Two decades before the current era of Dutch dominance in female cycling, The Netherlands produced one of the greatest riders ever. Procycling looks at the career of Leontien van Moorsel, and the struggles she faced
The agonisingly slow development of the women’s elite racing calendar has had various negative effects, but there’s one that’s only obvious when you try to figure out precisely where one of the greats fits into the pantheon. The lack of equality of opportunity for men and women makes it impossible, basically, to directly compare – for example – Eddy Merckx and Marianne Vos, but it’s also well nigh impossible to measure up successive generations of female cyclists.
To take the most obvious instance, while our guest editor Lizzie Deignan can hold her head high as a winner of ParisRoubaix, that chance was denied to all her predecessors. Similarly, there are no simple measures when it comes to measuring, say, Elsy Jacobs against Jeannie Longo, or Beryl Burton against Vos, no more than there are when comparing Merckx and Vos. It’s not like asking whether Jacques Anquetil was greater than Miguel Indurain: Jacobs and Burton didn’t have the opportunities to show their talent at the highest level that were enjoyed by Vos and Longo. They just didn’t have the races.
The top end of the men’s calendar has been largely fixed for half a century – monuments, grand tours and world championships – but the women’s calendar has never been complete. The waters are muddied still further by the various versions of the women’s Tour de France. As an athletic endeavour, how will next year’s Tour de France Femmes compare with the Giro Rosa, or the Tour Féminin in its 1984-89 marathon variant, or the versions run in the early 1990s?
However you choose to evaluate individual athletes, though, there’s little arguing with the record of Leontien van Moorsel. The Dutch rider bridged the interval between the era when Longo was dominant – the 1980s – and the emergence of Vos in the early 2000s. Van Moorsel’s world championship win in Stuttgart in 1991 was an astonishing solo effort in the register of Burton or Longo – a margin of almost two minutes on the silver medallist Inga Thompson, almost three on the main group containing Longo – and her retirement after a final Olympic title in 2004 came just as Vos was emerging through the junior ranks.
The culmination of Van Moorsel’s career came in 2000, with the finest set of Olympic results any cyclist has ever posted: Van Moorsel won the time trial and road race, added the individual pursuit in a world record time and took a silver medal in the points race. In an era of increasing specialisation, it’s a sweep that is unlikely to be bettered.
I witnessed three Van Moorsel world titles, 1991 in Stuttgart, 1993 in Oslo, and 1998 in Valkenburg. The
first was truly impressive, suggesting that the Longo era had come to an end and that the French champion had finally met her nemesis. The convoluted urban circuit at Oslo two years later confirmed that, with a head-to-head in the final metres culminating in the Dutchwoman leaving Longo more than a length behind. The most memorable, however, was the time trial title in Valkenburg, partly because it was on home turf, but more because of where Van Moorsel had come from.
In the mid-1990s, anorexia nervosa was rarely discussed in high-level sport; Van Moorsel was one of the first athletes to acknowledge the condition. It took her several years to recover; by the end of 1993 she was forced to take a break, and by spring 1995 she was discussing, with no certainty whatsoever, a possible return for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. In the event, her return to the highest level began in 1997, when she took several Dutch national titles, and it was finally achieved in 1998 at Valkenburg.
In late 1994 I commissioned writer Nicky Crowther to travel to Holland to find out what had become of one of cycling’s leading racers. When the interview took place in January 1995, Van Moorsel was at a health farm, on a crash weight loss programme which actually hinted that she had yet to come entirely to terms with the condition which had put her there. “In the hunt for perfection, Van Moorsel has always been fanatical about her weight,” read the piece. “No one stays ignorant for long as to how the five foot five inch Dutch dynamo tips the scales. It’s remarkable to hear the facts raked over time and again; to be informed of Leontien’s kilo-count by a third party when setting up the interview, then again by the receptionist while awaiting the health farm’s most illustrious guest, and finally in detail by the lady herself.”
It had taken Van Moorsel three seasons to break Longo, who remains one of the strongest minds and physiques to have graced the world of cycling. After Stuttgart, the pair met again in the Women’s Tour de France in 1992 in a duel of the highest calibre which points to what can happen when two of the best go head to head on a truly tough course. Longo took the prologue time trial in Paris; Van Moorsel won stage 2 and shaded the French champion by two seconds in the mountain top finish at Luz Ardiden; the gap was the same, but reversed when Longo won a short time trial in Toulouse. The next day, Van Moorsel chiselled out a 0:09 lead on Longo, which had to be held in the finale to L’Alpe d’Huez.
The instructions of the Dutch directeur sportif Piet Hoekstra were that she should never shift from Longo’s back wheel; at one point the pair came to a virtual standstill, with Van Moorsel coming close to colliding with a vehicle in the race convoy. The tactic worked; the sprint finish gave the Dutch star the overall title, plus the mountains and points competitions. A clean sweep worthy of Longo herself, and the following year, Van Moorsel went several steps better after the Frenchwoman was forced out by a crash. Her five stages included a final solo victory at L’Alpe d’Huez, and gave her a winning margin of 8:29 on France’s Marion Clignet. Not surprisingly, it earned her the silent treatment from Longo, who just ignored her as she had done Maria Canins. Not acknowledging her nemeses was hardly sociable, but it was the Frenchwoman’s way of coping.
However, the effort Van Moorsel had made to counter Longo went way beyond riding herself to exhaustion on the road. The danger signs had already been present in 1992, when she was favourite for the road race and pursuit in Barcelona but struggled after overtraining, and by the end of 1993 she was beyond breaking point. In 1995, she told Crowther of a diet that consisted largely of yoghurt, carrots, cucumber and fruit, and which she summed up in 2020: “a problem, a big problem. I was eating nothing in the evening, only beans.” When she won at L’Alpe d’Huez, her weight had plummeted to below seven stone, with a dangerously low body fat level of just six per cent.
“To try and win for seven months of the year was too much,” she told Crowther, adding that as a woman she felt under particular pressure. “I always had to smile.”
Disordered eating and mental health issues go together hand in glove. They are much discussed today across sport,
Van Moorsel’s Worlds win in Stuttgart in 1991 was an astonishing solo win in the register of Beryl Burton or Jeannie Longo
which can only be a good thing. The guest editor of this month’s Procycling has herself discussed her dietary issues in her autobiography Steadfast. The meagre rewards on offer for women in cycling also play a role; Van Moorsel was fortunate to receive a grant of about £800 from the Dutch Cycling Federation in her best years – fortunate because many of her peers raced for nothing.
“A man can ride the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and the Vuelta, different races against different rivals,” she said in 1995. “For women, cycling is more limited, and the prize money doesn’t go far. You can race a season of pain, pain, pain and still get no money. If I was a man I would be able to stop work when I retire, but I will have to find a job immediately.” Hence the additional pressure, felt by generations of female cyclists including riders such as Burton, who raced as obsessively as any athlete, but did so for free.
There are increasing cases of male cyclists such as Tom Dumoulin and Peter Kennaugh now taking time out to reboot mentally, while former professionals Janez Brajkovic and Molly Weaver have revealed their disordered eating issues. These are mirrored all too frequently among athletes that I have encountered lower down the cycling pyramid; the former Welsh amateur Oscar Mingay, who discussed this with the BBC, is just one of these.
Van Moorsel’s sporting obsession began young; she was a child prodigy, who began racing at eight years old, was Dutch junior champion at 15, and senior champion at 19, prior to which she said, racing was “only for fun, I was not thinking about talent, money, whatever. And I eat everything. Potatoes, Snickers, Twixes”. When she took her break in 1994, it was her first holiday from competition since adolescence, time spent with friends and her fiancé Michel Zijlaard, who she married at the end of the season.
“I’d been training six hours a day for four years,” she told Cycle Sport. “It was race, race, race. If I was not in the top 10, it was no good. It was pressure from myself, not from my coach or doctor. Everything in my body was tired. After Michel and I met in 1992, and we’d been together a month, he told me it was not normal to train so hard and eat nothing.”
When Van Moorsel returned to the top, it was as a different athlete, and, as she has told it, as a different person. “Before, I was like a machine,” she told Rouleur in 2020. “And afterwards it was pleasure. Winning the Tour de France was not me – it was a different person. When I came back on the top, it’s me, it’s smiling, it’s Leontien, it’s fun, it’s much nicer and healthier. I wanted to show young riders that it was not good what I did to win the Tour de
France.” Part of that process involved handing control of her training to Zijlaard, to ensure that when appropriate the brakes were put on.
In that “second career” – Van Moorsel estimates that anorexia and recovery cost her eight years of her life in total – there would be other landmarks, beginning with Valkenburg, followed by Sydney, and then with an Hour Record in Mexico City in October 2003. Longo, the record holder, had played unpleasant psychological games, claiming that Van Moorsel was slower because she was 20 kilos heavier; the Dutchwoman’s response was to add nearly a kilometre to Longo’s distance, taking the record over 46km. The mark would stand for almost 12 years.
Another landmark was a victory in the women’s Amstel Gold Race, held in 2002, after third place in the inaugural edition the year before. There would be three editions of that first version, finishing on the Cauberg, and when the race returned in 2017 – prompted by the Olympic victories of Vos and Anna van der Breggen in London and Rio - Van Moorsel was its director. 2004 marked the end, with a gold medal in the time trial at the Athens Olympics, earned with the scars of a crash in the road race still smarting; Van Moorsel had spent much of the race dictating the pace, then lost everything in one split second when she looked over her shoulder to check what was happening behind and ran into the back wheel of one of the Spanish team.
After retirement there were plaudits, including her election jointly with 1980 Tour de France winner Joop Zoetemelk as the best Dutch cyclist of all time. (It’s almost easier to list the years when Van Moorsel wasn’t Dutch sportswoman of the year: she gained the honour in 1990, 1993, 1999, 2000, 2003, and 2004). There was an appearance on the Dutch version of Strictly Come Dancing, in 2006, where she finished 10th of 11; on a more serious note, in 2014, she featured in a year-long television programme following women in recovery from anorexia.
That tied in with the opening in 2013 of the Leontienhaus, a walk-in centre for anorexia sufferers, in a former farmhouse and its buildings just north of Rotterdam. The centre also caters for those close to the patients, because, as she noted from her own experience, the disorder has a knock-on effect on loved ones. She recalled for the writer José Been in a 2020 interview that her husband and family had suffered as well, and added, “We have monthly inspiration sessions where patients and their families listen to stories of people who survived anorexia and got their lives back, like I did.” Patients are also encouraged to find and pursue fresh skills – yoga, drawing, painting – to help them recover by regaining mental as well as physical health.
It would be unreasonable to define Van Moorsel’s cycling career by her anorexia, but it would be equally unreasonable to deny its significance, both in her bike racing, and in her life since. It’s rare to find a cycling champion who has reconnected with the world outside the sport to the degree that Van Moorsel has, and – going back to the beginning of this piece – it’s that which makes Van Moorsel special, rather than results which still place her in the top half dozen cyclists of all time.
Clearly, she’s a woman who has gained a very different perspective in emerging from a sport which encourages its participants to be obsessive, often to the detriment of their physical and mental well-being. “Eating disorders happen in all eras of cycling,” she told José Been for the CyclingTips website. “It comes and it goes in waves. I now see riders balance on that very thin line again. I threw away eight years of my life, eight years I will never get back. Not one win, medal or jersey is worth that.”