When the cyclo-cross world championships took place in Luxembourg a couple of weeks ago, there was one notable absence from the list of starters: there was no Sven Nys, the legend of the sport who had dominated it for the best part of two decades. With two world championships, seven world cups and over 140 competitive victories to his name, he’s widely regarded as one of the greatest cyclo-cross racers of his generation and of all time.
Like his fellow Belgian, Eddy Merckx, Nys was nicknamed the Cannibal because of the way he gobbled up the opposition. But 2014-2015 saw a decline in his form as he struggled to come to terms with a divorce that affected his training and saw a disappointing run of results in competition. Some questioned whether his years were finally catching up with him.
Sven: the Final Year documents his 2015-2016 season as he tries to overcome his demons and re-impose himself on the cyclo-cross world as a 39 year old.
Directed by Jan Vandermotte, this is a beautifully made and shot film that glorifies the sport with some stunning cinematography of Nys both in training and competition. That beautiful hum of tyres on gravel paths and the flash of coloured jerseys blurring across the frame makes for a visual and audio feast. The orchards of Belgium, where Nys powers his way through rustic tracks, the glorious mud of winter competitions and the stunning scenery of Mallorca also add colour, beauty and, this being cyclo-cross, grit.
We follow Nys through the highs and lows of training and competing. Constantly pushing himself to the limit he battles with his coach who demands he takes time to rest and allow his body to recover from the pain he puts it through. The multi-disciplined aspects of cyclo-cross are borne out as we see him on a road bike, mountain bike, and fat bike, as well as the cyclo-cross bike. He’s a master of them all.
There is a touching narrative thread throughout the film as we see his relationship with his 13 year old son, Thibaut, someone who shows future promise as a bike racer himself. The mutual love and respect they have shines through and they tease, cajole and support each other in equal measure. One feels that their relationship has developed over the year and there is a palpable closeness at the end.
Belgium is very much the home of cyclo-cross, and it’s not just his family who hold Nys in high regard. His countrymen worship the ground he rides on, from humble potato farmer to office executive. The fans flock to see him and will him on to reach the once great heights of his career. When he takes the lead in the World Championships the crowd go berserk and the way he tears open the race, ripping down the steepest section of the course has them screaming themselves hoarse. It was like watching the Nys of old.
The film is an emotional journey as he hands over the baton to the next generation of stars, the young guns of Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. One feels that he’s come to terms with drawing his racing career to a close, but his tears as he’s interviewed for the last time as a racer reveal the magnitude of his achievements and dedication to his sport. For the viewer and sports fan it’s great to be able to see a titan like Nys bow out with dignity, still competitive to the very end. This will become one of the classic cycling films of all time and is an absolute must-see. Inspiring. Moving. Beautiful.
You can watch Sven: the Final Year on Vimeo where you can rent it for £4.99