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A disappointing start to 2018 that turned into a spectacular return to full potential. It has been a year of mixed results for Marianne Vos, but one that ultimately saw one of the world’s greatest cyclists ride back toward the form that helped earn her that distinction. During the second half of 2018 the WaowDeals Pro Cycling rider was again at her race-winning best on the road – and now she’s wearing the World Cup race leaders’ jersey in her first full cyclocross season since she was a junior.
We spoke to the three-time road and seven-time cyclocross world champion to look back on a year where she clearly proved to everybody — including herself — that she’s still got it.
What a difference a year makes. This time last year, Marianne Vos couldn’t have been further away from the mud and sand of the Telenet Cyclocross World Cup series. The Dutch rider was sitting on a deck chair in Australia, nearing the end of a break from racing and animatedly chatting about what the season would bring. She’d just ridden the CyclingTips Giro della Donna — with her cyclocross pedals on her road bike so she could get in a bit of that all important dismounting and remounting practice before she went back to Europe.
Awaiting her was a late season return to cyclocross, joining the World Cup fray in the seventh race of the series. She’d just be finding her rhythm at a time when her competition already had their form dialled and their mud skills well practiced.
For anyone else the prospect of playing catch up may have been daunting, but doing a partial season was a formula that had worked well for the multi-discipline cyclist in the past. Vos hadn’t done a full cyclocross season since she was a junior, yet had managed to accumulate seven world championship titles in the discipline. And in 2016/17 – after also spending the early season in Australia – she’d come heartbreakingly close to another in just her first year after returning post break.
The much anticipated battle between Vos and Sanne Cant (Corendon-Circus) in 2017 was nail-bitingly close, with the Belgian rider ultimately coming out on top. So it was with justified optimism — mixed with unrelenting competitive determination — that Vos talked of heading back to put her best foot forward at a very special World Cyclocross Championships; it was on home soil.
But it wasn’t to be.
The health and fitness she carried from the Australian spring waned on a return to training and competition in the cold climates. The powerful late launch we’d become used to seeing just didn’t come together. Not even by the World Championships. Not even in front of a home crowd. Not even when she turned herself inside out and gave absolutely everything she had to give.
“When I stepped in after Australia, I had no rhythm, no points and I was in the back … then falling ill was of course not part of the plan,” Vos told Ella CyclingTips over the phone. “That cyclocross season wasn’t what I expected.”
Or what she’d hoped for.
The 31-year-old finished 18th at Worlds, which may seem like a more than respectable result to most, but this is Vos. In all the years since she first lined up in the elite women’s cyclocross race as an 18 year old — and won — she has only been absent from the podium twice. Once was when she didn’t even start in 2016 due to her year-long forced break as a result of injury and overtraining, and the other was way back when she came seventh as a teenager.
“This result was not good and I couldn’t have done any better that day, because I really gave everything. At that moment that was my place,” said Vos. “But I know if I’m well-trained, fit and I can do a good preparation that I can do a lot better than that.”
“I knew that wasn’t my hundred percent so I was not afraid that I’d lost it … I knew it wasn’t [normally] my place,” said Vos.
It was clear, though, that there was not going to be any wallowing in that less than ideal start to 2018. There’s no time for that in the life of a multi-discipline cyclist; when one season ends, it is straight onto the next.
“It was a little disappointing, but after Worlds I felt it was getting better,” said Vos. “So I was actually happy to finish then and just start to focus on the road season.”
And what a road season it was.
Working back toward that winning feeling
The results started to show signs of progress early in the road season, with multiple top ten results at Women’s WorldTour races, including a podium at Trofeo Alfredo Binda. But those initial months weren’t without their hiccups. Vos broke her collarbone in April at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, forcing her to sit out competition until the OVO Energy Women’s Tour came around in June.
But when she came back again, it was with impressive force.
Vos relaunched straight from injury into sixth in a fiercely contested sprint on the first stage of the Women’s Tour. That was just the beginning. There was a painfully close duel with Coryn Rivera on stage 2, with the American rider taking the win by mere centimetres.
After that Vos was constantly on the podium during the rest of the five stage tour in Britain. That Vos and her WaowDeals Pro Cycling team were both growing into form as the season progressed was a good omen of what was to come. However, as encouraging as it may have been, it still wasn’t easy for someone as competitive as Marianne Vos to accept.
“It’s frustrating when it just doesn’t work, so you get second and third. You know you’re really close but it’s just not that feeling. It’s not even that it is not that winning feeling, but you just feel like ‘I just don’t have it’,” said Vos.
By the time July hit and Vos was lining up at the ten-day Giro Rosa — which she won in 2011, 2012 and 2014— it had been an uncharacteristically long stint of ten months since the 31 year-old’s last win on the road. But that winless streak wasn’t going to last much longer.
Now with well over two years of rebuilding since her extended break in 2015, she was starting to feel those improvements at the very top level, and beginning to recover that elusive last little bit of form that was the difference between being close and nailing it.
That magical final two percent
“Up to 95% was nice, then I’d feel the improvement until 98%,” said Vos. “But over the last years it stopped there. Now, that last two percent are magical because that’s when you do the right things at the right moment. It still hurts of course — because racing will never be easy — and still it can happen that you don’t win, but even then you still feel that you have it.”
And there was no doubt she “had it” in that final couple of months of her road season.
She broke through in July with that first win of the year on Stage 8 at the Giro Rosa, and from then on her results were nothing short of spectacular.
Vos was on the podium far more often than not, and the wins kept rolling in with six victories from 15 starts. That included a phenomenal clean sweep of the three road stages of the Ladies Tour of Norway, and led to a stint in the Women’s WorldTour race leaders jersey. The late season resurgence meant Vos finished second in the Women’s WorldTour over the year and ended the 2018 road season in third position on the UCI rankings, even despite finishing her road season early.
The all-but-unbeatable Vos we had become so used to seeing in the years prior to her break had returned. Finally, those uninterrupted blocks of training and race days had built up enough, allowing her to reach her phenomenal full potential once more.
“That was really nice to have that feeling again and that’s what I’ve been working for over the last years,” said Vos, with clear satisfaction.
Vos finished her road season on a high at the end of August. She’d made the tough decision to miss the World Championships, which was on a course tailor-made for the natural climbers of the peloton. Instead Vos was turning her attention to cyclocross, and chasing a different rainbow instead.
Like a Vos
First, though, there were some extra hurdles to overcome. There were even fewer late season points than usual to give Vos a bit of a boost up the start grid, as in 2017/18 she’d barely scraped into the top 50 on the world cyclocross rankings. The last thing she wanted was a repeat of that failed launch and underwhelming season.
With that in mind — and the fact that Vos had long wanted to get over to the season-starting US World Cups at least once — the decision was made to break with the normal pattern. The seven-time world cyclocross champion lined up at the very first race of the series at the Telenet UCI Cyclocross World Cup in September, carrying her spectacular road form straight onto the dirt. While she may not have had long to shift gears from the road and adjust to the short, sharp and technical discipline, Vos leapt back into the field full of dirt specialists and instantly looked in control.
“Of course it helps when you get more rhythm, but for me it’s always been the most important factor to be fit and healthy and in shape,” said Vos. “When I’m in shape I’m a lot better bike handler as well because if you’re at a 100% all the time you’re gonna make mistakes. When you are at your limits it’s much more difficult, and when you are at 98% you are always in control.”
And she needed every bit of that control to claw herself back up the field. Long-time rival Sanne Cant was sitting right in prime starting position, front and centre with the rainbow jersey on her back. Vos was back in the third row, facing plenty of riders in between her the front of the race. Her lack of points from the previous season meant she was placed where the bottlenecks form and the preferred lines get blocked. But not for long.
The start gun for the Waterloo World Cup fired, and Vos was caught in the middle of the pack for just a moment. A gap opened up on the outside and the experienced campaigner used it to leapfrog up on the very first corner. One minute in, and Vos had seamlessly jumped up to seventh; two minutes in and it was fifth. The places just kept falling. Little more than five minutes into the race and she was out the front, distancing the field with the bunnyhopping American rider Ellen Noble (Trek Factory Racing) who had a definite home-track advantage.
Just one race into the season and all of a sudden Vos loomed large again. She looked every bit like the powerful force we’d so often seen used to deliver a skills masterclass during the “Like a Vos” race recap videos of 2013 and 2014.
Trading blows with Noble till the very end of the last lap, Vos turned herself inside out to pull out just what was needed as the pair was heading to the line. That win at Waterloo was a new beginning that boded well for the season ahead. Whether or not she’d quite hit that final two percent of form that felt like magic, it was a battle that reinforced the ‘Vos magic’ for this spectator. I suspect it did for many others as well.
Yet in her normal humble fashion, Vos described the race that had sent tingles up my spine and reminded me of the excitement of my captivating first introduction to top level cyclocross via those Like a Vos episodes as “a very good starting point.”
The results kept rolling in, among them another podium finish in the second US-based World Cup, a win at Bern and second at the European Championships.
“I also feel I can still improve, I still can do better and I want to do better,” said Vos. “The competition is strong and the competition on the road is strong as well, so I need to be at my hundred percent and I want to go for that.”
Going for that means staying healthy. Staying healthy means that sticking to the plan, so even when the heart wants to keep racing the head must prevail. Taking time in the season for breaks is an uncompromisable necessity.
When we talked to Vos on a Sunday evening for this article, she was nearing the end of a two week hiatus after having just sat out the Tabor World Cup. She returned for the sand heavy Koksijde, with the series leader jersey still on her back despite the absence.
Vos also finally had a front row start, which meant not having to fight her way to the front before the race for the lead could even begin. However, after returning from that two week break, her roll of podium results was interrupted, with a 12th place finish in the late November World Cup.
But it was a necessary pause – some races must be sacrificed so the big plans for the year ahead can go on.
More than chasing rainbows
When you look at Vos’ list of results, its hard to imagine that there is anything left for her to prove or achieve. But Vos was never going to be happy to come back after 2015 and just rest on her laurels; her competitive spirit remains as strong as ever. The Dutch rider said she felt she still “had it” when she made the decision to come back, and you can sense a quiet pride that now she’s shown that she was right.
“That’s given me the confidence that yes, it was a good decision to go on,” said Vos. “It has also given me some really good motivation for what’s next, for the coming year.”
So what does the year ahead look like? Firstly she’ll be stepping into 2019 with some changes to the team set-up. CCC is stepping in as a sponsor and running the women’s squad alongside the men’s team, which is being formed from the old BMC. Then, from a race perspective the first obvious big goal is to see if she can capture an eighth win at Cyclocross Worlds.
“It’s such a special feeling and a special goal to aim for the rainbow jersey that actually the hunger for that doesn’t really change even if you have seven … I’d say it gets stronger,” said Vos, with a warmth in her voice that feels like its emanating from a perpetual rainbow fuelled fire.
“Yeah. I want to do it again. It’s just such a nice thing to have a goal and to work for it and of course sometimes it doesn’t work out — that’s part of the sport — but chasing that dream or goal is a beautiful thing,” said Vos drifting off wistfully.
After Cyclocross Worlds Vos will be looking ahead to try and carry that ‘cross form onto the road and into the classics, with just a short break between the seasons. And she certainly won’t be planning to miss Road Worlds again, with Yorkshire a course that should play to her strengths.
But ultimately, its far more than individual race results — no matter how big they are — that Vos will be targeting.
“I’ll be chasing rainbows for sure but it will be more about having that feeling again … I want to continue with that,” said Vos. “It’s all about extending that full potential and finding the next one percent.”