The European cyclo-cross scene may be suffering under the weight of its own success, and several disgruntled players are pinning the blame on one man - the Lance Armstrong of 'cross - Sven Nys.
Nys has dominated the European 'cross seasons for several years now, and as a result, his value to race promoters has gone up - as has his appearance fees. While fans may clamour to get a glimpse of the Belgian champion, not everybody is happy with the situation. Unlike North America, where riders make their money solely from the cash prizes given out to the top finishers, European 'cross racers (or at least the big names) are paid start fees by the race organisers.
They can do this because, unlike North American races, fans must pay to get in to watch their heroes. Every weekend, upwards of 30,000 people pay 5-10 euros to drink beer and eat frites while watching the races in person, and hundreds of thousands more tune in to the races on television.
Nys is said to garner up to 8,000 euros just to show up at a race, but the manager of the team which fields some of his biggest rivals is concerned that such high start fees are hurting the sport.
Fidea team manager Hans van Kasteren directs a squad with two former World Champions, Bart Wellens and Erwin Vervecken, as well as a host of talented young riders. He is also the organiser of the GP Zonhoven, and worries that big starting fees are going to turn away fans if promoters have to raise the ticket prices for the events in order to afford to attract the sport's top names.
"The start fees are getting too high," he told sport.be. "We don't want to lose the average fans who come with their families and also want to buy some frites and beer [in Belgium, entrance to 'cross races is typically five to ten euro - ed.] These are the people that made 'cross big."
Van Kasteren said that he doesn't encourage his riders to ask for such high fees, and this has led to a disparity between Nys and his own riders, including Wellens and Vervecken. "Last year, [Nys], as a non-world champion asked for more than the year before when he won the World Cup and Belgian Championship," he argued, adding that cyclo-cross riders do not need to rely as much on appearance fees as they have in the past. "Cyclo-cross riders now have a very good monthly salary," he said.
Nys, for his part, said that his start fee for GvA and SP races had not changed as compared to last season. "It is only for the races that are not part of a series that I am asking for more." Nys added that despite his high fees he also offers something to the races. "Every organiser gets what they deserve: A Nys who flies, who provides a spectacle and who tries to win."
Nys' manager Christophe Impens van Golazo laughed about the criticism. "Nys is worth a lot more than 8,000 euro. A university study last year estimated his economic value to between 15,000 and 20,000 euro!"
On his 'blog, Nys simply was eager to get going with the racing. "I train and in about 10 days we have the first Superprestige. The best thing will be to answer with the pedals. No more words, just action."
Three-time World Champion upset by low offers
Triple world champion Ervin Vervecken is one of those still negotiating his fees for the Gazet van Antwerpen (GvA) and Superprestige (SP) races. The Fidea rider was in intense negotiations with the organisers. "After long discussions and despite concessions from my side, we have not been able to reach an agreement," Vervecken said on sport.be. He pointed out that even though he understands receiving less than last year, when he was world champion, there were limits. "Sixty percent less money [than last year], I can't accept that."
Van Kasteren blamed Nys' high start fees for the crisis of Vervecken. "Nys has to be careful that he doesn't become the victim of his own success," van Kasteren said.
Vervecken offered a greatly reduced rate, but found that it wasn't enough. "I was willing to start for half the money, but even that didn't go down well with the Gazet van Antwerpen and Superprestige." Vervecken was especially upset when he heard about the start fees for some of his competitors. "[Enrico] Franzoi still has to win a big race," Vervecken said.
Vervecken said that he will still appear at some of the series races, even if he cannot come to an agreement with the overall series coordinators, as he has negotiated deals with individual race organisers.