When I go to meet Marianne Vos in the small Dutch town of ‘S Gravensmoer, the villages seem to become smaller and smaller the closer I get. The roads are narrow, tractors are interspersed with traffic and I pass one city limit sign after another.
A town sign greets me to De Moer and a couple of roundabouts later, the same sign is posted with a red line through it. In that fashion I pass several more towns in the short span of just 10 kilometres.
I wonder if city limit sign sprints are a thing around here and I make a mental note to ask Vos about that later. I, of course, will totally forget about it as that tends to happen when you talk to Vos. You’ll be having a great conversation until suddenly you realise an hour and a half has gone by. And while you could easily pick her brain for another few hours, you’re probably overstaying your welcome –though she’s far too polite to ever give you any indication you’ve done so.
I meet Vos at the OBS Sports Management office, just a short 20-minute drive from her home in Babyloniënbroek. She hurries down the stairs as I walk in and we settle in a conference room that’s far too big for just two of us. Having seen each other just two days prior, we catch up on the weekend’s events and make some small talk. We talk about the heavy winds we endured on our rides that morning, the incredible performance of her teammate Thalita de Jong at the World Cyclocross Championships and the unfortunate case of Femke van den Driessche’s technical fraud.
She’s open, frank and genuine, as she always is. Well over a decade in the spotlight and she’s still as down-to-earth as she was when she won her first rainbow stripes in the junior world road race in 2004. She’s just a little less shy now.
As she takes a sip of her Rooibos tea, I jump right in. I’m eager to hear about the topic that’s been on everyone’s mind: her comeback.
The 12-time world champion has been sidelined with injuries since December 2014, and only made a couple of race appearances in early 2015 before completely disappearing from the start line for the remainder of the year. Her absence was a topic of conversation in the cycling media all year long and while the racing was spectacular, she was missed by cycling fans around the globe.
– “You haven’t been able to race last year but this year you’re coming back…”
Yes,” Vos states with such certainty it’s almost startling.
– “So when?”
“That’s the question I have myself as well,” she says. “I would really like to be able to give you an answer to that question because it can’t come soon enough.”
It’s a big year for women’s cycling with the debut of the Women’s WorldTour, the Rio Olympics in July and a very late World Championships in October. As such, it’s a very long year and race fans will just have to patient, just as Vos has learned to become.
“Of course, I’m chomping at the bit but I’m not ready yet,” she says. “I can’t force it. I want to be cycling for a long time –that is one of the conclusions I came to last year. I am absolutely not done yet. So if it takes another month before I’m back, I have to take the time that is necessary. I have to be extremely patient with this, which doesn’t come naturally to me.”
In November she learned that she was able to start training again, and there was a light at the end of what had been a very long and dark tunnel. Her focus now is on finding her form again without perpetuating her injury, which was caused by overtraining in the first place.
But while Vos stood along the sidelines, the women’s peloton continued to grow. Jumping in now, after essentially having been gone since September 2014, will not be an easy task.
“Oh but that is good,” says Vos, always up for challenge. “That’s professional sport. The level of cycling has grown, especially in the depth and the top end has certainly progressed since 2014 as well. I am convinced however that if I reach the level that I know I can reach and regain my fitness then I won’t have to be afraid of the competition.”
There have been rumblings about Vos’ fitness and her return to the peloton for the past few months, and skeptics doubt that Vos will be able to gain back the formidable form that allowed her to dominate the past few years. Vos however pays little attention to sceptics and is focused solely on what she can control: regaining the same form she had prior to her injury, if not better.
“I do intend to come back in my old form. That’s how I can be of the most value to my team and can be in the front of the peloton. I don’t have any doubts that I will be able to race against the competition where it is now but I do of course sometimes worry about getting my old shape back and when.”
Of course, if you’re Vos, you don’t just want to make a comeback and race for the sake of racing. You want to win. You want to be your best and when Vos is her best, she dominates. It’s a drive within her that no amount of injury time can tame.
“I love racing and I don’t want to be filler in the peloton,” she admits. “In everything I do, I have always wanted to be the best. Sure, sometimes you have to admit that others are better and at the moment I am certainly not the best. Absolutely not. But I’m trying, for myself, to get the best out of myself and when I do start to race again I want to be able to play a role and be of value to my team.”
– “A role?” I interject.
“Yes, a role. Whether that means attacking and blowing up the peloton or even to close a gap for another — that’s a role. I wouldn’t have any problem doing that. But I won’t race just to finish it,” she says.
Rabo-Liv is going into the 2016 season with not one leader but three, as Anna van der Breggen, Vos and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot all are healthy and trying to be their best for the Rio Olympics in July.
“The focus is on being the best team. Of course, everyone’s individual goals within the team need to be clear and well-communicated. That’s not easy. You cannot have hidden agendas but I think we know each other well enough, accept and respect one another and are all different enough that there is no tension,” says Vos.
A mutli-discipline season?
Following her golden year in 2012, in which she won just about everything one can win on the road –the world cup series, Olympic gold and the world championships –Vos decided she needed a new challenge and set her sights on mountain biking with the ultimate goal of making it to the Olympics.
– “What happened to your mountain biking aspirations? Is that still happening?” I ask.
“No. That’s not happening. Physically I’m not there,” Vos states. “I have to get fit first and mountain biking, from the start, was always a challenge in which I didn’t know if I could succeed. I had my doubts and I knew it was going to be very difficult. Mountain biking doesn’t suit my strengths naturally but I did very much enjoy doing it. I improved my technical skills but I noticed I did still have a ways to go. And I know that, with the way things are now, I cannot combine the two. I don’t want to take any risks and my full focus is now on the road.”
However, cyclocross fans shouldn’t be alarmed. The seven-time former world cyclocross champion has no intention of giving it up.
“Yes, I do want to continue doing ‘cross but I don’t even know yet what my road season will look like let alone my cross season. But I do enjoy it very much and would like to continue combining a cross with a road season. I think it can be a very strong combination if balanced properly as I have done in the past,” Vos says.
– “Could you choose one if you had to – cross or road?”
“Luckily I don’t have to choose!” Vos says with a smile.
“I enjoy the game that is road racing and the tactical games you play the road,” she says. “But in cross, I like the dual as well. Barring any mechanicals, it’s even more honest. It comes down to the individual and the searching of the right gear, the right line, the right tactics and you’re going full gas from start to finish. On the road there are factors over which you have absolutely no control. But road has so many beautiful aspects of it too that I’d miss. I simply can’t choose.”
I don’t think Vos will ever get sick of talking about her love for racing. I’ve heard her do it many times before but this time it’s different. There’s a longing to get out there and be part of the competition again.
A tough year but also an eye-opening one
Plain and simple, 2015 was a crap year for Vos. It’s one she’d gladly skip altogether if she could. Her passion, her job, her everyday life even her identity was uprooted when she couldn’t race anymore.
“I had too many good days and too much hope to succumb to depression but sure, there were bad days. Nights I couldn’t sleep and days where I’d wonder what I was getting out of bed for. I felt so incredibly useless. I always want to bring value to something and be of use. And how was I going to do that?” Vos says.
The frustration lay in the uncertainty. The not knowing when she’d be able to train again, race again, be herself again.
“You know at some point, you get really tired of people asking you how things are going when you, yourself, don’t know the answer. Overtraining or ‘overreaching’ is not like a broken bone. The doctors couldn’t give me a set date. I had to feel it out, find balance and that is completely against my nature. I want to find the limit, not balance. I certainly got a lesson in patience,” says Vos.
Eventually she was able to turn her drive of always wanting to be the best into becoming the best at resting and recovering and finding purpose in that.
“It was harder than training. Still is,” says Vos.
The year wasn’t wasted, however, as it brought her some valuable life lessons.
“I more than ever before realized how special it is to be healthy and that you shouldn’t take it for granted. It’s a blessing not a guarantee. It was a little irritating to come to that realisation at the moment I no longer have it, but that’s how it goes. That’s the irony of life,” says Vos.
“But because I was forced to take a break from my everyday routine, I realized just how much I love doing this. Whereas two years ago, had someone asked me how long I wanted to continue [racing] I might have said ‘I don’t know, maybe 3 or 4 years’ because it eventually becomes a grind. But now I have no date in mind at all. I think it’s the most beautiful thing one can do. I tried doing other things [turns out that motorcycles are not her thing] but nothing compares to professional sport.”
Who am I?
Many people go on sabbaticals and epic trekking journeys to find out who they are. For Vos it was the absence of doing that allowed for some soul searching.
“I have been a professional athlete since I was 18. As a shy girl I became world champion and was thrown into the spotlight. I didn’t know what to do with that. I just wanted to bike and be the best yet suddenly I had all these extra responsibilities and people start talking about you, asking things of you, expecting things of you. That’s part of the sport, too, and you have to learn how to cope with those aspects, too, but from that moment on I became ‘Marianne Vos, the cyclist’. That identity continued to manifest itself for myself and others in my results. My accomplishments confirmed what I was, am, good at. And what I enjoyed doing,” says Vos.
“But then I found myself sidelined. I no longer was ‘Marianne Vos, the cyclist’. I don’t lean on my achievements from the past because I can’t do anything with that. World and Olympic titles are wonderful but that’s not the present. What and who am I now, in the present? I do think that this has been an important lesson for me personally. I am not just ‘Marianne Vos, world champion’ but also ‘Marianne Vos, the person’ and it’s OK to appreciate myself for who I am as a person and not just for my achievements.”
So who is that person, then?
Perhaps a little bit more open, less shy and willing to step up and go where she can be of most value, Vos says.
Photo and video shoots are still not her thing but she’s found joy, and perhaps a second career, in bringing her knowledge to providing race commentary and accepting leadership roles. She brings value to the sport and to those around her, on and off the bike, she knows that now.
But still, Vos belongs on the bike. It’s what she was made to do and it’s where she is happiest. When exactly she’ll be back remains to be seen but knowing she’ll be back is all she needs. 2015 is in the past now, as are all the titles, trophies and jerseys collecting dust in a shed somewhere in Meeuwen. She will not look at them. Her green eyes are looking only forward. There is no going backwards on the course, after all, and the white line is calling.