Flanders and Cyclocross
A Happy Marriage
The 30th of January, 1994 will be remembered as the day that Flanders opened its heart to cyclocross. The skittery sands of Koksijde flared up, and children, grandparents, virgins, and loners rejoiced. We were winners. And we’d won as we’d never won before.
Our new world champion was bold and daring. He was entrepreneurial. And he had a certain knack for drama. For it was no ordinary ‘crosser that we saw racing over the dunes and through the fields that day. Paul Herygers was a born rockstar. People’s mouths hung agape as he clapped Groenendaal on the shoulder and attacked, bobbing all over his bike in a crazy bid for glory.
When he stood up there on the stage, flaunting himself in that too-big rainbow shirt, we looked at one another and said it was beautiful. We lifted the veil of humility we’d hid behind for so long and kicked away our sense of inferiority. Glowing with pride, we wept, caught up in the scene before our eyes. In front of the podium, an elderly man stood, sucking on a trembling cigarette. It was the living legend Eric De Vlaeminck, our national coach. Having managed to avoid bad luck, he’d finally gotten what he’d been waiting for: a winner. Eric, a seven-time world champion, had finally moulded his successor. He knew that the podium was a place to control your feelings. You could only allow yourself to be overcome by emotion the next day. De Vlaeminck would recede into himself for the next three weeks. Too much happiness can also be a man’s downfall.
And yet, at noon on that unforgettable day, De Vlaeminck was near the point of collapse. His protégés, the young kids of 16 and 17, had nearly missed out on the medals. A Frisian and a Bohemian were head and shoulders above our little juniors. It was not until the finale that the Limburger Ben Berden rolled past Süsemilch to finish third. We’d won bronze, after Gommers, who took gold, and Ausbuher, who earned silver. Today, at the height of our success, we would say it was a consolation prize. At the time, however, it was a beacon of hope. Still, De Vlaeminck got up in front of the microphone and apologized, with a lump in his throat. “I’d hoped for gold or silver, but bronze is also good,” he said, with a tissue pressed to his cheek. Happiness and disillusionment fought a battle in his heart. Sven Nys was his golden boy after all.
Nys was De Vlaeminck’s disciple, his obedient pupil, the most attentive kid in the class by far. When De Vlaeminck spoke, Nys was all ears. He watched with reverence when the grandmaster revealed his tricks. De Vlaeminck would roll down steep pitches no-handed, without ever putting down a foot or falling down. Only Nys could match him. In technique and acrobatic ability, he was nearly De Vlaeminck’s equal. The national coach was sure he would win the gold medal. But this time, he won cardboard.
Nys finished fourth. He’d managed to pass Süsemilch, but was almost half a minute behind Gommers. He’d been held back by his fear of failure, as he often was in later years. “In the future, he’ll be nothing but a bird for the cat. He’ll never succeed at the top,” the critics said. They were badly mistaken. But honestly, no one in Koksijde that afternoon could have predicted that Nys would become the greatest athlete in cyclocross history, or that he would soon lead in a period of Flemish cyclocross success. More than Vervecken, De Clercq, Wellens, or Albert, he would make ‘cross attractive. From 1997 to the present, he’s been the champion of the sport.
But what role did Paul Herygers play, aside from marking the beginning of the Flemish success story? Without realizing it, Herygers was ahead of his time. He was an innovator, racing à bloc through the fields on his black Colnago, with its sharp four-spoke wheels. He was always well-dressed, in a raven–black kit and elegant Italian sunglasses. Paul had a certain aura. Call it charisma. More than anything, he shone on the screen. His cheeky mug caught the attention of Flanders’ sport-watching public. His Kempense dialect brimmed with humour. A former brickmaker, farmer, postman, mountain biker, and road racer, he once said in one of the many talk shows he was featured in, “ I can do just about everything but sing.” Herygers sold himself and his sport.
Soon, sponsors were making inquiries. There was money to be made by associating with him. Yes, Eric De Vlaeminck, Albert Van Damme, and Roland Liboton were better ‘crossers, but in terms of salesmanship they couldn’t hold a candle to Paul Herygers. Unfortunately, the old masters’ success came during the dark, swampy past. They only had the chance to prove their class on Flemish television during championships, Overijse, and Asper. Herygers, on the other hand, made sure he played a starring role in the TV programme Sportweekend every two weeks — not that it lead to more live broadcasts of ‘cross races at the time. We didn’t win much during the first half of the nineties either.
For a long time, the trend amongst organizers was to hold races on impossibly difficult Swiss-style courses. In the top category, this lead to a week in, week out duel between the Netherlands and Italy. Groenendaal, Van der Poel, Pontoni, and Bramati divided the spoils, leaving a few scraps here and there for the Swiss Frischknecht. The Belgians were lucky if they picked up a crumb or two. We didn’t have more than a world championships and a series of crosses in the sand. To invest in 16 cameras, 40 to 50 crew members, and a caravan full of equipment was unheard of. The candle Herygers had lit in Flanders was in danger of burning out.
Then came that sunny winter Saturday in the heart of Bavaria. On February 1, 1997, a new mark was set, into the holy ground of the Olympiapark. It was the day of the coup, the Flemish blitzkrieg in the colossal Olympic stadium. Two 40-cm-tall beams lay on the ground to break up the monotony of all of those laps around Valeriy Borzov’s track. At the head of the race, a stress-free Sven Nys shared the lead with his light-footed buddy Bart Wellens. The two stayed together over the difficult grassy hills outside the stadium. A foreign challenge wasn’t on the cards. When they arrived at the barriers, the public sat straight up in their seats. Nys bunny-hopped the obstacles like Bob Beamon, faster than his rival, who had to dismount. Nys was crowned world-champion. Wellens earned second. It was a turning point.
Flanders had experienced the race live. Thanks to a pair of bright souls at the Flemish public broadcaster, the espoirs’ race was shown in real time. There was some extra money lying around after the station had lost the rights to televise football matches. Why not invest some of it in a telegenic sport like ‘cross? A blind chicken could see that the boys from Flanders were going to dominate the discipline for the foreseeable future. A spot in the commentary box and a feed from Germany would cost the station next to nothing.
So, the idea was born. The crossroads was reached. Talk of the Nys-Wellens duel rolled off tongues all across the country. People wanted to taste the joy of victory again and again. And the people got what they wanted: more cyclocross. A commercial station attained the rights to the Superprestige and the Belgian championships. The public broadcaster couldn’t let itself be left behind. The Giro and Vuelta had earned them surprisingly large audiences during the road season. Up to half a million people from Flanders had tuned in to watch stages that hardly featured a Belgian. When Nys and Wellens started winning races soon after they turned pro, a quick calculation was made. Cyclocross would bring in even more viewers. Every time the people sat down in front of the tube to watch a ‘cross race on a winter weekend, the station’s audience numbers would peak. There is nothing better than basking in a vicarious victory.
Since football games were usually scheduled for Saturday and Sunday evenings, they didn’t conflict with the ‘cross screenings. The public broadcaster simply would not let cycling fans go free. They acquired the rights to the World Cups and the Gazet van Antwerpen Trofee. The number of races shown live jumped from four to 24. Popular World Cups such as Zolder, Sint-Michielsgestel, Hooglede, Koksijde, and Louisville brought in unbelievable audiences, with up to 1.7 million viewers. For a country with a population of 6 million, those numbers seem unreal.
In a short time, the ‘cross scene changed substantially. With Flemish and Dutch money, several ‘cross-specific teams — Spaar Select, Rabobank, AA drink — were set up. Although they could never be as big as the road squads, they thrived because they required relatively little money to operate. A ‘cross team generates a good return for not a lot of cash. All over the country, impressive cyclocross facilities were built on campgrounds. Dozens of businesses, including a few major banks, bought up advertising space around the race courses. Visibility became the magic word. In cyclocross, a sponsor would come into view up to six times during every one of the 10 laps. That kind of exposure just isn’t possible on the road.
The growth of the sport still depended on spectators coming to the grounds though. Success brought success. Before long, people who had been sitting at home in their easy chairs were making their way into the crowds. For 10 euros, you could buy an afternoon of fun. Only during thunderstorms would the crowds number less than 10,000. During the 2012 world championships in Koksijde, no less than 60,000 people fought for a place by the side of the course. On such days, Flanders went mad.
For the Flemish success story to continue however, homegrown stars had to be developed. After De Clercq, Vervecken, and the faltering Wellens, the cheerful Niels Albert and quiet Kevin Pauwels came to the fore. Contrasts are often a catalyst for growth. With Boom, Stybar, and Van der Haar now in the mix, everyone is engaged in a battle with Nys. With variable success. They may have managed to take a few world titles away from him, but no one has stolen the aura he has as the sport’s absolute number one. With his hyper-professionalism, Nys has transcended his sport. He won the Kristallen Fiets as the best cyclist of the year in 2007, over Tom Boonen, and was crowned sports personality and sportsman of the year in 2008. None of his illustrious forebears or his competitors are made of what he is made of. Yes, some of his success is due to the absurd popularity of his niche sport, but it stems even more from his charisma and the fact that he is a trustworthy character who has always fit the image of an ideal sportsman. Sven Nys will soon be the first ‘crosser to end his career as a wealthy man.
Does the Flemish success story have its dark sides? Of course. Our monopoly over the pool of talent, the calendar, the best teams, and the top organizers has lead to some navel gazing — blind Flemish nationalism in the sporting sphere. International cyclocross has diminished. Czechs, Frenchmen, and Germans have to come here to prove themselves at the highest level. Only the Netherlands — and North Brabant in particular — is anywhere near competing with us. The UCI is pushing for structural reforms. For the future, the Flemish market is just too small for the sport to grow.
And then there is the next challenge: the loss of Sven Nys. Even his greatest competitors admit that Nys brings in the lion’s share of the sport’s popularity. Up to 60 percent, some say. The question is whether his retirement will lead to the sport’s decline. Certainly, the amount of attention payed to the races will decrease. It might be up to Nys to pump it up sometimes. He’ll do so as the manager of a development centre in his hometown of Baal, and as a cyclocross ambassador for life, because he loves his craft.