One of cyclocross' youngest stars opens up about joining Trek-Segafredo, and the fruitful start to his road racing career
Thibau Nys didn’t see his general classification win at Flèche du Sud coming. His goal was to get his legs back into racing rhythm and build towards bigger targets. But with a Stage 3 win on a punchy, uphill finish, the 19-year-old was suddenly thrust into a leader’s position, defending his place against the peloton for the final two days.
It was perfect practice for what could be a bright future fending off challengers on the road. Trek-Segafredo recently announced that the young cyclocross star will be racing with the squad as a stagiaire this August before officially joining the team in 2023. Nys will be a two-discipline rider, keeping up a healthy diet of ‘cross racing in the late fall and winter months with the Baloise Trek Lions, just like Lucinda Brand and Shirin van Anrooij on the women’s team.
Nys is already a household name to many cycling fanatics. His father, Sven, is a cyclocross legend who won two World Championships, and Nys has already compiled an impressive palmares himself, including a junior cyclocross World Championship in 2020, and an under-23 road race European Championship last year.
To step up the game on the road and get slowly into the WorldTour, in combination with Trek, that makes it all even more special.
Still, the idea of racing at the WorldTour level seemed far-fetched to Nys until only recently.
“I always dreamed of becoming a really good cyclocross rider, and the road part with Trek wasn’t something I was dreaming of because it was too far from my bed,” Nys says. “To step up the game on the road and get slowly into the WorldTour, in combination with Trek, that makes it all even more special.”
Nys is taking his strong form to a string of Belgian road races. He took 17th at Ronde van Limburg this week, and he’ll race the one-day Dwars door het Hageland and Elfstedenronde Brugge before taking on the five-stage Belgium Tour at the end of the week, and Belgian road national championships at the end of June. In August, he’ll do the Tour de l’Avenir, which is a high-profile stage race for young riders.
Nys seems to be taking a trial by fire approach to his road racing education, but knowing he has Trek’s backing makes the experience much easier. As he gradually steps up with Trek-Segafredo, he’ll continue working with many people who also lend support to Baloise Trek. And he has already made inroads with the team. Nys looks up to fellow Belgian rider Jasper Stuyven. The two even text on occasion; Nys reached out to Stuyven when he was moving to Stuyven’s hometown of Leuven.
“The whole staff behind Trek in Waterloo, Wisconsin, we work quite close together,” Nys says. “It gives me a really good feeling to stay in that environment and I feel really good about these people. It feels like family, and that’s nice. It’s not lowering the pressure, but it gives me less nerves, you know?”
Nys took time in the midst of a busy racing slate to talk to Trek-Segafredo about his eye-opening performance at Flèche du Sud, what he’s looking forward to most about riding with the Team and how he plans to balance cyclocross and road racing going forward. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did it feel to win Flèche du Sud? Were you expecting to do as well as you did?
Thibau Nys: It was not really a goal, but it was a marker. My goals are coming in the next few weeks. And in the past week at Flèche du Sud I really wanted to feel that I’m getting close to my highest level. I think I found that, and then in combination with winning the whole race, it gave me a lot of confidence.
Flèche du Sud was a stage race. Have you done a lot of stage racing before and what is that challenge like for you? How much harder is that than your normal?
Nys: I did three last year. I did the Tour of Belgium, and then two lower-ranked races nearby.
When you’re leading a stage race, there comes a lot of stress. It’s something you don’t easily think of, that you need to give your teammates the right information and give them the right things they need to do. And you really have to take the race into your own hands and keep the whole bunch and the whole race in control. I was used to racing more free.
When you're leading a stage race, there comes a lot of stress. It's something you don't easily think of, that you need to give your teammates the right information and give them the right things they need to do.
Had you ever been in that situation before, where you had to be the boss of the peloton for a couple of days?
Nys: I haven’t really done something like that before, because it was a stage race without a time trial. Most of the time, the time trial is not my specialty, so I know I will lose some time. But I was really confident I could hold the lead until the final. And yeah, it’s something new to experience. Those things are really nice to learn. And in the Tour de l’Avenir in August, and races like that, they are really going to make me a more experienced rider. And the more experience I can get now from racing on a slightly lower level, that will help me in the future when I step up the game.
Looking to the future, when you’ll eventually become a member of Trek-Segafredo, why did you feel that was the right environment for you? What do you know about Trek-Segafredo so far?
Nys: When my dad partnered with Trek in 2014, it was already in my head. Trek was always something special for me.
I always dreamed of becoming a really good cyclocross rider, and the road part with Trek wasn’t something I was dreaming of because it was too far from my bed, you know what I’m saying? To step up the game on the road and get slowly into the WorldTour, in combination with Trek, that makes it all even more special.
Do you feel like you know the team and staff pretty well already?
Nys: Of course. The staff from the road team and the riders on the road team, I don’t really see them that often. But the whole staff behind Trek in Waterloo, Wisconsin, we work quite close together. It gives me a really good feeling to stay in that environment and I feel really good about these people. It feels like family, and that’s nice. It’s not lowering the pressure, but it gives me less nerves, you know?
Have you always looked forward to being a road racer?
Nys: When I was a kid, I was always dreaming about cyclocross. But also at that age, I really understood that the road is so much bigger, and if you can achieve something on the road, it’s much more intense than in cyclocross. I place my European title higher than my world champion title in cyclocross because it’s such a high level on the road. So I always had that in my mind, that if I had the possibility to ride more on the road, and to win some races in that discipline, I would for sure do that.
It feels like family, and that's nice. It's not lowering the pressure, but it gives me less nerves, you know?
How do you plan to balance cyclocross and road racing going forward? Are you planning to do both full time as much as you can? Or do you anticipate having to sacrifice one for the other?
Nys: I think I will build off the cyclocross a little bit in the future. This year will still be a full cyclocross season from the beginning until the end, but then I will switch to the road.
Then of course going forward, I will do fewer cyclocross races than the other guys do. But I will not go into the winter only to ride five or 10 races. I really want to still feel like a cyclocross rider. But I will skip a few races in the beginning and at the end of the season to prepare for the road season.
So with this potentially being one of your last really big cyclocross racing blocs, do you have any big goals or any unfinished business that you’d like to accomplish?
Nys: Yeah. And that’s not only because I will ride more on the road, but I had two previous cyclocross seasons where I had the feeling that I couldn’t really show what I’m capable of doing. I also broke my collarbone at the beginning of last season. It was really difficult to get good starting points, and then I was always starting from way behind and it was difficult to come back. I just had a feeling that I couldn’t show myself as I wanted to in cyclocross. So I would like to do that this year, and try to really get on a high level and try to become world champion again in the Under-23 category.
Talk to me a little bit more about what this past season was like. How frustrating was it to get off to that rough start?
Nys: It’s cyclocross. It’s really difficult because every movement, every pedal stroke counts, and if not everything is in the right situation, or not everything falls in the right way, it’s really difficult to get a good result. And I had some really high ups and some really low lows last season. It’s kind of frustrating because I really want to be at a constant level.
I think I took some big steps this past summer physically. And I think I will be a lot stronger next cyclocross season.
During this transition period that you’re going through, how supportive and how helpful has your father been? He obviously did a lot of similar things. Has he been able to guide you through this? Has he given you any advice that’s been really helpful?
Nys: Yeah, of course. But cycling has become such a different sport in the last 10 or 20 years, so I’m teaching him more than he’s teaching me at the moment. [Laughs]. But yeah, he always helps me when it’s possible, with everything. Together with my trainer, we’re really focused on the long term. So my best years need to come later, and I’m not burning myself out already by training extremely hard and doing too much. I have a nice team around me that I can trust to help me keep taking steps every year.
I had some really high ups and some really low lows last season. And it's kind of frustrating because I really want to be at a constant level.
Looking at the road, what are some of your favorite races? When you see yourself as a road racer, where would you like to perform?
Nys: I think I need to discover myself as a rider a little bit more in the next few years. I always thought I was a real sprinter, but I now feel that I will be too light to really be a sprinter. All the guys above 80 kilos or so just have way more power on the flat finishes. But I think I’m really a classic type of rider, suited for uphill finishes, like a 1-3 kilometers climb.
I’m really looking forward to the whole new experience. I really can’t wait.