Owen Rogers asks Marianne Vos, the most successful bike rider of her generation, if she is ready to reign again
“There were days when I thought, why do I even try?”
Marianne Vos’s victory in August’s Vårgårda road race was typical of her. Swooping round the outside in the final right-hand bend, she opened her sprint early, checked over her shoulder and crossed the line, left hand characteristically punching the air.
It was a powerful, intelligent victory, and a tipping point. Days later she won all three stages of the Ladies Tour of Norway en route to her second consecutive victory there, then finished second at the GP Plouay. After years of inconsistency, Vos finally had the legs to match her tactical prowess.
Two Olympic gold medals and 12 rainbow jerseys in three disciplines are the highlights of a palmarès which only bears comparison with the greatest ever in the sport. But the last of those world titles came nearly five years ago, signalling the end of a six-year reign as cyclo-cross world champion, and while she had a successful 2014 on the road, the following year proved to be Vos’s annus horribilis.
A hamstring injury meant she could only salvage third place in the 2015 cyclo-cross Worlds. Later that spring she broke a rib in a mountain bike race, and struggling to recover from that and overtraining put paid to her road season. She won some races in 2016, but it wasn’t until August this year that she was able to achieve the consistency of those earlier years.
“It’s not that I was so far back,” she says, the piercing blue eyes which turn to steel on a start line now softened by rueful reflection. “That would have been more frustrating because I hate it when I am not in the game; I have to be able to do something. But I lacked the last percentages to take the win.
“It made me doubt, but there were moments last season like Norway, like the Europeans, and even in 2016 I did some OK races, so I always felt I still had it. I needed to find a good balance for training, for racing and most importantly rest. And I needed to stay patient.
“I never thought about retiring, but there were days when I thought, why do I even try? When the training didn’t work, or I crashed, got injured or ill.”
Her downfall, she insists, was not the constant, year-round grind of training, travel and racing but rather her commitments and responsibilities as the face and voice of the women’s sport.
“I always said yes to everything. I lacked rest, and took responsibility for things I shouldn’t have.”
Currently one year into a four-year engagement on the UCI Athletes Commission, Vos has always taken an interest in the sport’s politics, but is now trying to limit media commitments.
“I’m an athlete first, I look at my training and race schedule and if there’s something that fits, I'll do it, but it’s all about balance.”
After an injury-blighted winter where her cyclo-cross results were worse than the previous year, there was no sign of a sustained return to form at the start of 2018. She took a couple of top-10 places, but just as her form was materialising, it was scuppered when she crashed in Liège-bastogne-liège. She finished in 56th place, with a broken collarbone.
We had to wait until mid-july and stage eight of the Giro Rosa — a race she has won overall three times — to see that familiar left-handed victory salute, but since then Vos’s season has been on a steep upward curve.
Giro number four?
Indeed, by the time she called a halt to her road season in order to prepare for the first ever full cyclo-cross season of her 15-year professional career, remarkably she had finished out of the top 10 only six times in 35 race starts.
So will we see Vos dominate again? Can she win the Giro Rosa?
“I doubt it. But before 2011 I never thought I could win the Giro, so doubting it might be a good sign! To get back to the highest level it’s best to find the thing that suits you best, the Classics and one-day races.
“It’s not going to be easy to win the Giro again, it’s not in my mind, but I feel better and I might change my opinion about the races that I still can do.”
While she was struggling to catch up, things were changing in the women’s peloton and increased depth in the bunch means there is less room for the dominance she enjoyed five years ago.
“The average speeds in a lot of races are up two or three kilometres an hour, even with the longer distances, so the level is higher in general. It doesn’t mean the level wasn’t high in the past, but it was a smaller group, now 30 or 40 girls do it and it makes for more interesting races.
“But look at the spring campaign of Anna van der Breggen, you could say that she is quite dominant, and you’ll always see those talents that really stand out.”
Though she is far from arrogant, Vos’s drive for success is evident when you speak to her, and we are unlikely to see her kind again. Given recent form, no one would bet against her winning an eighth cyclo-cross rainbow jersey in the Danish mud come February, or even a fourth road title in Yorkshire next year.
But time will tell if she has truly recovered or learnt the lessons of recent years.