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"I still feel like Alice in Wonderland": Marijn de Vries on becoming a pro cyclist at 30, and much more...

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There are a lot of reasons I love women's cycling - apart from the exciting racing, non-stop attacking, and the general craziness, there are some great stories as well - especially of riders with random routes into cycling - and given that it's sometimes less easy that you'd think to find out information on the women's cycling world, I especially like the riders who blog, and tweet, and tell us about it themselves. So getting the chance to interview a rider who has a crazy-brilliant story, AND tells it in the finest style? I was very happy!

Marijn de Vries has combined riding for Leontien.nl, the all-Dutch team of multiple Olympic/World/road/track Champion Leontien van Moorsel with working as a sports journalist and editor on Holland Sport, arguably the best sports tv show in the Netherlands. I'm not going to give away any more about her story (than the title already does!) - you'll have to read on below, where you'll find out about that, and much much more... even the answer to THAT question!

A quick note about films... this one of Marijn cycling is by Holland Sport cameraman Rob Hodselmans - the others are all little clips of Holland Sport pieces on cycling. I can't guarantee that Marijn was involved in making all of them - but they're representative of what the show does, and what she works on off the bike - and you should watch them all anyway, if you haven't already, as they're beautiful little films in their own right. Click through to the Holland Sport Youtube to find more! Massive thanks to Marijn for her time, and to Gav for her help!

Pigeons: I've been reading your blog for a while, and you have this great story - you were a full-time journalist before you decided to start riding prefessionally as well.... Why? How? It seems a huge thing to do!

Marijn: No no, it isn't. At least not to me. I've been riding a race bike for 3 years now. The first year was just for fun. I met some guys in the pub (I was pubbing a lot back than) and they had racebikes too. They invited me to join them, and one of them gave me his cellphone number - of course the next day he didn't remember that! But it turned out they were members of this cycling club for students, and some of them rode races. After some training rides with them, they were saying that I rode well for a girl. Of course I had no idea, I was just doing something without thinking.

That was the summer of 2008 - in October I went to the Ardennen with those guys, to the Luik-Bastenaken-Luik area. I'd never done a 'real' climb before, but I loved it! That was the moment these guys really stimulated me to start racing. I was not so sure: almost 30 years old, why would I start now? But I really, really started to love cycling.

And then as part of my job as a journalist, I was given the chance to make a radio documentary, on subject of my choice. I told the editor in charge I had started cycling and wanted to try to join races, and she said: that's a perfect story! So I thought: why not go all the way... why not find out if I can become a 'pro' at 30? I expected it to be a nice experiment... got a little out of hand!

I went to a sports-doctor for some tests, went cycling with Marianne Vos, did interviews with Leontien van Moorsel - and recorded all that, and Leontien invited me to join a training-weekend with her team... the rest is history!

Pigeons: That's crazy!

Marijn: I think so too!

Pigeons: It sounds like it happened by evolution

Marijn: Something like that (of course I hoped secretly it would turn out I had some talent, but hey, what could you expect from someone who never cycled before?) 2009 was the first season I raced, and I crashed heavily in June - end of my first season. I wasn't in the Leontien-team back then, but after they operated on my shoulder, Leontien called me and asked if I wanted to race for her team in 2010. I had already considered my experiment 'over', because of my crash (although, giving up is not something I do easily)

Pigeons: But I guess you can't say "no" to Leontien!

Marijn: Exactly! She gave me a monster pep-talk and after that I thought: I have to give it another chance. And so I did

Pigeons: And you're signed up again for 2011

Marijn: Yup! How cool is that? I still feel like Alice in Wonderland, racing with the big girls and all...

Pigeons: What are your ambitions for 2011?

Marijn: Riding nice races, doing as well as I can, learning much much more (diplomatic answer, ha)


Pigeons: Stories like yours - and Sharon Laws, and Evelyn Stevens - are so inspiring. Women who have successful careers, and who try cycling, and succeed - it's one of the best things about the sport.

Marijn: Thanks! The other side of that story is that I hear all the time "oh, women's cycling can't be that impressive, since you joined in so easily". That's really frustrating, and not easy to answer

Pigeons: I've seen that, but you also get men who are in similar situations - like Xavi Tondó, or João Correia - it's just they're not so high profile. Tondó was working in a tomato factory & riding for fun when he was spotted - Correia was in the media for years before he went pro.

Marijn: that's true - and do you know the most recent story, about that Belgian ice hockey player Rob Goris who is a professional cyclist now? Even the Belgian commentator Karl Vannieuwkerke tried to become a cyclist when he was 30 years old, and wrote a book about it. His best result was joining races with pro's without contract. I always invite men who question our level to race with us. But still... it's hard to convince them. The answer I have is: there are not so many female cyclists. if you have the right body and if you're willing to give all you have, you have a good chance to reach the (semi-)top if you're a little older

Pigeons: How did the other women accept you? It could be hard to be riding for years, & see you get a contract straight away!

Marijn: Before I started racing I was really worried about that. It wasn't necessary at all, they accepted me immediately. Although: there's this women's cycling forum in the Netherlands and there my contract with Leontien was questioned. I could see why, I had no good results at all. I felt like it was my job to prove I belong to the team. Some people thought it was a media stunt because I work for a fairly well known Dutch tv show

Pigeons: But that's also part of cycling - to do a great job without winning - only one rider can win, but the team-work is more important

Marijn: You're right, but in 2009 I rode only like 8 races and I got a contract. That's not normal. I can imagine why people are questioning a thing like that...

Pigeons: I'm interested in the media side, because you moved from being a professional journalist, where you're working as part of a team, but at the top of the team, if that makes sense, to becoming a domestique and working for other people's success. How is that - is it a different work ethos?

Marijn: It's not comparable at all... Actually it's a hard question. Cycling is such a big big adventure for me, I'm thrilled I can do this, every day, learning and learning. I don't see my 'work' (don't see it as work at all) on a bike as work for others - it's part of the good result of my team, and I'm happy to contribute to that, I'm growing as a cyclist by doing that

Pigeons: Leontien.nl seems like a different kind of team to some of the others - I love the emphasis on promoting cycling at all levels, and the fact there are riders like Irene van den Broek doing her PhD, and an encouragement of wider life than just riding - does it feel like that from the inside?

Marijn: haha, never thought about it that way. I don't know if I'm the right person to answer that question - girls who've been riding since they were kids can answer that more easily, maybe... I think every team has some more or less highly educated riders - we women know we won't be millionaires after our cycling career, so we have to have a job, or go to school, I don't think leontien.nl is an exception

Pigeons: Do you think coming into cycling after having success in a more normal world (but only slightly more normal!) is better for you, or do you wish you had known earlier? Because it seems like you love the cycling life very much, but I'm wondering if part of that is because you have something else to compare it to, and you know that if it all goes wrong, you still have a career to go back to?

Marijn: I can say some things to that: Since I'm new, I enjoy it so much, I'm not 'used to' it. It was a conscious choice to really go for cycling. If you're a little girl, and do cycling, becoming better and better, it suddenly is a way of life. You don't really question what you're doing, you just do it. (That's what Marianne Vos told me: it's to your advantage, you really chose cycling) I can't imagine how it would have been if I'd started earlier. I can only guess. Yes, maybe I would have won prizes. But maybe I wouldn't. It's just: I'm really happy I found out I love racing, at least. And trying to make the best out of it in a short period of time. And sure, if this experiment stops, or fails, I can always go back to normal life, that's why I don't think I took a big risk to go for cycling. And it was a super-life-changing-experience!

Pigeons: So you have the best of both worlds, in a way. I wonder if that's why there are so many women with interesting stories - they have had success already, they know they have something to go back to, but they can't really lose, taking a year out to try!

Marijn: Maybe they don't think they fail if they don't succeed... maybe men would immediately think they're not good enough...

Pigeons: You're still working in tv, too - where do you find the time to do both?

Marijn: This year was absolutely CRAZY, working for 30 hours a week, besides the races. That's why I decided to start as a freelance journalist, to work less and to cycle more.

Pigeons: Leontien.nl's strip of pink & flowers is the extreme kit, and I love it, but do you ever wish you were in something more "sporty" like Cervelo?

Marijn: No! In the beginning I had my doubts about the pink because it's so Barbie-like, but it's designed so well, the bike and our shirts and all, I really started to love it! We are women, we should show that in our shirts as well, not cycle in men's kit... (although I really liked the Cervelo-outfit - beautifull!)

Pigeons: It also seems to be part of leontien.nl's profile - you know, an accessible website, a shop (I love the ipod pig!), a clear "brand" - and Leontien too, of course. How much does she have to do with that, and with the day-to-day running of the team?

Marijn: A lot! she's a great inspiration to me - since I'm not a specialist in training methods and all. She calls me a lot: two times a week at least. I always wonder how she finds the time - speaking of someone who's BUSY. I still feel so humble when I think of what she's reached in her cycling career. We're all amateurs compared to that. It's incredible that she takes the effort to help us, me!

Pigeons: So does she get involved with team tactics, and planning for races etc?

Marijn: No, that's her husband's job - she's our inspiration, he's our nightmare! ;-)

Pigeons: A great team - an angel on one side, & a demon on the other!

Marijn: He can be an angel as well - he's a really clever team manager, inspiring as well

Pigeons: You make it sound so exciting! But I also love the fact that your blog is so honest

Marijn: As honest as I want it to be ;-)

Pigeons: We loved it, on Podium Cafe, in l'Aude, when Monique van de Ree was blogging about the great accommodation, and you were saying on your blog "aaargh! It's a caravan!" It was very funny - there was this feeling of "What am I DOING??", but laughing at yourself too, because all through your blog is the feeling of loving the madness. So what's life on the road really like? What's the craziest thing you've had to get used to?

Marijn: let me think... Ow! Getting massages all the time! It's really great, but you have to get used to it. in the beginning I was up on the ceiling, screaming in agony. And what I really love is the great bond you get so easily with your team mates: you share rooms, bathrooms, everything, also moments when you're cold and tired. Moments you would rather be alone. But you're not, and the others are feeling the same. It feels really great in a way.

Pigeons: Cycling seems a strange sport like that - one day Ina Teutenberg is winning, the next day she's in the autobus, presumably hating the climb in the rain the same as the newest domestique.... What's it like, cycling alongside riders like Ina on the climbs, or Emma Pooley, on the flat days?

Marijn: It's really cool to cycle alongside them! Although I must admit, I wasn't that much into women's cycling before I got into it myself, so I only learned to know their reputations last year. shame on me...

Pigeons: Did you make any mistakes as a result? You know, accidentally knocking into Wild or Teutenberg?

Marijn: Fortunately not! In the beginning I was too far back in the bunch and now I recognize them! What I did do is learn some important riders' starting numbers by heart, before the race.... I did that in Fleche Wallone, for example. because I didn't recognize the riders in the beginning. Now I'm doing a lot better. Fortunately!

Pigeons: So you had to learn all about the women's cycling world, as well as the racing. You'd followed men's racing before, so were you expecting something different?

Marijn: I really didn't know what to expect, because racing yourself is so totally different from watching a race. I had already experienced that in some training races, before the season started. I had never watched a women's race, so I didn't know if there would be differences. And actually, when I think back, I didn't even think of the question you just asked me. I just went into it... I didn't know what to do when I had a flat tyre, didn't know how to take a bidon, didn't know you were allowed to stay with the car after changing a flat tire - I knew nothing. And you don't know to ask questions if you don't know you have to know things like that! For the others it was all so evident, to me nothing was.

That was all in 2009, when I was not cycling for leontien.nl. But my teammates had a great laugh after my first race ever, a crit. I finished 8th and was already on my way home when I found out I should have picked up an envelope with my prize - I thought only the first 3 got a prize!

Pigeons:
Was this attitude of "anything is possible" and letting things evolve always part of your personality?

Marijn: I think I've always been adventurous and keen on getting the best out of myself. Really ambitious, alway looking for something new 'letting things evolve' would rather be 'pushing it a little'

Pigeons:
I was wondering if you had a set plan, for your pre-cycling life, or if you got into journalism in a similar way?

Marijn: No, my plan afer university was to become a high profile journalist. Then I got into real life and found out I had to start at the bottom of the stairs (nice Dutch saying) and it was not easy to get up fast. I got a little frustrated in the first years after my study. In cycling it's totally different: if you're ambitious, the sky is the limit...

Pigeons: It seems like the two things help each other in a way - the cycling gives you a unique story, and the journalism helps you raise the profile of the cycling - so you have and can tell a great story

Marijn: Journalists are quite opportunistic, I found out... I don't think I would have gotten so much attention if I hadn't be a journalist. My story is under their eyes, really easy. They think it's safe to interview me, because I won't mess up, for I know how it works

Pigeons:
It must be a nice bonus for the team as well. It fits with their ethos, having different riders blogging, and being on twitter and making it easy for the fans to find out more about them

Marijn: If it helps women's cycling, I'm happy, because sometimes I feel a little embarrassed to get all this attention - so many other riders deserve it so much more


Pigeons: I love the fact that cyclists will talk to fans, through blogging and tweeting

Marijn: Me too! I still consider myself as a fan. Even in my job as a journalist, I love cyclists: they're so much more willing to talk to you than e.g. football players...

Pigeons: So who are your "heroes"? And why?

Marijn: Well, Fabian Cancellara is my number 1 - however I was really sad to find out he didn't watch the women's Worlds race. The Schlecks I like a lot as well - and we just made a film with them, one of my finest moments! It took me over a year to arrange this. But it worked out! I'm still working on Cancellara! And Cavendish will be in our show next Monday - that was not my job, but one of my colleagues'



Pigeons: What do you think about the male cyclists like Cavendish, when they're talking about not being paid enough, or when the men are complaining about this and that, do you think "well, try the women's racing!"?

Marijn: I don't compare, it only makes you frustrated. I still see it as a privilige to race as a pro and I hope the men enjoy it in the same way. The moment there is money involved, it's much less fun. And that's why we all started right, for fun. Shouldn't forget that!

Pigeons: So apart from Fabian and the Schlecks, who else? Were there any women at all that you knew about before you started?

Marijn: Leontien van Moorsel of course! She really is my hero, even more since I got to know her. And of course I knew about the world top in women's cycling!

Pigeons: Miss Marianne Vos! You interviewed her at the start of your cycling life - how was she to interview? And how well known is she in the Netherlands?

Marijn: She's really famous! I think almost all Dutch people know about her. She was really fun to interview. We went cycling and on her bike she's so much herself. She always is, but you can see she's feeling even more comfortable when she's cycling. She was really open to me and enthusiastic about my plans to starte racing. After the training her mother made tea for us, she brought us fruit and cookies - I felt really at home, welcome. Marianne is so modest and normal, that sometimes I had to squeeze my arm to realise who I was cycling next to!

Actually it was a strange interview, because I interviewed her not about herself, but about me: do you think I can still start racing when I'm already 30? What do you think about the way I cycle? I felt stupid!

Pigeons: That's funny!

Marijn: She thought so too! She's interviewed so frequently, finally something different, she said.

Pigeons:
Did you already know you had the capability? Was there a chance she'd say "No, Marijn, stick with the day job!"?

Marijn:
Back then? no, I didn't know at all. So yeah, I think so! but she would never say that. She'd rather say: keep on cycling, enjoy yourself, but racing won't be the best idea....

Pigeons: Did you play sports as a child, or as an adult, before you started cycling?

Marijn: Yes, I played volleyball a lot. I was as ambitious in volleyball back then as I am in racing now... training 3/4 times a week, don't go on holiday in the season, if you don't train you don't play... I turned out to be too short (although I'm 176)

Pigeons: Is it hard, being this ambitious? You seem like you're very sane for someone with so much ambition!

Marijn: You don't know me well enough! It can be very hard, especially when someone or something is blocking your ambitions. In the past years I tried to learn to let go now and then, but it's still hard, because sometimes by letting go it's easier to get what you want...

Pigeons: You seem like you have a sense of humour about yourself as well, from your blog - does that help, or make it harder?

Marijn:
I only have this sense of humor if I feel good, I think. Sometimes it takes time to see it that way, but I always try, because it's much more healthy to see things in perspective...

Pigeons: I loved that post you put up about your ITT saddle - but some of the men were really funny about it - it made them feel pain they could only imagine!


So, you said that there is no such thing as a stupid question, but here are some dumb Qs...

I am not asking you this from me, but it's a traditional question on Podium Cafe for all cyclists, so I have to do it....

....Wax or shave?

Marijn: Shave. I'm not that bushy

Pigeons: What's your favorite cheese?

Marijn: Aarrgg I'm only allowed to eat goat- and sheepcheese! I can't tolerate cow's milk very well. Such a pity, because I LOVE cheese, especially those really smelly ones

Pigeons: What's your favorite cake?

Marijn: WARM apple pie, with cinnamon flavoured icecream

Pigeons: And what's your favorite kind of race?

Marijn: Uphill, like in Limburg (Amstel Gold Race) or the Ardennen (Luik-Bastenaken-Luik/Fleche Wallone)

Pigeons: If there was one race you could get away with NEVER riding again, what would it be?

Marijn: 'Parel van de Veluwe', because in 2009 I crashed heavily and last year it was not fun at all... but it's a pity: it's in my training area

Pigeons:
If you could win one race, which would it be?

Marijn: Fleche Wallone!

Pigeons: What's the difference, in your eyes, between men's and women's racing? And why should people watch/follow women's racing?

Marijn: I think the gap gets smaller: in big races, you see the same tactics as in men's races. teamwork. That's the criticism most of the time: women don't know anything about teamwork. It's not true! People should watch women's racing because it's as exciting as men's racing! And of course women are more beautiful to watch!

Pigeons:
You mean the "nice bums in lycra" appeal? The way some women watch the men for the lycra effect?

Marijn: if you say so! But it's true! Men are stupid to watch other men racing, don't you think?

Pigeons: If you could steal one of the other rider's skills, which would it be?

Marijn: I would want to have the peloton-racing-skills of Marianne Vos. I don't ask for her sprint, or anything else... But the easy way she moves in the peloton... Yes!

Pigeons:
I'm kind of scared to ask this, but in 10 years time, what do you want to be doing? I'm imagining the answer is "taking over the World" ;-)

Marijn: haha, no, I really would want to be mum of two kids - boring!

Pigeons: How does it work, being all over the world and in a relationship? I feel guilty asking that, as no one ever questions the men being away, but does it make it harder? Or is your boyfriend your biggest fan?

Marijn: I have a boyfriend, we're together since christmas 2002 and we've been living together since 2005. It's not easy because we already were together before I became a cyclist. He didn't ask for it, it was not 'part of the deal' like in other relationships cyclists have. He's very afraid I'll fall. I feel really sorry about that, because I can't say anything that makes him less scared. He doesn't like it that I'm away so much, but he's really proud, he helps a lot. He does a lot of cooking and shopping when I am tired. It's so sweet! I'm so happy he does all these things for me! Especially because he doesn't like it very much, my cycling. It's the other way around than usual: not the "wife" taking care of the cyclist, but the "husband" taking care of... I think it's so cool of him!


Pigeons: Have you set a limit on your cycling career? Or by now is it "I'll do it as long as someone will let me?"

Marijn: Yes, I have. 2012 will be my last season. I'll be 34 then, and I really hope to have children sometime. I think you shouldn't postpone it anymore.

Pigeons: Are you aiming to get to London? or with 10,000 Dutch women racers is that harder than eg for Britain?

Marijn: Since there are so many very good Dutch women racers, I think London isn't a realistic goal for me. I dream of the World in 2012, though - in the Netherlands, Valkenburg, my favorite area, and with the team time trial added to the Worlds

Pigeons: I loved how well Leontien.nl are doing in TTT - especially when you were 4th in the World Cup TTT in Sweden, only just behind Nederland Bloeit....

Marijn: It's so much fun doing TTT! That was a little frustrating.... although we were the surprise of the World Cup. Especially when you know it was our first time together, we'd never trained for it, we were all on new bikes... We don't have the strongest riders, but together we're strong

Pigeons: A serious question: it feels like women's cycling is at a strange point. On the one hand, you've (we've) lost the Tour de l'Aude and the Grand Boucle, and races and teams are still falling, but on the other hand, there are things like Garmin taking on the women's side of Cervelo, and Geo sponsoring Safi - and a number of Dutch teams wanting to step up a level. What's the future, do you think? And what can we, as fans, do to help?

Marijn: I think it is so GOOD that men's teams are creating a women's team as well! Last week the news came out that the Dutch team Skill-Shimano will have a women's team, Koga-Shimano, next year. I really do hope that this will stimulate organisers to have women's races next to men's, like Ronde van Vlaanderen and Fleche Wallone. Women's racing is getting more professional, I think the races will be as well. It's really a pity there won't be Tour de l'Aude anymore, but on the other hand, the Giro Donne was so cool this year! Really great and serious race, with finish on the Stelvio. I hope races like that will follow now the teams get more professional

Pigeons: What's the biggest difference to your life, now you've started racing?

Marijn:
I feel sooooooo alive! That's the biggest difference.

Pigeons: Thanks so much for all your time! If there was 1 final thing you'd like people to know about women's cycling what would it be?

Marijn: It's much more top-level than most people think and we do clean our bikes ourselves