R ACING I NSTI NCT
“When Marianne Vos started cycling she had little to gain from it. I think she’s wicked and she achieved everything she did in cross, track, road, everything, with nothing to gain then, no financial rewards. She did it just for winning. What was her drive
Marianne Vos hardly has to pause to think of an answer. “It was just for the love of the sport,” she replies instantly, when Procycling calls and asks what her motivation was when she first started in cycling, as our guest editor instructed. “As a kid I started cycling; my dad was in cycling, my older brother, and I continued doing so. As a junior, I found out I was probably quite talented, more talented than average...well, I wanted to make the most of it. I just wanted to enjoy racing and try my best. There has never been a motivation or objective to make it my occupation or to make money or whatever with the sport. Of course, that came as a result later on, and that was a big bonus.
“I’ve always liked the competition,” she continues. “I always tried to challenge myself and try different stuff. I tried track later on and I did mountain biking… But most of it I was just... yeah, enjoying myself on the bike. I think that’s also the reason why people ask why I’m still riding when I’m 31. I don’t consider myself old and, well, if they do my answer is that I just like it.”
Vos may say it’s an easy question to answer. But consider the never-ending list of well-documented achievements she has to her name: the seven cyclocross world championships; three rainbow jerseys on the road; Olympic gold medals on the road and track; three Giro Rosa titles and over 200 UCI-ranked road race wins. And then consider her longcemented status as the greatest, most versatile cyclist since Merckx, and the associated responsibilities of being the ambassador for women’s cycling. Given all that, it’s easy to forget that Vos just likes to ride her bike. In spite of the accolades and achievements, that part of her has not, and will never, change.
She had the same attitude when she started out in cycling and first burst on to the scene when, as an almostentirely unknown 18-year-old, she beat defending champion Hanka Kupfernagel to win a debut cyclo-cross world title in Zedam in 2006. That first world title, the one that changed everything for Vos, came when she was still at high school. Vos was a few weeks away from starting her end-of-school exams, but still using her 15km cycle commute each way from her home in Babyloniënbroek village, to squeeze in extra training around her evening sessions. Everyone at school knew she raced bikes. While her friends and peers were working Saturday jobs to earn pocket money, Vos was often racing. The teachers gave her leniency if she had to leave early on a Friday or would arrive late back on a Monday due to travelling, a privilege she never abused. But that first rainbow jersey turned Vos from the girl at school who raced bikes into headline news. Suddenly she was on the television, her face was in the newspapers. The shy teenage girl who just liked to race her bike was in the spotlight and she suddenly felt out of place.
“I didn’t really talk about cycling that much because I really liked just being the
same as everybody else,” Vos recalls. “It got sort of publicly known in school, and in high school that’s not cool. It’s not cool to be different to the others; I didn’t really like it. But yeah, of course, it was great to be champion but being in school and having these ceremonies – it felt a little uncomfortable.”
Six months later, with high school complete, and a national and European road title also to her name, Vos won her debut elite road world title in Salzburg. The headlines about this Dutch teenage prodigy taking over cycling only increased.
“I got more known in Holland and people had their opinions about me and shared their opinions about me. I got sort of a little bit famous and I actually didn’t really like that,” Vos says of that period of her early career.
“There was one side that wanted to perform and do well and was really happy with the results and there was one part that was, ‘Okay, I never asked to be famous, I just want to ride my bike’. That part was a big learning process and I think yeah it… actually, I learned a lot from it. In only a few years it was quite a big step for me personally. It would probably have taken 20 years otherwise.”
Most winners, most champions such as Vos, hate losing. Finishing second is not in their nature and it usually doesn’t mean anything – just ask Cavendish. As a six-year-old child, when Vos first sat on a bike, she was no different. Even in 2018, that drive to win was as strong as it had ever been. When she lost a sprint to Coryn Rivera on stage 2 of the Women’s Tour, the sight of Vos sat on the pavement outside her WaowDeals team bus next to a rubbish bin, her knees by her chin and her head in her hands as she cried, was arresting. Does one more victory amid all the other accolades and achievements really matter as much as all that?
“I’ve always been very competitive so anything that I do, especially in sport, once there is a race or a number involved, then I’m very competitive,” she admits. “I’ve had to learn to lose and to take that as a motivation for the next time. Especially as a kid I could be very angry after a disappointing race.”
Loving her racing is one thing, but where does that drive, that need to win actually come from? “It is probably a combination from my parents,” Vos says. “My mum is a perfectionist. She wants to do really well and she can’t stand it if it doesn’t work out, and my dad is always looking for challenges. He’s never seen any problems, he always looks for the opportunities – probably the
There was one side that wanted to perform and do well and there was one part that was: I never asked to be famous, I just wanted to ride my bike
combination from them makes me want to do the best I can.
“Then there’s the area where I grew up. People just don’t talk about it: they go for it, just work your ass off and go. I think that’s what brought me to this.”
Vos’s biggest asset has always been her ability to quickly accelerate and attack. It’s how she’s won some of her biggest titles over the years. Her first cyclo-cross world title in 2006 came that way. It helped her overcome Lizzie Armitstead on The Mall in London when she won Olympic gold in 2012, and she accelerated away from her rivals to win her 2012 and 2013 road world titles.
Sprinting, she says, has always come naturally to her. When she was young, training on the flat, windy roads at home, her talent was her ability to sprint.
“Where I’m from, we’re Christian and Protestants so everybody who has a talent, you see that as a gift… you just try to make it work the best as you can,” she says. “If you look into training and what comes naturally I was naturally quite…my explosiveness is quite okay, my sprint... You always have that, on the road but also in cyclo-cross. It’s easier to win races if you can sprint.
“What I didn’t have was the power and what I lacked was the bigger engine. That has always been my biggest problem, so power and the bigger engine I had to gain over the years. Of course, it improved, but still if I can go back to my nature that’s more the short and intense intervals.”
Since 2015, Vos has been reverting to what she knows best. That debilitating season almost ended Vos’s career. She finished only two road races in the whole of that year. Burnout and overtraining from competing so much, coupled with knee and hamstring injuries, put her entirely off the bike. Many people thought Vos was done, and there were times when she thought the same.
It’s been the biggest challenge of her career, she says, in these three years since, to get back to what Vos calls, “my own best”. But 2018 confirmed she isn’t going anywhere just yet. She won eight races, not quite the same dizzying highs as her all-conquering, invincible years from 2011 to 2014, when she averaged 23 victories a season, but her six WorldTour wins this year included a stage at the Giro Rosa and a clean sweep at the Ladies Tour of Norway in mid-August.
If there was one performance that showed that Vos, on her day, is still the best sprinter in the peloton, it was her victory at Crescent Vårgårda this August. With the peloton looking to be headed for a group sprint, Vos came flying around the final right-hand corner on the outside of the bunch with 300m to go, and accelerated. She got a gap and sprinted long, all the way to the line. No one else came close to her.
“That was one of the races that I found myself thinking, ‘Okay this is how I want to race’. Race on intuition. If I’d thought about it I would have said, ‘No, you’re
Staying grounded is very important to me. Everybody has a talent and you all want to do well in life, but I don’t think it’s medals that make your life count
mad, you don’t start a sprint at 300m from the line with all the best sprinters in the world on your wheel.’ It was racing on instinct,” Vos says.
“That was the biggest victory, not the victory itself but the feeling of being myself in that race again.”
The depth of the women’s peloton has increased during the Vos era of cycling. It isn’t as easy for one rider to dominate everything from sprints to spring cobbled Classics and mountainous GC races, as she used to do. Yet Vos has also stopped trying to race and win everything. Stage races are not necessarily targets as they don’t offer enough of the recovery time that she needs, even if the winner inside Vos still wants to race everything and win everything that she can.
“I focused on the one-day races and tried to do well in that. As I said before, naturally I’m more of a sprinter type so I can do well in the Classics but not in the specific climber races, so my team and my coach decided to focus first on what comes naturally, train on that and from there build on the more all-round version,” she says.
“There’s also a part of me that wants to get better at every aspect, so from the point that I was at, I had to say, ‘Okay, I need to focus on the sprints or on the hilly classics first instead of on the mountains.’ But there is always a part of me that wants more. I’ve learned over the last few years how to balance myself better.”
It would be easy for Vos to have an ego, an arrogance, or even an element of aloofness that makes her hard to reach. Her palmarès somehow expects it. But that’s just not her style. Even at the heights of her success, Vos always came across as grounded. She still does. She might be a world-class athlete, but she seems a bit like everyone else. She famously travels to races in a campervan with her family and cat. When she isn’t away working one of the 200 days of the year, she splits her time between her parents’ home and living with a friend. Even when we speak, she asks if we can move the interview to earlier in the day, so she can get an early night as she’s unwell. Almost like we wouldn’t expect Vos to ever fall ill.
The minimal free time she has is spent enjoying the simple things in life: reading, listening to music, having dinner with her small but close-knit group of friends. Being outside is important, whether that’s on the bike or going for a hike into the woods or mountains.
“Staying grounded is very important to me. Everybody has a talent and you all want to do well in life, but I don’t think it’s medals and golden medals or results that make your life count that much. It’s who you are and what you do. So, for me, that’s more important than results in bike racing, although I want to do well and yeah, my family has been really important,” she says.
As for her alternative way of travel: “People always say, ‘You stay so normal, you are travelling with your cat.’ But for me it is normal. So, it’s not weird to be normal, that’s how my life is. That’s also how I like it. I think it might sometimes be a bit weird to people. Yeah, of course, I could have lived in Monaco and probably went to the galas and la la la, but I like this. I love where I’m from and I like the people around me. For me, that counts more than glitter and glamour.”
That 2015 season off the bike also forced Vos to think about the future, the “afterlife”. She’s dabbled in commentary and media work but most of all she wants to find a way to pass on her experience from cycling in some way, whether that’s staying in the sport or moving into another sphere. Ultimately, though, Marianne Vos just loves riding her bike, and that is likely to never change.
“It’s a choice, it’s a way of life, you’re not an athlete from nine until five, you’re an athlete 24/7. But I’ve never seen it as a big sacrifice, because I also get a lot from it,” she says. “If I go back to my inner motivation, riding my bike all over the world in some beautiful places, then doing what I love most – that’s actually not a big sacrifice.”
A 17-year- old Vos breaks away to win the 2004 junior world title in VeronaNo rain was going to dampen Vos’s parade in London as she won Olympic gold in 2012
Vos’s long-range sprint at Crescent Vårgårda showed why she’s still one of the best