Q&A with Marianne Vos: La Course, lessons learned, and what’s left to achieve
It’s the day before a long flight to Australia, Marianne Vos says. If you want to chat, let’s do it quickly or you may not catch me for a while.
Vos, 30, is no stranger to doing things quickly. Her list of achievements is too long to pore over in detail, and the basics are well- documented: multiple world titles on the road (three) and in cyclocross, (seven); Olympic gold on the track (2008) and road (2012); overall victory at the Giro d’Italia Femminile (three times); overall series winner of the UCI Women’s Road World Cup on five occasions.
In the 2012 season along, Vos won Olympic gold, the world road title and the World Cup title. There are countless other significant wins on her decorated palmares — the Tour of Flanders, Flèche Wallonne, Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Holland Ladies Tour, La Course by Le Tour de France — but you get the picture. Her domination is unparalleled; she’s the greatest woman to ever race a bike.
But these last few years have been marked by setbacks. She broke a collarbone in 2012 after a collision with a race moto; she broke the same collarbone in June of this year at the OVO Energy Tour. More significant was overuse injuries to her hamstring and back that sidelined her for almost all of 2015.
A junior national mountain-bike champion, Vos gave World Cup mountain-bike racing a concerted effort, hoping to make the Olympic team in 2016. She beat top riders at the Sea Otter Classic in April 2013, but struggled on technically demanding courses, including a broken rib in April 2015. She decided to stick with road and cyclocross, and did make the Dutch road team for the Rio Games, where teammate Anna van der Breggen won gold. Vos, the defending champion, finished ninth.
Over the past 12 months, Vos has tasted both success and disappointment. She won three UCI Cyclocross World Cup events during the 2016-17 season and finished second behind Sanne Cant at the world championship in February, a result that might’ve been an eighth world title if not for a dropped chain on the final lap.
Riding with a new team, WM3 Pro Cycling, Vos struggled in the early part of the 2017 road season, missing the Tour of Flanders and Flèche Wallonne. She broke her collarbone in June, but returned to win the European road championship in August, and the overall at the Ladies Tour of Norway 10 days later. She closed out her season with a stage win and third overall at the Lotto Belgium Tour before riding in a support role at the world road championship in Norway, where Dutch national teammate Chantal Blaak took the rainbow jersey.
Vos launched a new cycling apparel line, La Vos, at the EuroCycling XP in October, and by the time you’re reading this, she’ll be in Australia, at a training camp with her WaowDeals road team (known as WM3 this season). While in Australia, she will ride in the Tour of Margaret River, November 8-12, and in the Holden Giro Della Donna on November 26.
Vos has also been a leader off the bike. In 2011 she was appointed as a member of the inaugural UCI Athletes’ Commission; in September, she was elected to another term. Vos was also the most high-profile name among a handful of women who successfully lobbied Tour de France owners ASO to host a women’s event, La Course by Le Tour, which has been held in tandem with the Tour every year since 2014. Fittingly, Vos won the inaugural edition.
While speaking with Vos for an upcoming feature on compatriot Mathieu van der Poel — another Dutch phenom with world titles on the road and cyclocross, who also dabbles in mountain biking — we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pose a few questions about her current mental and physical state after several seasons spent fighting her way back to form.
CT: Having excelled in every discipline — cyclocross, road, track, mountain bike — when you look at the skill set that Mathieu van der Poel has, and given he’s so young, what advice would you give to him? What path do you think makes the most sense for his career?
MV: I think that the most important thing is that he just does what he wants. Of course, it’s good to listen to others, and I can give him advice, his parents will give him advice, his coach will give him advice, and the whole country will think for him. But in the end, it’s his decision and he has to do what he wants. If he wants to stay in cyclocross, well, stay in cyclocross. If he wants to go to mountain bike, then go to mountain bike. And of course, at some point maybe there’s going to be a choice that he regrets later. But anyway, that happens. That’s part of the sport, it also happened to me, it happens to everybody. But you can see he just enjoys riding a bike. Pure passion is what you see when he’s out there in the race. That’s the biggest motivation you can have. The joy he needs to keep, and then his career can last long.
CT: What do you regret? What would you have done differently?
MV: Well, of course, there have been decisions in the past that I think I might have done it differently. But in the end, I took the decisions on that moment with the idea that it would be good. And of course, sometimes it’s a good decision and sometimes it turns out not the best way. I don’t think, no, I don’t really have regrets. I’m happy I combined road and cyclocross for nearly my whole career. I did track cycling when the points race was still Olympics, so I’m really happy I took that chance. And yeah, the mountain-bike adventure was a good adventure. It was something new for me. It turned out that it was difficult to combine with the road season, and also the cross-country doesn’t really fit me, so I decided not to continue. But I don’t regret the choice.
CT: When you say that cross-country doesn’t really fit you, why is that exactly?
MV: The technical skills that I need, I don’t have. And I really like also the tactics and the team effort you need in road cycling. So for me the combination of road and mountain bike is really difficult to make. You see, for example, Jolanda Neff and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, they do it, so it’s not that it’s not possible, but I decided not to want it anymore.
CT: What’s left for you to achieve? Where are you mentally at this point in your career? What still drives you?
MV: Well, that’s an interesting question. What drives me? Actually, of course, I won a lot and there’s not a lot left that I have to add to those rings or in my career to make it fully complete or whatever. But being out for a while, I just found out I love to ride my bike. I like to race. And getting back to racing and getting back to the maximum I can get myself to, that was my main motivation. And I’m still getting back there. I get better. I get better shape, but also more stable in the performance. And as long as that’s growing, it keeps me happy, and it keeps me going. And also, it’s nice to see my role in the team changing a bit, coming from a young rider that won already a lot but didn’t know anything about how to act in a team and the role as a team player, you grow in that position.
And yeah, growing a bit older, it’s also really nice to share some of my experiences, the good ones, but also the bad ones, and try to share this with others. And in the meanwhile, I’ll just try to get the maximum out of myself. I still love the competition. I’ve done a lot of things being out of competition, and it’s a lot of cool things, but the pure satisfaction from working hard and getting everything done for one moment and one race and when it all comes together, that’s perfect, and I still think that gives me such a joy and satisfaction that I’m not done with this sport yet.
CT: When you say you’ve done some interesting things out of competition, can you give an example of one or two things that you did off the bike that were most interesting or eye-opening for you?
MV: Well, off the bike, yeah. I did some TV things. I did commentating at cyclocross races, also at road races. I did some public talks. So yeah, different. I had some good talks with federations, working with the UCI, and not only being out of competition, and those are all really nice things and also things that I want to continue with, next to cycling. But it’s all different, so it was good for me to feel, ‘hey, this is really what I love most and as long as I can, I want to make the most of it.’
CT: Is there any one result that you’re still holding close to your heart, that you still have your eye on? Whether it’s a world championship, or a spring classic, or the Giro… is there one thing you look at and you think, ‘this is still something I would like to do, or do again, before my career is over’?
MV: Not really. Not really something in particular. I think that the thing that I want is to feel that I reach my full potential again. And I got close already a couple of times in those two years coming back, but I’m not there yet and I think that I still can get there. And then I’m sure a good result come along.
CT: How is your body? How are your injuries?
MV: It’s good. I mean, I’m fit. I can train again at 100%. That took way longer than I thought. I really hoped that it was like, okay, I’m out for a couple of months and I’m back in a few months. But as a lot of people said, and also I might have known, they say it takes two times the time that you’re out [to make a full recovery]. And I’ve been out for nearly a year in total, if I count injuries and everything. So yeah, then it takes two years to get back. And that might be true. But I’m fit again and I’m really happy to be able to train properly again. To feel that my body gets ready for those races. The hamstring is okay. I’ve had a lot of back problems in the past, and that’s also gone so it’s much nicer to race and train without pain, I have to say.
CT: When you have back problems it’s hard to do just about anything. You just have to take care of that before you can really start with anything else.
MV: Yeah, and the difficulty is that, on the bike, you need your legs, but you need your whole body, and when something isn’t good and blocks the energy in your muscles, it’s really annoying.
CT: And what about cyclocross? When will we see you racing cyclocross next?
MV: Well, I go to Australia first. I’ll go there for training for a couple of weeks. In December, I start my full preparations for the races in cyclocross. And the second half of December, I will start my first races. It will be only a short season, but I’m really looking forward to it already. The worlds is the goal, to end the season there.
CT: You may well have won the world title if not for that dropped chain in the final lap. How long did it take for you to get over that?
MV: I had a good race, so in that regard I was pretty satisfied, but yeah it nagged me for a while. It was a mistake on my part. I entered the corner wrongly and my rear wheel slipped. Normally, the chain wouldn’t drop so perhaps it wasn’t as dialled in as it should have been, and perhaps I should have done something differently beforehand. So of course, it kept me up at night, but I could take comfort in knowing I had ridden a good race. That’s sport and things can happen in a fraction of a second. And It was a good race, the year before I would have never have thought that I would have such a race. I’m fired up for this year. It’s a World Championships on home soil, so that’s fun.
CT: You were very involved in prompting ASO to launch La Course by Le Tour in 2014. What are your thoughts on the event being reduced from two days to just one day in 2018?
MV: I have to say I’m not as much involved anymore as I was a couple of years ago. So I don’t know much about the decisions and how the evaluation has been with ASO and how they came to this decision. But what I know is that of course, they change from Champs Elysees to this year, a mountaintop finish and a time trial. And as we’ve all seen, a mountaintop finish was a good race. It was maybe a bit short, so they already extended that for next year. The time trial in the chase… that didn’t really work out as they hoped, so I can imagine the evaluation was, okay, we have to skip that. You could have said, then we add a normal time trial or whatever. But La Course, it started as a one-day race and they kept it like that. It’s not a Tour de France. It’s just a one-day bike race during the Tour de France. You wouldn’t want to compare this to the Giro or to the Tour de France for men. It’s a one-day race where everybody in the whole entourage of the Tour de France is there. But it’s not where, of course, a couple of years ago where Le Tour Entier was aiming for, if you talk about a Tour de France for women.
— Le Tour Entier (@LeTourEntier) October 18, 2017
But looking to the actual calendar and the Women’s WorldTour calendar, there’s some interesting calendar clashes and it’s already quite full, so I think it’s more important to focus on a good calendar balance, to focus on the races that already have really good women’s races, and to make that more visible for the public and to get more in television or streaming than to think about a Tour de France for women together with the men, because there’s a lot of things that you would say, okay that would be really good for women cycling, but still you have to clash with the men’s race. And maybe the race still stays small and well yeah, we have the men, and next to that we have the women’s race, but it will not easily get the attention that it deserves, and I think there’s a lot of other races that deserve more attention and are already great for the fans to watch.
CT: The new UCI president, David Lappartient, has stated that increasing the visibility for women’s racing, women’s cycling is a priority for him. Do you think that’s something that he intends to do? Do you think he can change things?
MV: Yeah, I think so. I think, of course, the UCI is there for cycling in general and I think women’s cycling is really interesting. It is growing. And next to the men’s side, there’s also the women’s side has a big potential to grow and to get a bigger reach to the fans. It’s not all up to the UCI, I have to say. I mean, there’s the fan point of view, the media point of view, broadcasting, sponsors, it’s not that UCI can rule everything. But I’m pretty sure there is interest, only you have to get to the right people and you have to get around the table with the teams and the riders and everybody has to have the same goal. And I think we all see the importance of getting the visibility for women’s cycling and yeah, if we all work together, I think that in a couple of years it will be a lot further.
CT: If you were UCI president, what would your first actions be?
MV: Well, I’m not, and at the moment I’m pretty happy I’m not. It’s not easy to be UCI president. There’s a lot of things about course safety and well, there’s a lot of things you can do, there’s also a lot of things that are difficult. But I think that it’s important to listen to the people that are in cycling and it’s good to not forget that the UCI is there not to only make rules and to grow themselves but the UCI is there to help cycling, in general, worldwide from grassroots to professional.
And yeah, I hope we can see this vision also from Lappartient help cycling and not help the UCI in particular. Yeah, it’s going to be interesting what changes we see chosen in the athlete’s commission. I’m happy to go to Aigle next month and to share my thoughts with other athletes. And we will try to work together with the UCI to see what we can do. But like I say, I think security — course safety, caravan safety, bike safety — is one of the main issues at the moment, together with the visibility of women’s cycling. Anti-doping is also important. So those are the three things that I would work on. I’m pretty sure that those are also issues that the Lappartient is also busy with.
Video: Marianne Vos, one of the stars of the 2017 UCI Women’s WorldTour