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With a big smile, Ellen van Dijk (Team Sunweb) opened the door of her brand new home in Woerden, The Netherlands, and welcomed me in. When asked for an interview, it was she who suggested I’d stop by her home, a modern three-story house with a beautiful view over the Utrecht countryside.
Inside, her newly acquired European champion jersey hung from a big ‘congratulations’-banner – a gift from her parents, Van Dijk explained.
In the kitchen, she poured me a glass of water and we dove right into the topic du jour. Van Dijk is happy at Sunweb, happier than she’s been in a while. And that translates into results.
When she crossed the line 0.6 of second ahead of her compatriot Marianne Vos (WM3 Pro Cycling) in the opening prologue of the recent Ladies Tour of Norway, it was Van Dijk’s fourth victory this season – double the number of victories from last year. Furthermore, the 30-year-old has been instrumental to Team Sunweb’s success, serving as the main lead-out and work horse for a team that’s emerged a major contender in the Women’s WorldTour.
After a three-year stint, the former world individual time trial champion transferred from the dominant Boels-Dolmans team to Sunweb at the end of last year, a team in transition with big aspirations. With a new title sponsor, the former Liv-Plantur squad was building out its roster, acquiring riders like Lucinda Brand and Coryn Rivera – riders with experience and potential, but who may have been a bit overshadowed in their former teams.
“I think Lucinda and I were both having contract negotiations with Sunweb at the same time, and we knew that about each other,” Van Dijk shared. “I also knew that Coryn would join the team – but we didn’t know Coryn would do so well this year – I knew her name, but not much else.
“It all worked out really well and there’s such a good atmosphere within the team. It makes you really want to go to the races. It’s so important that you get along well since you are together almost 24/7 when you’re on the road.”
After a decade of racing at the top level of the sport, 2016 was a troublesome year for Van Dijk. In an Olympic year, goals, pressures and expectations were mounting yet Van Dijk was unable to capitalize on her training efforts to get the results she was after. And so this year’s personal and team’s success is a breath of fresh air.
“I myself have changed. Last year, I wanted to control everything, I was so focused,” Van Dijk said. “Everything had to go right, and if it didn’t, I was really upset. I’m much more relaxed now. That’s also due to the great interaction within the team.”
Olympic disasters and dreams
One of the major disappointments for Van Dijk in 2016 was watching her hard work and Olympic dreams slip away when, during the Olympic time trial, she rode into the ditch on an uphill section. She had been well on her way to a medal, perhaps even Olympic gold, but the seconds lost in the mishap saw her end up in fourth place, 11 seconds off the podium.
“I’ll never know what I would have achieved if I hadn’t ridden off the road then. I really struggled with that for a while,” said Van Dijk, clearly still affected by what happened. “I still find it difficult to think back to that time. You keep thinking ‘what if?’”
“But there’s no ‘what if’ in sport,” she added immediately. “And it was me who made the mistake, so I have no one else to blame. It happened and I have to deal with it.”
The silver lining of the experience was the fact that she, a flat course time trial expert, did exceptionally well on the hilly course in Rio.
“Ultimately, I was really surprised by how well it went,” Van Dijk said, changing her tone. “I really thought beforehand that I wouldn’t be competing for an Olympic medal. It was really special that I did. I was like: ‘Wow, I can actually do this!’.
And so the Olympic dream stays alive.
“An Olympic title is…something else. It’s really something I’d like to achieve in my career,” she stated.
So on to Tokyo 2020 then?
“Yes, I think so,” she responded. “But it’s still so far away in the future. It depends on how everything goes. And we don’t know anything about the course yet. Plus: so much can change in three years.”
“When people say something like ‘I have worked towards these Games for four years’, I don’t really know what to make of that. I don’t believe that for a second. I don’t believe that when you wake up today, you’re going out for training to peak in four years. Of course, it’s in the back of your head, but only a year in advance you can really start working towards that goal. But for now, I think I’ll continue until Tokyo,” she concluded.
Worlds: three chances to shine
Back to 2017. Van Dijk has secured five wins so far – four race victories and one GC win – while Team Sunweb’s total score stands at 14 victories. And Van Dijk has played an essential role in most of them.
“When your own chances of the victory are gone, the next best thing is to set up a teammate for the win,” she said, recounting the team’s historic win in Flanders. She had originally been designated as team leader, but when the race played out differently, Van Dijk assumed super-domestique duties in the nail-biter of a finale.
“I was really thrilled with Coryn’s win and so happy for her. That was really great, because if I wouldn’t have helped get Coryn the win, I would definitely have always looked back on that race with a bad feeling. Now I can really look back with pride.
“Of course you want to win yourself,” Van Dijk adds. “But if that’s not possible, it’s almost just as nice to contribute to your teammate’s win.”
Aside from Van Dijk and Brand, the team had been fairly inexperienced when it comes to the team time trial. Yet with Brand and Van Dijk as their ‘motors’ and leaders, the team has made significant strides.
So much so, that following their performances at the Giro Rosa and the Crescent Vårgårda team time trials, the UCI Road World Championships in Norway next month, may hold a double chance for Van Dijk to come home with a time trial medal.
“Our goal [with Team Sunweb] is to finish on the podium at the TTT Worlds,” said Van Dijk, already a three-time team time trial world champion. “That’s a realistic goal, I think. It still won’t be easy. I don’t think we have a chance to win, and we will have to battle Canyon-SRAM and Cervélo-Bigla for the remaining podium spots.”
The second opportunity, of course, is for Van Dijk to repeat her 2013 performance, when she earned the rainbow ITT stripes in Florence. She defended her European ITT title earlier this month, ahead of Ann-Sophie Duyck (Drops Cycling) and Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) so her form is promising.
“We have three great time trialists in the Netherlands, so it’s great that we can now all go to Worlds,” said Van Dijk, pointing out that her biggest competition may just come from her own compatriots, Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten.
“The [Worlds] course last year was better suited to my strengths, but I showed at the Rio Olympics that I can also do hilly time trials, so I’m just gonna go full gas and see where that gets me.”
And how about the Worlds road race?
“Rainbow stripes are always a goal,” Van Dijk confirmed. “The course is tough, with a big climb. Sometimes it’s difficult at championship events, because the individual time trial and road race are only a few days apart. It’s hard to get your focus back after you’ve done the time trial. But I am really going to try to keep that focus throughout the world championships week.”
The Dutch cycling association announced its selection for the UCI World Championships earlier this week and, as is often the case, the orange squad has a stellar lineup. With a roster consisting of Vos, Van der Breggen, Van Dijk, Van Vleuten, Brand, Chantal Blaak, Amy Pieters and Janneke Ensing, anyone can win and there’s a question of who the team will ride for.
“We haven’t discussed yet who will be the team leader this year,” Van Dijk said. “There is always a strict division between team leaders, the riders that are protected and who will ride in support of the team. I’m not sure yet whether it’ll be just one team leader this year or more.”
No matter which role will be assigned to Van Dijk in September, she’ll undoubtedly be an important asset for the Dutch as they try to bring the rainbow stripes back to the Netherlands.
A stab at the World hour record
An Olympic medal, repeating her worlds individual time trial title, maybe even wearing the rainbow stripes on the road for a season – Van Dijk’s career goals are as big as ever. And, always a fan of racing against the clock, the stab at the world hour record is up there on her pre-retirement wishlist as well.
The world hour record is currently held by Evelyn Stevens, Van Dijk’s former Boels-Dolmans teammate, who set a record of 47.98 kilometres in February 2016.
“I want to take on the world hour record,” Van Dijk confirmed. “I think I can do it, but you have to really prepare for it. It’s not something you just plan a week in advance,” she says. “And I don’t underestimate the effort it takes. But I think it’s really fun to do.
“No, fun isn’t the correct word,” Van Dijk corrected herself with a laugh, picturing the hour-long sufferfest. “I think it would be cool to hold the hour record. I’m just not really looking forward to those endless laps on the track.”
“I watched [Stevens’] attempt, but I wasn’t really closely following her preparation for it,” Van Dijk said. “But I know what it takes. I really like the time trial discipline and the science that’s behind it.”
And so, despite having spent the better half of her life racing bikes, Van Dijk still has plenty of goals to keep her motivated and fulfilled.
“What I have found throughout the years, is that it’s not the victories or the jerseys or titles that make you happy. It’s being able to do what you love most every day,” said Van Dijk. “But I’m only going to stay a professional cyclist as long as I’m enjoying myself.”
Quick-fire round of questions:
Ella: How was the switch from Specialized to Liv?
Van Dijk: “It took a bit of time to get the same position on my Liv bike, but now that I have found it, it’s a great bike.”
“When I started looking for a new team, the focus on the time trial and the bike brand were important aspects to me. Team Sunweb really pays attention to it, with track tests et cetera. Maybe the focus wasn’t really there in the women’s team yet, but they really like having me with the team and are very dedicated now.”
Ella: What’s the thing you had to get used to most when joining Team Sunweb?
Van Dijk: “How Team Sunweb sets up their race plan is a bit different, it’s all planned and confirmed well in advance. That was something new for me. A detailed race plan is set up in December and that’s how it’s going to go without exception, unless of course someone gets ill or injured. With other teams, the race schedule was only finalised a month in advance.”
“So I will just look differently at that race plan this year. It’s simply something you have to learn when you go to a new team.”
Ella: What did you think of the 2017 La Course?
Van Dijk: “The Izoard stage was great to watch, very tough. But because Annemiek [van Vleuten] was so good, it wasn’t that exciting actually.”
“The pursuit-style time trial, I don’t know. Maybe it was because Annemiek was just too good, there was never really a fight for the win. So this wasn’t really a good showcase for women’s cycling.”
“The La Course criterium on the Champs-Élysées was a nice start, but not really a great race either. If they’d combine the mountain stage, the Champs-Élysées criterium and a time trial into a three, maybe four-day stage race, that would really improve the sport.”
Ella: When retirement comes eventually, do you know what you might want to do then?
Van Dijk: “On the one hand, I’d love to remain part of the women’s cycling scene. You’ve built up your network and you have a lot of experience in that area. On the other hand, broadening your horizon can be very interesting too. I don’t really know yet.”
“Coaching would be an area I am interested in. Not just for the physical training aspect, but in combination with mental coaching. I profit from that personally and I think it’s a really important aspect in cycling, or any sport. So that would be nice too. Or I might go back to school, finish my Masters in Movement Science, or take up another interesting study.”