A generation of dominance: how the Dutch women got to be so strong
World road champion: Chantal Blaak.
World time trial champion: Annemiek van Vleuten.
Olympic road champion and Women’s WorldTour leader: Anna van der Breggen.
European road champion: Marianne Vos.
European time trial champion: Ellen van Dijk.
The Dutch are as dominant as ever in women’s cycling. Of course, this may not seem like a new thing. Throughout the past 12 years, Marianne Vos has graced the top step of the podium more times than any other rider in the sport’s history, just as Leontien van Moorsel had made history of her own before her. What is remarkable, however, is the sheer number of strong Dutch in the current peloton. There’s not just one rider leading the charge, it’s a whole generation.
This became especially apparent at the 2017 UCI Road World Championships in Bergen, Norway, where all eyes were on the all-powerful orange squad. A winner was sure to come from within this team, but the question was who? Any one of the eight riders had the potential to win, and other nations were forced to gamble.
In the team time trial, the Dutch-registered Sunweb team upset race-favourites and fellow Dutch-registered team, Boels-Dolmans. In the individual time trial, the Dutch took silver and gold. In the road race, it was Chantal Blaak who took the honours, earning The Netherlands their tenth Word Championships victory.
While the Dutch women are always a force to be reckoned with, the wide-spread dominance of the current generation is unprecedented. So we asked: how did the Dutch women get to be so strong?
Dutch pioneering in women’s cycling
To get to where the Dutch are today, we have to glance back in history. Long before the Dutch cycling federation started recognising women’s racing in the 1960s, women have been part of it. Often considered the pioneer of Dutch women’s cycling, Mien van Bree earned several medals and titles in the 1930s, although she had to travel and even live in other countries to compete. By the end of the decade, she’d become a two-time unofficial world champion (the first official UCI World Championships weren’t held till 1958) and European champion, but her cycling career was abruptly halted when the Second World War broke out.
After the women’s World Championships became a recognised event, Keetie van Hage was the first official Dutch world road champion in 1968. Van Hage repeated her win in 1976, taking over the rainbow jersey from compatriot Tineke Fopma. Van Hage earned another six Worlds medals on the road and also won four gold medals on the track.
Petra de Bruijn earned the Dutch their fourth road Worlds title in 1979, but after that, the Netherlands had to make do without a world road champion throughout the eighties – although they did take silver and bronze in 1987.
In the nineties, a new name appeared, and it was a name that would be at the top of race results for years: Leontien van Moorsel.
While the Dutch women before her had had a prominent place in women’s cycling, Van Moorsel was the first to absolutely dominate. Her intense rivalry with Frenchwoman Jeannie Longo is still one of the most (in)famous rivalries in modern women’s cycling history.
Van Moorsel won almost everything there was to win. She’s a two-time world road and time trial champion, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the time trial and the 2000 Olympic road champion. Additionally, she took a handful of Olympic and world titles on the track, and held the world hour record from 2003 until 2015.
Although Van Moorsel was in a league of her own, compatriots Monique Knol, Chantal Beltman and Mirjam Melchers earned plenty of victories of their own at World Cup events.
This generation was the first wave of female professional cyclists to enjoy increased media coverage, which certainly played a part in inspiring and fostering young Dutch girls to take up cycling.
The Vos era
A new era commenced in 2006, when the then 19-year-old Marianne Vos bested Germany’s Trixi Worrack and Great Britain’s Nicole Cooke at the World Championships in Austria.
Today, Vos hardly needs an introduction. She’s a three-time road world road champion, seven-time cyclocross world champion, five-time World Cup series winner, an Olympic champion on the road and the track, and holds several national and European titles as well.
After a decade-long domination, you’d be hard-pressed to find a race on the elite calendar that she hasn’t already won. A living legend, Vos continues to be a race favourite whenever she lines up.
But in the past few years, the competition has risen to meet her and the level of women’s cycling is higher than ever before. Her stiffest competition, may just be her compatriots however.
The brink of another Dutch era
As Vos struggled with injuries these past few seasons, compatriot Anna van der Breggen took her spot at the top. Since 2012, Van der Breggen has had one career-best season after another, highlighted by three consecutive Flèche Wallone wins, two Giro Rosa victories, the European road race title, the 2017 UCI Women’s WorldTour series title, Olympic bronze in the time trial and the Olympic gold medal in the road race.
In 2017 she made history when she became the first woman to win the “Triple Crown” by winning all three Ardennes Classics —a feat that has only been done twice before at the hands of Philippe Gilbert and Davide Rebellion.
While she’s already got four World Championship medals in her trophy chest, the rainbow stripes eludes her still.
It was her fellow Dutch women, Annemiek van Vleuten and Chantal Blaak that beat her to it in this year’s World Championship time trial and road race —both big contributors to this generation of Dutch dominance.
Van Vleuten, especially, has been coming into her own these past few seasons, emerging as a formidable climber and time trialist. If it hadn’t been for her crash, she would have likely been the winner of Rio Olympic road race in 2016. But as awful as the crash had looked, Van Vleuten made an impressive comeback, returning stronger than ever before.
In 2017, she enjoyed her best season yet, kicking off the UCI season with a win at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race followed by podiums at various spring classics, a win the Dutch national time trial championships, an incredible performance at the Giro Rosa where she ended in third, and absolutely dominated the two-day La Course. The rainbow jersey in the World Championship time trial in September was the icing on the cake, but she has since also won the Dutch national MTB Marathon title and will spend the winter chasing some track aspirations.
Where is this strength coming from?
“We’ve always been strong, but this is pretty incredible,” Vos told Ella CyclingTips ahead of the World Championship road race.
Her theory behind their dominance? Youth development, structure, visibility and a high level of competition.
A big pond
“There has always been some level of appreciation for women’s cycling [in the Netherlands],” Vos explained. “Since the very first women’s world championships, we’ve had Dutch women who won races.”
The fact that women were active in the sport, that they were successful and visible, and received respect, was essential for the inspiration and development of the next generation of riders, Vos said. It has built up over decades and generations, to eventually result in the powerhouse that the Netherlands is today.
Mien van Bree founded The Netherlands’ first women’s cycling club in 1930, and the Dutch cycling federation, KNWU, reports that as of 2016, there are 214 elite and amateur racing club with a women’s component, and 536 touring (non-racing) clubs. Additionally, a 2014 survey conducted by GfK showed that 1.2 million Dutch adults participate in some competitive cycling activity once a month.
Furthermore, with four Dutch-registered women’s WorldTour pro teams, and numerous WorldTour and top level UCI races taking place on Dutch soil, there is plenty of exposure to racing, making it far less of a niche sport as it is in other countries.
As such, “it’s pretty normal for girls to take up cycling, which is different from other countries,” Anna van der Breggen told Ella CyclingTips. “And so there is a big pond of talent from which the federation can pick talents to develop.”
Dutch national coach Thorwald Veneberg said that not only is there a great number of talent, there’s a structure in place to support them.
“The Netherlands has developed a great structure in the sport, with clubs and both professional and amateur women’s teams,” Veneberg said. “This means women have the opportunity to train and develop at their own level and with other women, instead of always having to train with men.”
Furthermore, access doesn’t just mean access to cycling clubs, it also means having access to bikes and safe roads to ride on. The Netherlands is well known for its bicycling culture and infrastructure, and surely that plays a part into transitioning commuters into competitive riders.
“Because the Netherlands is such a cycling-oriented country, there’s an infrastructure that’s safe and stimulating for cyclists,” said Veneberg. “From a young age, kids cycle to school instead of being brought by car or picked up by the school bus.”
An early start
“I think that the current generation is so strong because all these girls started young and knew that ‘if I want to do this, I have to give it my absolute all’,” said Vos.
“Anna [van der Breggen] started riding as a young girl, Ellen [van Dijk] too. We have gone through all the steps from the youth categories to the junior categories and then the pros. I think we grew through the ranks together like that and I do think that we push one another.”
What’s worth mentioning here, however, is that unlike competitive cycling in Australia or the United States, there’s isn’t a strict or comprehensive category system in place. While there’s a difference between local club racing and professional racing, at most races, female riders ages 18 and up are thrown together into one field.
While in the long-run this could be problematic in growing the sport, this has been less of a hurdle in The Netherlands due to the fact that riders tend to come to the sport at a younger age. By the time the riders progress from the junior level to the elite level, they have the fitness, race-saviness and skills to hold their own.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a significant drop off rate, however, but the talent pool remains strong, Anna van der Breggen told Ella CyclingTips.
“Yes, our generation is a strong one, with Ellen, Roxane [Knetemann] and Marianne, but from my age group, I’m the only one left,” Van der Breggen said. “But I do think the sport is healthy and a whole new generation of strong girls is up and coming. And I hope we, at the top, can be an inspiration as well.”
Former Dutch coach Johan Lammerts said he’s seen a definite growth in the popularity of the sport among Dutch girls, and it’s that youth development that gives the Dutch an advantage.
“Because of the popularity of the sport with girls and women, the pelotons are big, which forces you to develop technical skills. You can tell that Dutch women have an edge over riders from other countries in that area, for example in mass sprints. Having learned and perfected these techniques from an early age is a big plus,” Lammerts said. “It’s the infrastructure of clubs and races to thank for.”
Structure and support
While crediting Lady Luck for initiating a popularity of the sport among Dutch women, Talent Coach of the Dutch cycling federation, Peter Zijerveld, credits structure for keeping it going.
“In my opinion, having such a strong generation of Dutch female cyclists has a lot to do with luck,” Zijerveld told Ella CyclingTips. “It was a matter of coincidence that we had a number of talented individuals who took up cycling and were successful. This started in the eighties, with Leontien van Moorsel, and later Marianne Vos.”
“But this did lead to an increased focus on women’s cycling, which led to the development of cycling clubs that provide an infrastructure for girls to train. The race calendar expanded and teams with good staff were set up — most notably, Team Rabobank.”
Recognising its potential for medals and growth, women’s cycling has been a focal point for the Dutch federation for a number of years.
“At the top, athletes enjoy a stable and solid support from NOC*NSF [the Dutch Olympic committee and sports federation], allowing more Dutch female cyclists to become full-time athletes,” Veneberg pitched in. “We offer additional support at the KNWU, since women’s cycling has been a focal point for us for years.”
This support comes in the form of stipends as well as the resources like access to professional experts, testing and equipment.
The financial support comes largely from the Dutch Olympic committee and sports federation. If an athlete has ‘status’ — meaning her race results qualify her for national selection or she’s a potential medal winner — she’s eligible for various resources and a monthly stipend of up to 2000 Euros a month.
The Dutch federation meanwhile provides race opportunities year-round for riders of all levels, regular training camps for the Dutch national selections, and a development team for up-and-coming riders to gain international racing experience.
The next generation is coming up fast
Looking ahead, another strong Dutch generation is knocking at the door, Van der Breggen said.
“A new generation is coming and I think there’s a great group of talented girls in there,” said Van der Breggen. “It’s hard to predict exactly how it will all unfold, but what I see is that there are a couple of really good ones in there.”
However, with the sport that is ever evolving and especially since women’s cycling is growing so fast, Vos warned that further development in the way the sport is structured is needed to help young riders develop to the top of the elite level.
“It is getting harder to take that step from the junior category to the women elite, which has everything to do with the current [high] level of women’s cycling,” Vos said.
“You start missing an in-between step —a development category. It’s too big a step from the junior category now. There’s no fun in being dropped straight after the neutral leadout.”
But Vos is optimistic, pointing to the addition of an U23 category at championships events as a good sign.
“It’s growing,” Vos said. “We’ll have an U23 world championship before long. Women’s cycling is growing and that’s a good thing.”
Whatever the Dutch are doing, it’s working for them. Cycling is booming in The Netherlands and that’s reflected in the top level of the sport. Of course, when you’ve got a long-standing cycling culture in place — both in terms of daily bike commuting and a long history of the sport — you’re starting off with an advantage over countries where cycling isn’t commonplace. But the youth-focused structure, well-supported programs and race opportunities are to be credited as well. Not to mention having plenty of stars for young riders to look up to.
Luckily, other countries are taking note and catching up. The Dutch may be leading the charge right now, but if we’re looking at the U23 peloton, the Italians — another historically strong country — have a strong generation coming up. And in the elites, we see some strong talent emerging from the US and Australia as well. What all this means is that the level of women’s cycling is higher than ever before, which makes for great spectating. We can safely say that the future of women’s cycling is looking bright.