022, and committed to racing cyclocross full-time in 2023 after four years as a powerful domestique in WorldTour pelotons. The 27-year-old fit the surface-level profile of a roadie hoping to win quickly in an offroad discipline. But Nieuwenhuis joined Baloise-Trek knowing that the team would allow him to develop at his own pace within a tight-knit culture. And Nys, upon getting to know Nieuwenhuis, knew that his new Dutch rider would only enhance the team dynamic with his unique personality.
“Joris is playing guitar, he is loving nature, he is watching the birds in the air, he is loving different kinds of music,” Nys says. “He has the experience, of course, from the WorldTour, but he talks in a really relaxed way. He has a beard. He loves riding gravel roads and having some barbecue afterwards. He gives the team a completely different perspective, a different kind of thinking, and it’s good that we have riders with different motivations.
“Sometimes you have a rider who has victories or good results, but they don’t fit in the team. And that can affect the whole group, because they are mentally only thinking about themselves.”
Nieuwenhuis’ head-first dive into cyclocross has paid off. On Nov. 18, he broke through with his first major elite win in Merksplas. He won again in Boom two weeks later, then achieved another milestone with his first ever World Cup win on a festively snow-covered course in Val di Sole.
Ronhaar is another great example of Baloise-Trek’s fit-over-results approach. The former U23 World Champion had been struggling to finish strong during races through the first month-and-a-half of the season, frequently mounting impressive early attacks that would fizzle away.
Fortunately for Ronhaar, he had experienced and patient guidance from the team on his side. He has put together his best stretch of elite racing over the last month, winning his first career elite World Cup in Dendermonde on Nov. 12, then repeating the feat two weeks later in Dublin. The difference? Ronhaar learned how to time his efforts more wisely.
“He’s not only going, ‘Hey, I’m feeling good so I’m going to go now for one or two laps at the highest level.'” Nys says. “No, no, now he’s thinking about ‘when am I going to push myself to the highest level? Is it important that I’m doing it in the first two laps or is it better to wait and to do that in the last two laps?’ He’s giving himself the space to make the move at the right moment.”
Winning builds confidence in a rider. But so does knowing that there’s little risk in trying and failing. On the men’s side of Baloise-Trek, having four different riders who can win World Cup races means that there’s no pressure on any one rider to carry the team. Ronhaar can safely experiment with his attack strategy knowing that he has teammates like savvy veteran Van der Haar, who can ride in the wake of Ronhaar’s efforts and potentially capitalize with a win.
Brand hasn’t been quite as fortunate. After returning to racing on Nov. 12 off an injury she suffered late during the Lidl-Trek road season, she was the only elite women’s rider representing Baloise-Trek for five straight races. Van Anrooij rejoined the team for three races in December, and will get back into the full swing of cyclocross during the Christmas period. And yet, Brand has thrived on her lonesome. She quickly proved she was much more formidable than many expected after her long racing hiatus, taking podiums in her first four starts, then winning back-to-back World Cup races in Dublin and Flamanville.
[Lucinda] is going to make the younger generation work really hard. And that's what I love. That's what I did also during my career.
- Sven Nys
Of course, only going by resumé, no one should be surprised to see Brand winning races again. She is now a 17-time elite World Cup race winner, as well as the 2021 World Champion — one of the most decorated riders ever. But amidst much ado about a burgeoning new generation of women’s cyclocross riders, Brand, at 34, is sending a clear message that she’s not giving up her regular podium spot without a fight.
“It can go left or it can go right. Some veteran riders lose their motivation, and they don’t have good results anymore,” Nys says. “But Lucinda is going the other direction. She’s going to make the younger generation work really hard. And that’s what I love. That’s what I did also during my career. I knew that I’m not going to win a lot of races anymore, but hey, I’m still there, and they need to beat me. And even now, she’s always thinking about what can I improve, and those small things. How can I learn a little bit more about my way of riding? Is my position good? Can I prepare myself better in the warm up?
“She was really, really motivated to say, ‘Hey, OK, I’m a little bit older now, but it’s not going to happen that I’m not going to win races anymore.’ And those are the great athletes. Those are the athletes that are going to have good results until the end of their careers.”
Baloise-Trek has a lot to look forward to over the second half of the season. Open-ended questions abound: Will Brand keep up her momentum? How will Van Anrooij perform? How will the four elite men’s riders contend with a field that’s getting stronger every race? Between the Christmas period and World Championships, the biggest races of the year are upon us — can Baloise-Trek continue making this the most successful season ever?
We don’t know, and we can’t know. But there’s a lot we can take away from everything we’ve witnessed so far. The Lions have done more than win. They’ve won in a way that breeds even more opportunity for success. They’ve created an environment of camaraderie and trust that gives riders the security and confidence to race to their absolute max.
No matter what, Baloise-Trek will give us the best show it possibly can, and no one could want anything more.