Chess outcast Hans Niemann says he was a top cyclist. Was he really? – Cycling tips

Chess outcast Hans Niemann says he was a top cyclist.  Was he really?  - Cycling tips

Since early September, the usually polite world of competitive chess has descended into acrimony and suspicion. There were accusations, and admissions, of cheating. There were (probably erroneous) accusations of vibrating anal beads. There were extensive lawsuits filed. Most news in the world weighed. And at the center of it all is Hans Moke Niemann, a 19-year-old American chess prodigy.

Niemann’s meteoric rise to world chess was capped by an upset victory over five-time reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen, the highest-ranked chess player in history. Carlsen didn’t like what he saw, suggesting that he thought there was something improper before going a step further and saying it directly.

In an impassioned defense, Niemann hit back at his critics, admitting to cheating twice in online games aged 12 and 16, calling it “the single biggest mistake of my life”, and saying that “this is the full truth … I would like to see if everyone else can actually tell their truth.”

Soon after, Chess.com published an extremely spicy report indicating that it is likely that Niemann cheated in more than 100 games – including prize money events and live-streamed games, some against the world’s best players.

Six weeks later, the 19-year-old is now pursuing his truth to the tune of US$100 million in damages, with a lawsuit against Carlsen, Chess.com and popular chess aviator Hikaru Nakamura. Niemann says he was vilified and blacklisted from the sport. The other parties believe, according to Carlsen’s words, that “Niemann cheated more – and more recently – than he publicly admitted”.

Hans Niemann in a game from October 2022, the day after a press conference where he said he “will not retire”. (Photo by TIM VIZER/AFP via Getty Images)

At the heart of this whole mess, really, is that concept of “truth.” Niemann kept his version of it, especially in a September 7 interview – “There was a lot of speculation, and a lot of things were said, and I think I’m the only one who knows the truth,” he said emphatically. Niemann claims he’s never cheated in “tabletop” games (as opposed to online), and independent judges tend to agree, even if there’s a lot of smoke surrounding the integrity of his results up until 2020.

But is Hans Niemann a reliable narrator? And more to the point, why we write about him (again) at CyclingTips?

The answer: before Niemann was a chess prodigy, he was apparently a top cyclist on the national stage.

Was he as good as he says he was? Well – that depends on your version of the truth.

Check yourself before Utrecht

When Hans Niemann suddenly became a household name this year, his past results as a chess player were scrutinized by Grandmasters, fans and the media, who were trying to figure out where he came from and whether his rise was credible.

Niemann’s rise has been rapid and he is still in his teens, but in chess terms, he is seen as something of a late bloomer. Where that talent blossomed was in Utrecht, the Netherlands, where Niemann’s family once lived.

His parents – one Danish, one Hawaiian – were ex-brothers working in the IT industry, and their son started chess lessons at the age of eight. At that stage, it was not only chess that had his attention.

(Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

According to De Volkskrant newspaper, “he also liked to get on his racing bike to participate in competitions.” According to Niemann, meanwhile, he “progressed much faster [in cycling]” than in chess. For the duration of his time living and riding in the Netherlands, Niemann sat in the youngest two age categories, holding a license with the Royal Dutch Cycling Union (KNWU) for two years, in 2011 and 2012.

In the Netherlands, “from the age of 8 you can compete in races and be as competitive as you want,” a KNWU spokesperson told me, when asked if the focus in the youth ranks is competition or development. “Some riders focus on results from a young age, others need and/or take more time.”

Niemann seems to have fallen into the former category. In 2020 article he wrote for the United States Chess Federation, he said that “I’ve always been a single-minded person. I competed in cycling in the Netherlands and was one of the best cyclists in the nation for my age when I moved back to California, so my competitive spirit has always been what motivates me in everything.”

Youth race at Niemann’s old club, WV Het Stadion. Photo: wvhetstadion.nl

“One of the best cyclists in the nation” is an ambiguous statement, and the wording is a bit woolly – it is not clear whether he was referring to his results in the Netherlands at the time, or in the United States after his return, and there is no numerical ranking. Regardless, if it is for the Netherlands we are talking about, we have a problem: in the words of De Volkskrant, “his claim that he is one of the best in his age group in the Netherlands is difficult to verify. There are no results on the internet that indicate that.”

so what do do we know about Hans Niemann’s cycling in the Netherlands? Well, he rode for the WV Het Stadion club, for starters – a club that bills itself as “the nicest* cycling club in Utrecht. [* and also the sportiest, most beautiful, most versatile and nicest cycling association in the Domstad]”.

The only results of Niemann’s that CyclingTips could find were from the 2012 National Championships – five laps of a short circuit for a total of 7 km, where Niemann finished one minute behind the winner in a 12 and a half minute race, 25th out of 35 participants.

Soon after, he was gone, leaving behind him in Utrecht a raft of chess tutors who remember him as “very fanatical” in his drive, paired with having a “very angry” streak when he lost. An approach to WV Het Stadion for information about his time with the cycling club went unanswered.

Hans Niemann, October 2022. (Photo by TIM VIZER/AFP via Getty Images)

California dreaming

Before the end of 2012, the Niemanns left the Netherlands and returned to California, where his cycling continued in 2013. In most of his races, he was unaffiliated with a club or team, although through June and July of that year – his last competitive outings – he is listed as riding for WV Het Stadion, his old Dutch club, more than half a year after he left the country.

There are indications of the technological interest of young Niemann in the sport. He was an an extremely early adopter of Strava, first recording a ride in February 2012 (he only followed one rider, Joe Dombrowski, and Niemann’s report is long dormant). But there is much more recent evidence of Niemann using his cycling to build his mythology.

In April 2021, Niemann aired his life story to Chess Life magazine, a long monologue with a very specific claim – both numerically and geographically – at the beginning of it. “I continued cycling after my initial return to the States, finding myself third for my age nationally,” says Niemann. Strange passive sentence construction aside, that statement is sharper than what he said a year earlier, and easier to disprove.

Hans Niemann was the cover star of Chess Life magazine, in which he talked about his cycling background.

So, was is he the third best cyclist of his age in the USA?

There is nothing in the results in the USA Cycling database that seems to support that statement. At the Northern California Nevada Cycling Association district track championships, he finished fifth out of five riders, in all six races. In the Valley of the Sun Road Race, he finished sixth out of eight on the general classification. In 24 races he started through the 2013 season, Niemann took no wins. Of his eight podium finishes, only two races had more than three riders.

USA Cycling’s rankings are calculated on a rolling basis and constantly in a state of flux, but on this evidence it’s hard to see Niemann as one of the top-ranked riders of his age in his state, let alone the entire country. No national championship appearances, few departures from the bubble of California cycling, no signs of the anointing of a future cycling star.

Which, to be clear, really never mind – forensic analysis of a child’s race results is not what a youth competition should be about. “Although USA Cycling offers competitive opportunities for youth under the age of 12,” a spokesperson told me, “we believe that at that age it’s mostly about skill development and making sure they have fun on the bike.”

And by July 2013, Hans Niemann apparently stopped having fun on the bike, or found something in chess that drove him more – “I stopped cycling and really concentrated on chess,” he said of a 10-year-old version of himself. that already saw the game as a “career”.

World-leading chess star Magnus Carlsen, of Norway, at a 2022 tournament. He now faces a $100 million lawsuit from Hans Niemann, who believes he has been defamed. (Photo by OLAF KRAAK/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

The end of the road

That brings us to the end of Hans Niemann’s foray into cycling – his love affair with the sport, which is mostly remarkable for how unremarkable it is. And that’s fine. Kids start riding, and kids stop. Kids win races and kids don’t. Children make up naughty stories on the playground. Sometimes children are told that they are special about something, and some of them probably internalize it and let the lines between truth and fiction blur.

But if you look at things a certain way – when a child grows into the most controversial chess player in the world, running his reputation and millions of dollars on the absolute truth of his words and actions – an inflated set of cycling results from a decade. before begins to look a little less mundane, and a little more educational.

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