Better luck next time

An interview with Nick Nuyens, February 6, 2008

Nick Nuyens' 2007 transfer from his position as one of Tom Boonen's lieutenants at the mighty Belgian Quick Step team – where he'd been his entire professional career – was seen as a very bold move by many. Cyclingnews' Ben Atkins caught up with the young Belgian star at the Cofidis' presentation as he looked forward to his second year with the French team.

On leaving Quick Step, one of the teams that concentrate most on the spring races that Nick Nuyens loves, many wondered if he'd be able to be successful without them. But Nuyens felt that he'd served his apprenticeship and wanted to be a team captain – something not possible without a change of team.

Early season results were positive. He picked up a stage and the overall classement in the Etoile de Bessèges, and followed that with some high placings in the Belgian classics, including fourth in the Omloop Het Volk and seventh in the Ronde van Vlaanderen – riding those races as undisputed captain for the first time.

Unfortunately this proved to be the high watermark of Nuyens' year as a series of crashes and bad luck peppered the second half of the season. The most high-profile incident saw him forced to abandon the Eneco Tour while leading the race.

"Not bad, but not great as well," is his overall verdict on his first year at Cofidis. "Because, I started really good, the classics were good, but then I was not really lucky with some crashes. I think, at that moment at the start of the Tour [where he fell when most of the front of the peloton came down at the end of Stage 2 into Gent]; then we had the problem with Moreni [returning a positive test for testosterone] in the Tour – we had to leave; then the mechanical problem in Hamburg; then my [Eneco Tour] crash. So, it was okay, but I don't quit races normally!" He laughs.

His expression turns more serious though, as he states frankly: "But it has to be better this year. I hope to be luckier this year."

So, a stronger 2008 is hopefully on the cards for Nuyens, and as a Belgian his targets are clear: "The classics, yeah." He grins, "I think for a Belgian: the Tour of Flanders, but then I'm in a French team so Paris-Roubaix is also really important, and normally I'm going to do also Amstel. Maybe also Flèche and Liège. Maybe, we have to check the condition at that moment."

To win big races like these, riders need a strong team around them – as Nuyens' years at Quick Step have showed him. So does Cofidis have a strong enough team to protect their captain through a successful classics campaign, and how much has the annual end of season merry-go-round affected this? Some riders may well have departed, but Cyclingnews specifically mentions Florent Brard as a possible lieutenant on the cobbles as he has always ridden Paris-Roubaix strongly, and finished the race as Premier Français with a personal best seventh place in 2005. Despite this, it is the return of another pavé specialist that Nuyens sees as a big boost to his chances.

"I don't know if Brard is going to do a lot of cobble races. We lost some good guys like [Tyler] Farrar [departed for Team Slipstream], always there to help me. [Michiel] Elijzen – a good guy, a strong rider, he left also – to Rabobank. But then we have [Frank] Hoj again, who was sick last year – or had injuries, so it's really important for the team – his experience. I think [Rik] Verbrugghe and [Sylvain] Chavanel are going to do some races with us."

Frank Hoj's experience was sorely missed in the classics campaign last year, and his return should improve Cofidis' chances immensely. If powerful riders like Verbrugghe and Chavanel can be drafted in to the team for these races, then they should prove to be a force to be reckoned with. Possibly even able to challenge the big Belgian Quick Step and Silence-Lotto teams. "I think we have a strong team," he claims confidently, "more experienced than last year, and yeah, I think we can do something."

Obvioulsy, if Nuyens is to win one of his big target races this year, he has to beat his usual rivals – most of whom will also be targeting those races. "It's the same like every year, riders like Boonen, Cancellara and O'Grady, Bettini, Ballan, Hoste. But I think they're the guys who are really the big favourites to win the races, I'm just a little bit under it."

He may modestly state that he, personally, is at a level below many of his classics opponents, but he is confident that the gap is closing between himself and the big favourites: "I'm improving every year; last year I showed that I am able to do fine in big races, and now I have to be a bit lucky, and I think I'm stronger again – I did good training in the winter. I think I'm stronger again, more experienced. Last year I was in a new position, we had to build the team, now the group is there, the atmosphere is there, now I can put more energy in the race, and I think it's an advantage."

Partly as a reaction to the aforementioned positive control from Cristian Moreni – and the team's subsequent withdrawal from the Tour de France – Nuyens' Cofidis team has announced a raft of new measures (in addition to the many existing ones) to combat doping. The end of 2007 saw teams like Discovery Channel folding due to problems finding new sponsors, as well as sponsors like T-Mobile withdrawing from the sport in reaction to past and current doping scandals. We wondered whether Nuyens and the rest of the team had been worried that Cofidis – the sponsor – may decide to remove its support from the team – especially as it has experienced some quite serious doping scandals in the past.

"Yes and no," he states frankly. "Because Cofidis is one of the teams who is really working on the doping problem, we have a lot of controls inside the team. So it was not really good that somebody in such a team was made positive. But on the other hand it was just one person, and not organised by the team, and I think that's a big difference."

"And we had a good season before the Tour, and afterwards also, so I was not really scared that the team would stop. At that moment, it was kind of depressing and we're thinking: "What's going to happen with us?" But one week later, [they said] we're going to continue a little bit more, and then I was with Boyer, he told us we're going on also in 2009. So it was good news after a bad period."

So rather than cutting and running, Cofidis is sticking by he team and supporting its efforts to practice vrai cyclisme (true cycling); and rather than quietly slinking away after the current deal is over, they have extended their contract by another year. It seems that doping scandals can reflect well on a sponsor as well – if it can be established that the scandal is an isolated incident in an otherwise clean team, and if that sponsor decides to position itself as a crusader for a clean sport. Thankfully, for the wellbeing of several dozen families – Nuyens concedes – Cofidis has decided that this will be its course of action.

"I think that if it's just one person positive, it's not so bad – for the sponsor also – like it's publicity – bad publicity is also publicity. If you have too many riders who are positive then you can get… Like what happened with T-Mobile, I understand. But if it's just one person, it would be a pity to stop a team after just one person. There are sixty other persons who are working, and doing their best…"

Like many cyclists – and athletes in most other sports – Nuyens has half an eye on the late summer, and the Olympic games road race in Beijing. However, as a great deal of riders are conceding, the course may well not be to his liking. It is suited much better to the climbers and so he concedes that he may be better advised to remain in Europe and concentrate his efforts towards more achievable goals, like the World championships in Varese, Italy.

"I don't know. I think if I really want to go [to Beijing], I can go. But I heard that the parcours is really hard, more for climbers and I'm not a climber at all, so I think that if I want to do the Worlds – in two or three weeks the national coach is going to look [at] the course. If it fits me then I'm going to work for the Worlds, then I think it's better to stay here and work well, no travelling to China."

The Olympic experience – even without winning a medal – is often the highlight of many sporting careers, but with more achievable targets in Europe, Nuyens will probably be watching the Beijing race on television. "Because, if I go to the Olympic games, it's just to be there, not to get a result. In my opinion I have to make a choice. It's quite a big experience to be in the Olympic games, but if the Worlds fits me really good, it's better to concentrate on that."

For now though, Beijing is several months away and he has some big ambitions to try and achieve before then. With a stronger and more experienced team behind him, expect to see the Cofidis jersey of Nick Nuyens fighting for results in many of the northern classics. He knows what it's like to win the big races in the crosswinds, over the cobbles and bergs. Don't bet against him doing it again, soon.

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