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From Inside Peloton: More than a Cannibal

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After the retirement of Eddy Merckx in the late 1970s, the cycling world waited almost 30 years for his replacement. When it did arrive, it was Dutch … oh yeah, and it was a woman.

Actually, it’s much more complicated than that. Nicknames like “Cannibal” and “Female Merckx” are aimed at Marianne Vos from all sides, but there is far more to her than simply being a 25-year-old winning machine from the nearly-unpronounceable town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, in the south of the Netherlands.

Words: Ben Atkins
Images: Kristof Ramon

Having been the world number one almost constantly since she joined the elite ranks at the age of 18, back in 2006, Vos finally fulfilled what many see as her cycling destiny. Having suffered in the rain four years before in Beijing 2008, she thrived in similarly epic conditions in London to take Olympic gold from home favourite Lizzie Armitstead; just six weeks later, on a far sunnier day in Limburg, southern Netherlands, she finally won her second world championship on the road, to add to that one taken back in 2006.

I caught up with Vos between those two races, where she told me what it felt like to have taken her Olympic gold on the road, which is now added to the one in the Points Race she’d consoled herself with on the track in Beijing.

“You can’t compare it with a world championship, because it’s bigger than cycling, and maybe even bigger than sports,” Vos said. “The Olympic Games are the world’s biggest playground and everybody is watching. More than in a world championship, the country stands beside you and that makes you ride with pride and extra power.”

Following her 2006 world title, Vos had been agonisingly condemned to an incredible five straight silver medals in the championships that followed; this Olympic gold had gone some way to make up for these.

“I’ll never forget my second places, but this win erases all the bad feelings that go with the silver medals,” she said. “The five silvers made this Olympic title even more special.”

Every year Vos had gone into the world championships as the outstanding favourite, but each time she had been thwarted. In 2007 she was beaten by a late attack from Italian Marta Bastianelli; in 2008 she was outsprinted by then British Olympic champion Nicole Cooke; in 2009, 2010 and 2011 it was the Italians again, as Tatiana Guderzo’s solo escape was followed by two straight sprint defeats from Giorgia Bronzini.

Each time it seemed to hurt the Dutchwoman a little more, but each time she managed to stand on that second step and smile for the winner at her side.

“Well, it hurts pretty bad, but I know I made the mistakes myself or just wasn’t good enough,” she conceded modestly. “The first five minutes though, I can only cry from disappointment, but then I know the winner deserves a nice celebration on the podium. Therefore I try to put a smile on my face and look forward to next time; and yeah, it’s only cycling …”

With the 2012 world championships in Limburg, the pressure should have been even greater for Vos to win; it was in front of her home crowd and at the top of the Cauberg climb that she has won on so many times before. Thanks to her victory in London however, this was not the case.

“After London, I felt okay, I achieved my big dream, and now it would be an extra to win in Valkenburg,” she explains to me as we sat down together shortly after the worlds. “Of course, I was a little nervous, but actually I was pretty relaxed for a world championships.

“Especially if you look at the fact that I was five times second—in a row—before; the pressure would be really, really high, and then it’s in your home country. But now … I felt good; we had a strong team, and I was confident about myself. Of course, you never know if you’re going to win, but I felt good and I had a good feeling about it.”

Vos was everybody’s predicted winner, as she had been every year beforehand, but what was even more amazing was that she did it by attacking at exactly the point in the race where everybody knew she would. Having joined the breakaway group that contained compatriot Anna van der Breggen, she attacked again, exactly as expected, and nobody could do anything to stop her.

“That’s even better—if you know,” she smiles. “But we were a team; we had a plan to make the race, to take the initiative, to make it hard, and everybody knew that. Everybody knew that I would attack on the Cauberg, but you have to be able to follow, and that was the good thing about this worlds: the course was hard, and suited me so well that I could have confidence in myself.

“If I wouldn’t crash or have any mechanical problems, then the best riders would be in the final.”

Much of Vos’s late-season performance can be attributed to the disappointments that she endured in the early part of the year, as she explains. A near-perfect winning start had seen her win the two opening rounds of the World Cup—the Ronde van Drenthe in the Netherlands, and the Trofeo Alfredo Binda in Italy—but an illness saw her miss the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

She returned to action soon afterwards, but in la Flèche Wallonne, American Evie Stevens did what nobody thought was possible and beat Vos to the line in a mano-a-mano struggle up the Mur de Huy.

“She beat me on my speciality, on Huy, so that was really … it was really not nice to be around me after the finish,” Vos laughs.

“I started to sprint way too early, but she was better and beat me there,” she admits. “So that made me sharper, fresh again, and that made me decide to first have a little rest period—already I knew that because you have to after the spring classics, and after my cyclocross season—and I needed to work on it for the Olympics to get that extra few percent.

“So, thanks Evelyn for beating me!”

Stevens’s victory was not only down to the American’s power on the steep slopes of the Mur, however, but also had to do with the team tactics of Specialized-lululemon. Placing Canadian Clara Hughes in the break up the road meant that Vos had to chase it down herself, with Stevens given a free ride to the front of the race.

“I’m not unbeatable,” Vos smiles. “You can beat me everywhere, but you have to make the ride difficult.”

Although she came out of her spring campaign with the sting of the Flèche Wallonne defeat making her more determined, Vos was to experience yet more pain. A race moto brought her down in the Holland Hills race in late May—run on a similar course to the world championships—and, despite finishing second behind teammate Annemiek van Vleuten, it was later revealed that she had fractured her collarbone.

A month off the bike saw her return for the Netherlands championships, where again she finished second to van Vleuten, before defending her Giro d’Italia title at the beginning of July.

Although she took the race in as dominant a fashion as the previous year, the less selective nature of the course—coupled with her long injury layoff—meant that it was actually one of her hardest fought victories to date.

“No, it’s not that easy, it’s always hard for me,” she says. “In my Giro win, I won five stages but I suffered so much. We had a really hard time with the team to keep the control.

“If you only see the results you see, ‘Okay, Marianne Vos is outstanding in the season, and she’s winning easy,’ but these road races are never won easy,” she explains. “It’s a whole puzzle and you have to fit it to each other, and then I can win. And that happens a lot.

“But if you look at the races they’re always spectacular. Well, not all, but many of them.”

The numbers and the lists of results will tell you that Vos is the greatest rider in the world, but they only tell part of the story. To understand more about Marianne Vos the person—and much of the rationale behind the way she races—you have to go back to 2011 where, not only did she win one and a half times as many races as in 2012 (38 vs. 24), she also managed to engineer the overall World Cup victory for teammate van Vleuten.

“It was the plan, already in February, or maybe in December already,” Vos explains. “After my World Cup win the year before … the whole season the goal was there to get Annemiek in there in [the final race in] Plouay.”

When the two Dutchwomen arrived at that final race of the 2011 World Cup, in the cycling-mad French village of Plouay—which hosted the 2000 World Championships—the two Dutchwomen had the series sewn up between them. Van Vleuten was up the road in the break, which included Evie Stevens and British breakaway specialist Emma Pooley, while Vos was policing the peloton behind.

All was well until Pooley attacked.

There was no way that the two-time winner of the Breton classic could threaten van Vleuten’s World Cup win, but allowing someone from another team to win just wasn’t in the plan.

“That was also fun, in the bunch in Plouay,” Vos recalls. “Annemiek was in the break, and we both don’t like to race only for a placement—for points—we both want to win. Then she was in the break, and then Pooley escaped, but she [van Vleuten] was already in the lead, and she would win the World Cup competition.”

With World Cup races being the only ones in the women’s calendar where radios are allowed, Vos got the news from directeur sportif Jeroen Blijlevens and, much to the bemusement of those around her, decided to act.

“The people with me—Judith Arndt and Trixi Worrac—didn’t know what I was doing, because I was closing the gap to my teammate, who was going to win the World Cup general classification. But we both wanted to win that race too,” she explained. “There was only one possibility that we could win Plouay, and Annemiek would win the World Cup, if I would help her to get that win.”

Vos managed to escape the peloton, and bridge across to the breakaway group; once there she singlehandedly chased down Pooley. When Stevens attacked with just a few kilometres to go, van Vleuten followed her and beat the American in the sprint.

“So, it was really nice, and I don’t think that the people in the bunch expected that; it was great fun for us both,” Vos laughs.

Rewind a few weeks to the previous round and you see exactly how Vos engineered van Vleuten into the jersey that she herself had been wearing at the time. On the start line of the Open de Suede Vårgårda, in Sweden, she led her teammate by 64 points, but was determined to hand over the lead.

Van Vleuten won the race in a breakaway that just held out to the line, but for her to take the jersey Vos had to finish 11th or worse. Vos could be seen, in the peloton just behind her teammate, counting riders across the line—with her brakes on—until it was safe to cross herself.

“I got 19th there I think,” Vos smiles when I remind her of this.

She was actually 17th, scored just four points, and van Vleuten took the World Cup lead. “She attacked so many times there, to get in the right breakaway, with the right people around her, that she really deserved that win,” says Vos. “For her it was a big aim and, for me, it doesn’t matter if I get 4th or 19th; there’s no difference.

“I like to win, of course, but I like my teammates to win; it’s nice to play that game. That feels like winning for me, too. So Sweden and Plouay gave me the same feeling as Flèche Wallonne and Valladolid, where I won.”

If Vos does have a weakness in cycling, then it is undoubtedly the time trial. Sure, she’s been the Netherlands national champion against the clock, and has won some of the short-distance tests that typically appear in women’s stage races; at last year’s world championships, however, she could only manage 10th, while in London 2012 she was 16th and didn’t bother to race in Limburg.

“It’s not really my natural skill to do a long term … I need my [explosive] sprint power, to recover a little, and then go again—that’s my strength,” she explains. “My fast recovery and high-speed power is my biggest strength, and the long endurance and the threshold is not. But still, I can work on that, and I think I can do an okay time trial.”

It’s not just the physical side of the discipline that holds Vos back, but also the psychological factor of having no direct opponent to compete with.

“I need to play a game,” she tells me, “and a time trial is no game. It’s just a battle against yourself, and what I like in cycling is to battle with other people, to get competition in the race.”

It’s partly this attitude that makes Vos such a popular figure in the women’s peloton. She’s been at the top for almost seven years now, and has barely had a word said against her. Champions generally make enemies, particularly dominant ones, but not Marianne Vos.

“For me there is one thing more important than winning in sports and that’s sportsmanship,” Vos told me earlier this year. “I love cycling and I feel my competitors are my colleagues rather than rivals. Other riders know that I work hard for it and I always give everything in races,” she said. “It’s the biggest compliment for me to get when other riders say that I deserved the Olympic title for example.”

Her story is typical of a European woman cyclist, with inspiration drawn from her family rather than the elite peloton. It wasn’t long before she was leaving her family behind however, and was winning races at a very early age.

“I started cycling when I was five,” she explained. “My father and brother were both cyclists and I went training with them to our cycling club. They were my inspiration to start cycling and my parents have always supported me. Fun was my biggest motivation at that time, not to become a successful cyclist or anything.”

On her Twitter page Vos describes herself as a “Full-time-hobby-cyclist,” which gives an insight into how, and why, she races. “I like to go out on my bike, and I like the competition, and that’s, as you say, a full-time-hobby-cyclist,” she laughs. “Of course, I am a professional and I want to win, but I’m not a happy person if I win, I’m a happy person as a cyclist—every day.”

Following Vos’s victory in London, particularly in the manner and the conditions in which it was taken, there has been a spate of features, articles and interviews, across a wide section of the media, protesting the inequality, and lamenting the lack of coverage that women’s cycling receives.

The irony is that, for many of these media, this was the probably the first time they had ever featured women’s cycling. And, for some, it might be the last. This irony is not lost on Vos.

“That was the thing I didn’t like,” she says, “because every attention we got was about that we didn’t get any attention. But, okay, write something about women’s cycling yourself—about the beauty of it. Not that it’s not getting any attention.”

“But of course, we can use this season to make a step,” she reasons hopefully. “Because people all around the world have seen how great this race was at the Olympic Games, and how great the worlds race was. It might be that there’s better racing to watch with the women than the men, and I was really happy for the attention we had.

Sometimes during a race, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this is not going to look good on television!’ I really think that, but [Limburg] it was really—wow!”

The big problem for the women’s peloton is that, while it gets the annual opportunity of the world championships—and the opportunity of the Olympic Games once every four years—to show the world how exciting it can be, prospective viewers get very little chance to see any other races to the same extent.

“But now, we showed ourselves in these races,” Vos says. “But as I said, all the races can be interesting, but if nobody sees it then how can you say that. You can talk about how great it is, but you can only spread the word if it’s also shown on television.”

Although she sits on the UCI athletes’ commission, Vos does not get on her soap box often, preferring to let the racing speak for itself. Exasperation over the inequality has given her some very clear ideas on the subject, however.

“You shouldn’t see a woman’s race as a man’s race, but it’s still cycling; its still great racing, but don’t compare the races, or the hills, or the gears, or the speed with the men,” she explains. “It doesn’t matter if we average three-k-an-hour less, no, it doesn’t matter for the race.

“That’s the difference,” she adds. “We don’t have the muscles; we don’t have the lungs—the heart/lung systems like the men, but we train as hard, we work as hard, and it is racing with tactics, and rivalry—and we suffer, and that’s the thing.

“I did the Cauberg in six seconds more than Phil Gilbert, but even if its 20 it doesn’t matter.”

For women’s cycling though, every step back is accompanied by at least one step forward, and change is, albeit gradually, coming. One factor behind this is the increasing number of top men’s teams to field a women’s roster, of which Vos’s team Rabobank is one. Even with the loss of the Dutch bank as a sponsor, the team will continue to field top teams from both genders, which Vos sees as a positive thing.

“The inclusion of women’s teams in men’s squads has brought women’s cycling to a higher level,” she explained recently. “The structures of these teams are good, so it’s a great added value. Of course I would like to see all teams add a women’s team. Together with the UCI we are looking at how to bring women cycling further, but it’s the responsibility of the UCI to at least encourage this, for example.”

As well as the UCI needing to encourage more teams to field women’s rosters, Vos would like to see more of the biggest men’s races put on women’s events in parallel.

“For us it’s great to have Flanders, Flèche Wallonne and Gent-Wevelgem, but our calendar needs more of these historic races,” she said. “Paris-Roubaix would be epic, but also Liège-Bastogne-Liège or Lombardia. The biggest step we can make is to get back our Tour de France.”

In the absence of a women’s Paris-Roubaix though, there is just one big race that is missing from Vos’s extensive palmares. Having finished on the podium three times, but sitting out the 2012 race through that illness, it is Vlaanderens Mooiste that the Dutch sensation would like to win most in her new rainbow jersey. Aside from this, however, the nine-time world champion—across road, track and cyclocross—is seeking new challenges in yet another branch of the sport.

“Of course, Flanders is still the race that I want to win,” she says, “and as a new challenge and for something fresh I’m going to take up the mountain bike. I don’t know how it will be, but that’s why it’s a challenge, and that’s why it motivates so much. If you reach your big dreams and goals, then it’s good to have something new to work on, and to keep motivated.

“But this rainbow, especially after five second places, is really nice,” she smiles. “I’m really proud to wear this now, all season, with the cyclocross season—the whole year.

“People can say you’re the best, but if you have the rainbow jersey then that’s the proof.” 

From Issue 18.