The comeback star: Marianne Vos on her stellar cross season and the pure joy of being back

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What a difference a year can make. When we spoke to Marianne Vos around this time last year, her return to racing was still uncertain. She had been sidelined with injuries for over a year, and her comeback was much anticipated.

The multiple world and Olympic champion admitted to being doubtful about her recovery and frustrated by the uncertainty. But she made a successful return to racing just weeks later, in March. She rode a full season with her Rabo-Liv team, which saw her back on top of the podium at the Pajot Hills Classic, Tour of California and the Aviva Ladies Tour.

In the 2016 season we also witnessed a new Vos. Always a race favourite, she added several more wins to her already lengthy palmares, but her most memorable performances of the year were perhaps in the role of domestique. An invaluable asset to the Dutch squad, Vos became the world’s best bottle-getter in the team’s golden performance at the Rio Olympics and served as Kirsten Wild’s final leadout on her way to a silver medal at the UCI road world championships in Qatar.

This winter, Vos’ return to the dirt was equally anticipated. Absent from the startline since January 2015, the seven-time cyclocross world champion expected to return in good form, but even she herself was surprised to be winning as much as she has these past few weeks.

With just two weeks till the pinnacle event of the cyclocross season, the 2017 UCI Cyclocross World Championships, we caught up with Vos during her training camp in Calpe, Spain, where she and her new WM3 Pro Cycling team are preparing for the fast-approaching road season.

Pure joy: Vos is back in winning form

“Pure joy” to be back at it

Vos is fresh off the massage table when we chat. She won the highly technical crash-fest that was the Fiuggi World Cup race the previous day and a massage “was in order”.

“My body isn’t used to all that running and off-camber,” Vos said.

The course in Fiuggi was twisty, narrow and surprisingly technical. It resulted in a chaotic race with lots of crashes and plenty of complaints afterwards. Vos, however, managed to stay upright more than most and crossed the finish line a full 40 seconds ahead of second place finisher Katerina Nash.

“The conditions were quite unique and it was unusually technical for an Italian course. But cyclocross is about dealing with the conditions and circumstances that you’re given –sometimes it’s sand, the other time it’s snow or ice, and this weekend it was a sheet of ice with mud on top. You just have to deal with it, and for me that’s part of the appeal of the sport,” said Vos. “It was tricky course and I am sure it made for some entertaining spectating for the viewers at home.”

For those keeping score, Fiuggi was Vos’ eighth cyclocross race of the 2016-17 season, six of which she has won. With only two weeks till the 2017 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Bieles, Luxumbourg, Vos will once again be lining up as a race favourite, despite the fact that she’d been missing from the line-up for almost two years.

“I missed a full season, and that was a long time. It felt like a very long time, too, but it’s not like I didn’t ride or train for two years. As you know, I had a full road season this year and so I feel the build-up to the [cross] season was a long one,” explained Vos, negating any notion of surprise regarding her remarkable comeback.

Vos in the tri-coloured Dutch national champion kit.

“Throughout the road season, I noticed that I was getting better and it wasn’t till my last races of the season –the Olympics and the world championships– that I felt my best. And so I entered the winter period with a good feeling and a lot of motivation.”

Still, Vos admits that coming across the finish in fourth place at Scheldecross in Antwerpen on December 17 –her first race in two years– was beyond her expectations, as was being back on top of the podium that following week.

“That I subsequently won a week later, that was really great. It’s something I’d hoped for, of course. It’s what you dream of, but it’s something I had perhaps expected later in the season,” she said.

And it showed. You look at the finish line photos now and you can see just how much that victory meant to Vos.

“Well, yeah. You and I talked at the beginning of the season last year and so you know where I was at. That I had my doubt about returning to the top, to my old form. That I wasn’t sure how long it would take, or if I was going to make a full recovery,” she said. “But that doubt and that hope that it’ll all be OK come together in a moment like that, and it’s a great feeling. It’s not a feeling of relief, it’s pure joy. And I had missed that.”

And as though she is making up for lost time, Vos has just kept on winning. Following that first victory at the Superprestige in Diegem, Vos has also taken the win as the World Cup Heusden-Zolder, GP Sven Nys, Centrumcross Surhuisterveen, the Dutch national cyclocross championships and World Cup Fiuggi.

“Being able to contest the win is, of course, reassuring,” said Vos. “The level and depth of women’s cyclocross has grown. And for me coming back, the concern was just how much the level had risen and where I’d fit in. It’s reassuring that I can still race for the win.”

Winning the Dutch National CX Championships felt “extra special,” Vos said.

CX World Predictions

And with that renewed confidence, she’ll be heading into the world championships on January 29th. While she’s proud to again be sporting the tri-coloured Dutch national champion jersey, she can’t help but eye the rainbow jersey as well.

“I’m in good form and I just need to sustain it for the coming weeks,” said Vos. “We’re in Calpe to work on our base for the road season ahead but I’m doing so also with the [cyclocross] world championships in mind. My endurance and speed is what I rely on in cross, combined with technical skills of course, and it’s something I take with me from the road into cross.”

Her form certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by her competitors. Even US national champion Katie Compton, who’s been watching most of the European races from afar was quick to name Vos among the race favourites for the world championships.

“Marianne is riding great,” Compton said. “You can see it in her riding style, in her accelerations, in her technical riding. It’s amazing how smooth she was riding [at Fiuggi], she made it look super easy.”

When the same question was posed to her, Vos rattled off a lengthy list of names of competitors, highlighting that the number of race favourites is bigger than in previous years, which is a good sign of a growing sport:

“Katerina Nash is in great form at the moment. Katie Compton has had a different lead-up than in other years but will surely be competitive. Of course there’s reigning world champion Thalita de Jong, who may have had a few lesser weeks but I expect that if the course is hard in Luxembourg she’ll be resurfacing at the top. Then there’s Sanne Cant, of course, who will be going after the rainbow jersey, and Sophie de Boer –the World Cup series leader –is a rider who this season has been contesting the podium weekend after weekend.”

Marianne Vos and Anna van der Breggen celebrate Olympic gold.

2016 Reflections

A year centered around her comeback, 2016 was a memorable one for Vos, having proved to herself that she’s not only recovered but that she still belongs in the sport and has a role to play.

“I guess I walked away knowing that I still got it,” said Vos. “It was a year of finding my old form, my place and to make a comeback. For me personally, the highlights were the Olympic Games in Rio and the world championships in Qatar. I played a supporting role at both, which was perhaps something new for me and many people thought it was strange to see me in that role. But it gave me a lot of joy and satisfaction, and I am very happy I was able to contribute in that way.”

Vos and her WM3 Pro Cycling teammates in Calpe, Spain

Moving forward: a new season and new WM3 Pro Cycling Team

At the start of the 2016 season, Rabobank announced that after 20 years of sponsorship, it was going to end its support of pro cycling. While Vos and team manager Eric van den Boom committed themselves to finding new sponsors to go forward with the team, many of the big name riders like Anna van der Breggen, Thalita de Jong and Lucinda Brand found homes elsewhere.

But Vos, five of the remaining riders and some staff have formed a new WorldTour team that’s continuing under the name WM3 Pro Cycling. With the backing of a sustainable energy consultant company, Ridley Bikes and other sponsors, the team will be supported through the 2020 Olympics, where Vos hopes to line up for a fourth time.

The WM3 Pro Cycling Team’s roster includes former Rabo-liv members Yara Kastelijn, Jeanne Koreveaar, Dutch road champion Anouska Koster, Polish road and time trial champion Kasia Niewiadoma and Moniek Tenniglo as well as transfers Lauren Kitchen (formerly Team Hitec), Valentina Scandolara (formerly Cylance Pro Cycling), Riejanne Markus (formerly Liv-Plantur), Anna Plichta (formerly BTC City Ljubljana) and Israeli neo-pro Rotem Gafinovitz.

“For me and team manager Eric van den Boom it was clear that we really wanted to go on with the team, and I think we’ve composed a very good team. It’s a diverse team, but I think we have good balance,” said Vos.

“For the outside world, some names and choices may seem surprising, but I am convinced that it is a very nice mix. We prioritised a rider’s character, passion and willpower more so than plain results. And I expect we’ll be surprising people.”

Vos said that the team will always be going for the win, and that every rider will be given an opportunity.

“We will enter each race with a number of tactics, and every rider will be given a chance to show their potential,” she said, rejecting the idea of herself as the team’s only lead.

Vos winning her first world cup race in two years in Heusden-Zolder.

Quick fire round of questions

Ella: In 2016, we saw the introduction of a Women’s WorldTour (WWT). Do you think it’s an improvement from the previous women’s world cup series?
Vos: “I think the steps that we have yet to take are more important than what’s been made thus far,” she said, adding that much of the WordTour feels like a rebranding.

“But you’ve got to start somewhere, and races like the Women’s Tour of Britain and Tour of California are certainly worthy of a WorldTour and are improvements. And for this spring, great new races have been added to the calendar — that’s a big step forward as well. In general, I think that the recognition and appreciation for women’s cycling is improving. But it won’t be for another two or three years that we’ll be able to tell if the WWT was a true improvement.”

Ella: You are turning the big 3-0 this year. How do you feel about that?
Vos: :”Yes, I am turning 30 this year. I’m the oldest in this team, which is kinda funny. And it gets rubbed in occasionally. But I don’t feel old yet and I feel like I still have quite a few years left.”

“But with my experience, I do notice that I have been around longer than most. You know, I have done races that some riders in my team have never even heard of! But I don’t place too much importance on age. I’ll keep doing this as long as I am able and enjoy myself.”

Ella: Do you have any new year’s resolutions?
Vos: “No. Nothing specifically. Last year I decided to make sure I appreciate whatever comes my way, and I’m going to continue that mindset.”

Ella: You were with Giant a long time, how has the switch to Ridley been?
Vos: “I was with Giant for five years and we built a special bond, especially having gone through two Olympics. It was a nice sponsor-athlete relationship.”

“But now with Ridley, a Belgian brand, the connection there is good as well. They’re very enthusiastic and have a lot of experience, especially in cyclocross. It’s great to be on a bike that fits right away and performs just how you want it to. I felt at home on the Ridley right away. I know they’re my sponsor and I have to say this but that’s not why I am saying this. It really is a nice bike and you notice that there’s years of innovation and development behind it. I am very happy with it.”

Ella: You are a very avid reader. What was the best book you read in 2016?
Vos: “The Elephant Whisperer. I read this book on advice of a South-African friend. Very interesting read about wild life and the interaction between humans and elephants.”

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