“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

Procycling - - MARIANNE VOS - Wri ter: So­phie Hur­com Pho­tog­ra­phy: Get ty Im­ages*

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

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