EuroCrossCamp can be so chock full of new experiences that it's hard for riders to digest everything until much later. But at this year's camp, one particular moment stands out: a holiday visit from reigning world champion, Sven Nys.
Through my friendship with Sven, I was able to arrange for him to zip over to our base in Vorselaar for a talk with this year's camp riders. By all accounts, the solid hour of Q&A was immediate and zenith-like. Sven responded with aplomb and virtually every day since, riders have shared some of the things they learned.
The first take-away was how approachable the riders found Sven. While they've been watching him for years on the Internet, seen him at camp races here in Belgium and, for some, at Louisville Worlds, they were struck by how down-to-earth and patient he was in the flesh - answering every question, sharing insight on everything from advice on warming up to how he responds mentally to mid-race mishaps. It's not every day that a sport's marquee name is so sociable, so accessible.
Second-year U23 Drew Dillman from Louisville, KY: "I was impressed that Sven said he had no regrets during his career. That he had achieved all that he set out to, that he had won all the big prizes many times over. That he could rest with a sense of accomplishment, having given everything to his sport." Dillman added, "And it was cool that he said, the highlight of his career was winning Louisville Worlds. I know that course like the back of my hand. That was special."
California-Giant U23 Tobin Ortenblad related that he took value in how Sven responded mentally to in-race adversity. "Sven said to just stay calm, catch guys back one-by-one, to ride within yourself, and don't try to go back up the front group in one lap because you're sure to blow up your engine."
Another topic that junior Gavin Haley, also of Louisville, said struck a chord was how Sven actually prefers to warm-up on the road, as opposed to the trainer. Sven related that he likes the open-air, the naturalness of moving through the air, the getting your whole body - your arms, your shoulders - more fully engaged. Later, we all discussed the challenges to warming up on unfamiliar roads in uncontrolled conditions, but that, for some, either the road or a lap on the course itself can be a great warm-up.
Cody Kaiser, also of Cal-Giant, asked about the Loenhout incident of a year ago where Sven tossed his sporting interests aside (and pretty much took himself out of the bPost overall series) by stopping to chastise a beer-dousing fan on the final lap. Sven said that after some early laps of getting splashed, he became incensed. With each passing lap, he told himself he was "gonna get that guy and have a word with him. Finally, on the last lap, I jumped off and grabbed him and told him he was being stupid. I think it had a big effect, but it was too bad that then some other guys got into it and starting beating him up after I left."
With an M.S. degree in Exercise Physiology, women's elite rider Courtenay McFadden remarked on Sven's monitoring of his glucose levels: "I was impressed by how in tune Sven is with his body. The fact that he now measures, via pin-prick and machine, his glucose levels 45-minutes prior to racing, is fascinating." Sven went on to say that he has always had a good sense of whether he's had enough or too little to eat before a race, but his new method of monitoring allows him to fine-tune his fueling.
As a coach, a big highlight for me was getting directions from Sven again to the sandy climb that he does intervals on during his mid-week training sessions. I had visited the climb many times back when I was writing my book in 2007, but wanted to take the riders there again. Next day, we headed over and it was every bit as tough as I remember. The concept of a "Sven hill" has become a staple at all my camps and serves as in inspiration for me with my coaching. While the science of sport continues to elevate, sometimes it's important to remember that training can be as simple as drilling it - over and over - up a tough, gritty cyclo-cross climb. Like the king himself.
After a few autographs and some affable photo shooting, Sven jumped back into his wife's Audi A5 ("she lets me drive it once in awhile") and headed back to Baal to resume the madness that is the holiday blitz: the kerstperiode. Ten huge races in a three-week span.
Sven had given the gift of the sharing of his time. Our group couldn't have been more appreciative.