At the Back was a column in every VeloNews magazine for decades. It was a place where riders and staff writers shared personal stories in their own voices. This year, we will be hosting an At the Back column each week for member enjoyment. In this February 28, 2000 article, John Wilcockson and Kip Mikler debate whether the country or team should be first at the world championships.
Nys was wrong!
Imagine this scenario: it’s the Olympic basketball final. The United States against Yugoslavia. In the last seconds of the game, the score is tied and Chris Webber takes it to the hole. The American jukes around several players then hits a roadblock: Vlade Divac. Suddenly, Divac, a teammate of Webber on the Sacramento Kings professional NBA team, steps aside. USA win gold.
Sounds far-fetched? Well yes. And not just because Divac is now an American citizen. This situation would never happen in basketball, but in bike racing, it’s not a stretch at all. In fact, it happened at the cyclocross world championships in January , with Sven Nys – the Belgian bunny-hoppin’ – playing the role of Divac. At the expense of teammate Mario De Clercq — and all Belgium’s screaming fans — Nys took a dive.
Dutch Rabobank rider Richard Groenendaal won the race, and whether it made a difference or not, he did so with the help of Nys, also a member of the Rabobank team. When Groenendaal was leading, Nys refused to help De Clercq pursue him. Specifically, he refused to give De Clercq – who is not a Rabobank sponsored rider – a chance to win. He fucked his country and himself.
In the final third of the 60-minute race, as he circled the course on De Clercq’s wheel, Nys had to endure the teasing and jeering of fans in his own country. He’s also suffered plenty of abuse from De Clercq – who, you may recall, fired his own questionable shot last year when he chased a team-mate to score a rainbow jersey . But while De Clercq’s 1999 move may have shown a lack of sportsmanship, Nys’s was purely commercial. He admitted it when, after the race, he said he told his Belgian teammates before the start that, for him, Rabobank was the first.
But wasn’t it the world championships? Nation against nation? You might have thought so. Fans from Belgium, fans from Holland, fans from America and the rest of the world watching riders wearing the colors of their countries might have thought so too. But we have all been duped.
It’s a tricky situation. Cycling racing is a team sport. And the teams are funded by commercial interests. For most races, this arrangement works well. But once in a while – at events like the World Championships or the Olympics – fans are meant to be treated to a different kind of spectacle. For many, it’s more exciting that way. For Dutch fans who painted their faces and sang Dutch fight songs, it was supposed to be more exciting that way. For the boisterous Belgians, who cherish their nation’s stronghold in cyclocross, it might have been more exciting that way. The same goes for the Swiss and the outnumbered American fans.
But no, the cyclocross Super Bowl had a sour ending. The race was set. It was seen in the eyes of Nys who, at 23, must have felt the disappointment of a nation.
At the end of the biggest cross race of the year, the thrill of victory felt more like the agony of defeat, as our three protagonists took to the podium. The one in the middle wept tears of joy, perhaps not believing his good fortune. And the two accompanying him were crying too, one in frustration, the other in shame.
Wow, another great sporting moment.
The commercial support of professional cycling races is good. This is what allowed the sport to develop and this is what keeps it going. But once a year at the world championships, and once again every four years at the Olympics, can’t countries count on more than mercantilism?
Nys was right!
Picture this: it’s the Sydney Olympics. The men’s mountain bike cross-country race. Leading the way with one lap to go on the fast, rolling course is Christoph Sauser of Switzerland. Half a minute away are three pursuers: Cadel Evans from Australia, Miguel Martinez from France and Filip Meirhaeghe from Belgium. The crowd is screaming for Evans to move… to win the gold medal that seems to be his destiny.
But Evans is just sitting there on the wheels of the two Europeans. Meirhaeghe claims he’s tired, so Martinez has to make the draw. The little Frenchman keeps turning his head, shouting at Evans to help close the gap. But Evans refuses to help. The crowd is puzzled. What’s wrong with their man in gold and green?
The answer is not hard to find. Throughout the season, Evans races for the Volvo-Cannondale team, as does Sauser. They travel the world together, eat together, sometimes live together, share the same caretaker and mechanic. Evans knows he has the form and strength to close a 30-second gap; but when he made a fake attack on the previous lap, Martinez and Meirhaeghe quickly caught him. The Aussie knows that if he works with Martinez to catch Sauser before the finish, chances are the quick Meirhaeghe will take the win. And what about Evans’ employers at Volvo-Cannondale? What would they think?
Well, that’s unthinkable, Evans realizes. He can’t chase his teammate and knows that both of them will probably lose the gold medal. So Evans stays where he is. Sauser wins the Olympic title.
Is this scenario different from that of Rabobank teammates Richard Groenendaal and Sven Nys at the cyclocross world championship? No.
Is it different from what is commonly practiced in road cycling world championships? Probably not. No one raises an eyebrow when, say, a Mapei team rider from Belgium says they won’t chase a Mapei rider from Italy. And few negative comments are heard when riders from different countries, who normally compete for the same commercial team, agree to ride for each other.
This is what happened at the 1993 Road Worlds in Oslo. A neo-pro named Lance Armstrong hoped to do well, and he had the backing of all of his American teammates — and the backing of the riders on his business team, Motorola. These riders came from eight different countries and were linked by radio to Motorola (and USA) team manager Jim Ochowicz. Armstrong won the race. Was it a mistake that he received support from his Motorola teammates, whether American or European? May be. Maybe not.
Why then are we so upset that at the January Cyclocross World Championships a talented young rider named Nys kept his pre-race promise not to chase after a Rabobank teammate? Thing is, Mario De Clercq – the Belgian who asked Nys to help chase Groenendaal – wasn’t strong enough to keep up with the aggressive Groenendaal when the Dutchman broke in the first round. And he wasn’t strong enough to close that half-minute gap towards the end. Was De Clercq worried that if he had towed his fellow Belgian Nys to the leader, a new Nys would have won the title, and not him?