2022 IS HERE - Herentals and The Next Generation

If you have never heard of the X2O Badkamers Trofee Herantals Crosst, that’s understandable, at least for now.

Herentals, which takes place on January 5, 2022, is in its second year as a race. The first edition took place in December 2020, falling into the calendar position of the X2O Badkamers Trofee Loenhout Azencross, which was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Loenhout is one of the most-spectated races on the international calendar, a huge party over the Belgian Kerstperiode. The start/finish and course are in the city center. As such, the risks to public health during a pandemic were obvious. In October 2020, the mayor made the call: Loenhout would come off the calendar.

While the cancellation was disappointing, X2O Badkamers organizer Golazo made lemonade from lemons, putting together Herentals Crosst in just three months. Golazo Sports Director Erwin Vervecken was the driving force behind the new event—yes, that Erwin Vervecken: three times World Champion. A Herentals native, Vervecken had trained and raced the trail. He also already had a working relationship with the city, having organized other events there. Herentals wanted a cross race and Golazo had one of the best spaces on the calendar wide open.

Starting a new UCI race in Belgium is no easy task. New races must work their way up the prestige ladder, making due with last-choice, midweek race dates, competing with work schedules for an audience. Herentals was extremely lucky to skip those slow growth years and jump straight into a prime calendar position. Because of its successful 2020 debut, Herentals has earned a permanent place on the calendar, in one of the better spots: the end of Kerstperiode.

For context, it’s important to understand the significance of the town and the venue. Herentals is the hometown of not only Vervecken, but also Wout van Aert and Sanne Cant. The venue is owned by Sport Vlaanderen, has a mountain bike track, and has been used by the national team for training.

The course has two distinct parts divided by the start/finish stretch. The first half is flatter and meanders through “Netepark,” a recreational park. The second half goes north, crosses a running track and then makes two passes up the “Skiberg.” Now defunct, the Skiberg was a year-round downhill ski facility where skiing was possible on carpets.

Being east of Antwerp, the Herentals soil leans more toward sandy than muddy. Netepark is quite sandy and the Skiberg slightly less so. As such, even in very wet conditions, the grip is surprisingly good. Expect riders to have sufficient traction on Baby Limus or Grifo even in wet course conditions.

Thibau Nys: The Next Generation (#)

Challenge recently sat down with Thibau Nys after his third place in U23s at European Championships (following a quick comeback from a broken collarbone). He reflected on what it’s like to be Sven’s son, riders he admires, and his favorite type of courses and ambitions for 2021/2022.

For better or worse, Thibau will forever exist in the shadow of Sven, a position that must cause some pressure. When we asked Thibau about this, he responded philosophically: “There is always pressure from the outside, but I always say, the pressure I put on myself is higher than the pressure from the outside.”

In fact, Nys has learned to use the attention for motivation. “The second thing is a way more positive one,” said Nys. “When you are riding on the course in a race and you hear everyone cheering for you, it gives you goosebumps sometimes.”

Nys clearly looks up to his father, understanding the scope of his achievements. Asked if he thought he could win a race against Sven in his prime, Thibau shook his head and laughed. “For the moment, I think he would kick my ass,” said Thibau. “I hope that at some point I can say, ‘If you would race me now, at your best, I would still win.’ I’m trying to get to that level. I’m sure that when I do I will be strong enough to win races in the elite category.”

While respectful of Sven and his peers, Thibau notes the strength of the current generation. “In Belgium, we always say that you cannot compare generations,” said Thibau. “I’m sure that cycling in general, not just cyclocross, is way more professional. Because of technology and evolution, riders are pushing themselves to the limits. The sport got a whole transformation.”

Nys looks to the current generation of elites for inspiration. He doesn’t have a single hero, but points to both Tom Pidcock and Wout van Aert as having qualities he would like to emulate. “I love how Tom Pidcock really dares to say what he thinks,” said Nys. “If Pidcock doesn’t like the course, he will not say he likes the course. He is always very friendly, so it’s not in a bad way.”

Van Aert inspires Nys because of his work ethic. “Wout is maybe the guy who works the hardest of the whole cycling world,” said Nys. “His mindset is to do everything perfect and train as hard as possible. It inspires and it also proves that [hard work] works.”

Among the next generation of professional riders, Nys’ palmares prove him to be one of the best. Asked to name his most significant win thus far, Nys was hard pressed to decide. “It’s difficult to say. My world title in cyclocross two years ago was emotionally a really nice one,” said Nys. “But European Championships on the road this year will come really close to that. It was something I dreamed about, but I could not expect.”

Although Nys is capable of winning on many cyclocross courses, naturally, he has a preferred course type. “I am the type of rider where my qualities are coming out best on the fast and hard courses,” said Nys. He specifies that he likes a mild elevation change, like at the Tabor World Cup. “For the ground, hard underground with some slippery on top,” said Nys.

For Thibau’s favorite track conditions (hard underground, slippery on top), he prefers the Limus 30. “The 30, it’s a fast-rolling tire, but you really get that grip on the underground,” said Nys. “The tire really cuts into the grass or cuts into the hard underground, more like a knife.”

Thibau acknowledges that he rides 33s far more often since 30s require specific conditions. “A 30 lies differently than a 33,” said Nys. “A 33 puts your bike more above the surface of the underground but a 30 cuts through it. The Limus 30 is only possible when there is no thick mud. If it is possible to ride on the 30, I think it’s really an advantage. When I can ride on these tires, my motivation is also a little bit higher.”

While breaking his collarbone was a setback, Nys regained his form quickly. Thus, his season goals remain intact. “My goal is to be in the position to compete for the win in every U23 race,” said Nys. “In the elite category, I’ll try to ride as many top-10s as possible. Of course, the World Championships are a big goal also!”

We look forward to watching Thibau continue to step out of his father’s shadow and cast his own!