One of the greats: Catching up with Dutch champion Leontien van Moorsel

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Leontien Zijlaard-van Moorsel is undoubtedly one of the greatest cyclists of all time. She has four Olympic gold medals, nine world titles, two Tours de France, and many Classics to her name.

She turned 50 years old this year, a milestone. The Dutchwoman has been through highs and lows in her career. She battled anorexia for eight years during the ’90s then came back stronger than ever before.

“My career was actually two careers,” she tells me. “There was a career before anorexia and there was one after that. My best memories come from the second career. The World Championships in 1998 in Valkenburg [in the Netherlands] define that schism for me. I didn’t win the race [ed. she came second to Diana Ziliute] but I had won back my life and made a comeback in cycling.

“I wish I could get back the eight years I lost to anorexia but I can’t. What I did win from that horrible time was my husband and a strong balance in my life.”

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Leontien van Moorsel married fellow cyclist Michael Zijlaard and together they have one daughter. Zijlaard-van Moorsel uses her experiences as a former world-class athlete and survivor of anorexia in her own Leontienhuis, “a walk-in centre for people with an eating disorder and their loved ones”.

“We have these monthly inspiration sessions where patients and their families listen to stories of people who survived anorexia and got their lives back, like I did,” she says. “When you have an eating disorder, it’s your entire life and you feel that will never change. You feel this will be your life forever. When former patients share their story of how they climbed out of that dark hole you see and feel that something happens in the room.

“Our guests literally see how strong these former patients have become and this gives them a new perspective. Not only the current patients but their families too. When I was ill, my parents suffered too, Michael suffered too. Everyone around the patient is going through a very rough time.”

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The 2004 Athens Olympics — where Zijlaard-van Moorsel won a gold medal in the time trial — marked the end of her career, a career marked by wins in all the big races including the Tour de France that ran as a long stage race for women in the ’80s and ’90s.

“We rode our [Tours de France] alongside the men’s, so a few hours before them and also raced separate from the men’s dates,” she recalls. “Racing on the same day as the men was special. The goosebumps on my arms in 1989 have never been as high as when we raced on the same day as the men. I also remember our national broadcaster showing live images of the Alpe d’Huez stage in 1992 where I beat Jeannie Longo.”

Since those times, many races — like the Tour de France and the Amstel Gold Race — lost their women’s race, only for it to be reintroduced again recently. The Tour Féminin has never returned as a 10-15-day stage race though. “What we now have in La Course is not a Tour de France,” Zijlaard-van Moorsel says. “I feel that if they want a women’s stage race alongside the men’s it’s possible but they have to want to.”

Zijlaard-van Moorsel with her parents after winning the 1993 Worlds road race.

Many big Classics now have a female equivalent, including, for the first time ever this year, Paris-Roubaix.

“I would have loved to do Paris-Roubaix,” Zijlaard-van Moorsel says with a huge smile. “In my second career I would have been very well suited for a race like that. I was strong and heavier than during the anorexia years when I bounced like crazy on the cobbles in Ronde van Drenthe. I would have loved to attack those cobbles in Roubaix, sat on the back of my saddle with blisters on my hands!

“Having these big races for women too are important steps forward. Just like, for example, the joint team presentations and podium ceremonies we do at Amstel Gold Race [ed. where Zijlaard-van Moorsel is the women’s race director] and other races. Things are getting more and more professional in women’s cycling but the riders and teams also have to keep up and professionalize too. That is lacking sometimes.”

A lot has happened in recent years with the introduction of the UCI Women’s WorldTour with minimum salaries, obligatory live TV coverage, maternity leave, and prize money.

“These are all good things, don’t get me wrong, but when introducing these new things, one must also wonder if the market, the women’s cycling world, is ready,” she says. “Can teams actually afford these minimum wages or will they disappear due to financial trouble? Can all organizers afford live TV? Is the sport not still too small for these big ambitions? Especially now in this global crisis I am anxious about these questions and I fear that a lot of women’s and men’s teams will have to close down this year.”

Despite all that’s been done to improve women’s cycling in recent years, the gap with men’s racing is still significant. Zijlaard-van Moorsel is pragmatic when it comes to bridging that gap.

“Equality is a great goal but I don’t see the sport achieving full equality,” she says. “Should we? Women’s races are shorter. That’s a fact. As long as we keep on moving towards equality, and don’t go back, I am happy.”

Zijlaard-van Moorsel has been the director of the women’s Amstel Gold Race since it returned in 2017. She won the race in 2002.

Zijlaard-Van Moorsel chose to become a mom after her racing career, rather than during. “I saw riders combining motherhood with their careers in my time too,” she says. “On the track we had these Russians like Olga Zabelinskaya. This was not something I wanted.

“I don’t think the maternity leave we now have will change a great deal. For a woman it’s a very personal choice as to when she wants to become a mother and whether she wants to combine that with a cycling career.

“I didn’t see myself leaving my child for longer periods of time or bringing her to races. I also feel this is one of the reasons we don’t see many women in team staff on either men’s or women’s teams.”

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Anna van der Breggen and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak will end their careers in 2021 and 2022 respectively and will join SD Worx (currently Boels-Dolmans) as sports directors. This wasn’t a path that Zijlaard-van Moorsel ever really considered.

“I was way too fanatical myself to become a sports director,” Zijlaard-van Moorsel says with a laugh. “Chantal is a totally different person and I am curious to see how they both will fare straight from the bike to the car. I don’t feel that all women’s teams should have a female DS but women do understand other women and their bodies better than men.”

Zijlaard-van Moorsel (back, centre) with her teammates after winning gold in the team time trial at the 1990 Road World Championships in Utsunomiya, Japan.

Having struggled with an eating disorder herself she watches the current women’s and men’s peloton with a keen eye.

“Eating disorders happen in all eras of cycling,” she says. “It comes and goes in waves. I now see riders balance on that very thin line again. I threw away eight years of my life; eight years I will never get back. Not one win, medal or jersey is worth that. I want riders to know that. I found the balance again.

“Of course, there are still ups and downs in my life, like in everyone else’s, but having that balance enables you to cope with whatever life throws at you. That’s my wish for all cyclists now: finding that balance. It’s so worth it!”

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