QUEEN V

Owen Rogers asks Mar­i­anne Vos, the most suc­cess­ful bike rider of her gen­er­a­tion, if she is ready to reign again

Cycling Weekly - - FEATURE -

“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.

Over-ex­tended

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.

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