Marianne Vos is cycling’s woman for all seasons. She races year-round and wins on all terrains. "Everything is Vos territory," quipped Ina-Yoko Teutenberg recently. And rightly so. Vos, who races for Nederland Bloeit, has won World Championship titles on the road, on the track, and in the mud and snow of cyclocross.
At 24 years old, Vos has seven World Championship titles. She has won Flèche Wallonne a record four times. And for the first time this season, Vos showed that she can match the very best riders in the high mountains when she won the Giro Donne.
Vos is a happy warrior. She plainly loves the bike and thrives on competition. "That’s the biggest motivation: To get better, to make yourself a more complete rider," said Vos when I talked to her last week. She was getting ready to head to the Trophée d’Or in France and this weekend’s World Cup race in Plouay. "It’s fun to make these races," she said.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Vos talked about her victory at the Giro Donne and what it was like to battle Garmin-Cervélo’s Emma Pooley through the high mountains of Italy. She also shared her impressions of the Olympic road race course, which she recently previewed. Vos explained her views on the importance of out-of-competition testing, and she promised that the best is yet to come in her already wildly successful career.
Vos began the road season later than usual this year, but it has not slowed her increasingly familiar pattern of lining up the victories one after another. "It was the plan to go later in the road season, a little bit later," she said. Vos wanted to try out the new omnium event on the track and to race in front of Dutch crowds. "I wanted to do the Worlds at home at Apeldoorn," she explained. Vos won the scratch race and added yet another Rainbow Jersey to her growing collection.
Though she races year-round, a seeming perpetual motion machine, Vos recognizes the need to set clear priorities. "It’s already a long season from April to September, and if I do the races I want to do good, I want to go full gas every race. It’s not possible if you do it every race, every day," she said. "I wanted to take it easy and have a good preparation for the road season."
Still, Vos hit the road winning. A week after the track World Championship, she finished third at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Then Vos won her home World Cup race, the Ronde van Drenthe. Not quite sated, Vos also conquered the Mur de Huy to score a record fourth career victory at la Flèche Wallonne. Vos has now won more times on the Mur de Huy than Eddy Merckx. In June, Vos doubled up with victories in the road race and time trial at the Dutch national championships.
The biggest win of the season for Vos came in July at the Giro Donne. The top athletes like Vos share some of the same characteristics. They know who they are, they know where they are going, and they know how they are going to get there.
They are also ruthlessly honest with themselves. "I wasn’t very happy with my results in the stage tours," she said of the 2010 season. "At the Tour de l’Aude I was not totally fit. But the Giro, I was fit and I felt good, but I was not in the results. If I wanted to win it in the future, I had to make a big step," she explained. Vos won two stages and finished seventh overall at the 2010 Giro Donne. But she wasn’t satisfied.
And so Vos went to work over the winter. Hard intervals increased her power and she lost weight for the high mountains. If there is a magic formula for climbing well, it is this: gain power and lose weight. "For me, for a few years, it was a dream to win a stage tour. I didn’t know if I could do it. So, this was for me, for myself, I planned to make it a try-out for the future, if it would be possible," said Vos of the 2011 Giro Donne.
Vos did not expect to stand on the top step of the podium at the Giro this year, but in Fermo after three stages of racing, Vos pulled on the Pink Jersey of race leader. She also took the stage victory. Emma Pooley of Garmin-Cervélo finished the stage 19 seconds behind Vos, and the battle for overall victory between the two riders began in earnest.
The Giro unfolded as a taut struggle between Pooley and Vos. "It was really cool. It was good to have that rivalry in the race," said Vos. "She went for it, and I went for it, and we just attacked and attacked and I think we made it hard for each other and for ourselves, too!"
The race hurtled toward Italy’s high mountains, where it seemed likely that the advantage would shift to Pooley. The Giro routinely includes difficult mountain stages. Last year, the race included a stage finish on the Passo dello Stelvio. This year, the Giro Donne included the fearsome Passo di Mortirolo climb and its sinuous descent.
For Vos, the ascent of the Passo di Mortirolo was the most important moment in the entire race. "Before the high mountain stages, I was already in Pink, but the big question for myself, and I think for everyone else, was would she be good enough on the long climbs," said Vos. As it turned out, Vos matched Pooley on the Mortirolo. Then the Nederland Bloeit rider attacked just before the summit.
Vos rode a flawless descent on the twisting road down the Passo di Mortirolo. She held her advantage to the finish in Grosotto where Vos took her fourth stage victory of the race. "That was the plan, to do my own descent, to not take risks, but I knew I could do the descents better than Emma can," recounted Vos. Not only did she win the stage, but also Vos added 1:34 to her advantage over Pooley.
"Of course it was good to start the other two stages with more margin," said Vos, especially when the final stage’s time trial suited Emma Pooley, the current World Champion against the watch. "With the last time trial to come, it was nice to have that advantage." Vos held 2:36 over the Garmin-Cervélo rider after the Mortirolo stage, the turning point of the race.
On the final climbing stage, the two riders remained locked together and Vos never budged from Pooley’s wheel. Pooley set a relentless pace on the climb to Valdidentro, but she could not dislodge Vos. "It was not that easy, and I had bad moments, and I struggled a lot, but she had the same, and I think we had a nice Giro together," said Vos.
For Vos, the battles end at the finish line. "For me, fair play is the most important thing." About her race against Pooley, Vos said, "She’s such a nice person and such a cool rider, then, of course we both want to win, and we want to make the best of it and we want to hurt each other and go for it, but then in the end... it’s cool to have that kind of race."
Still, the win came as a surprise for Vos. She had hoped to improve on her previous seventh place finish. Certainly, she succeeded. "I really made a big step in the climbs. I already get the Pink Jersey. It was a bigger step than I could imagine and a bigger step than I’d hoped," she said.
Vos is one of the lucky ones in women’s racing. She gets paid enough to race that she can do it full-time. "I’m not going to be rich from cycling in money, but I’m going to be rich in experience." Prize money is not at the forefront of her mind when Vos is hammering off the front of the bike race. "Money doesn’t motivate you to go 100% in the race," Vos said. She races to satisfy that insatiable hunger all the best athletes possess. She puts her full energy into her races, motivated by "the adventure, the honor, the great feeling it gives you when you go for victory."
Though she is not blind to the difficulties in women’s cycling, Vos is optimistic for its future. She thinks the sponsorship situation is slowly improving. "People don’t know. They don’t know how beautiful the sport is. I think it takes some time to get the public to see how beautiful it is and that the races are similar to the men," she explained. The racing is increasingly competitive, but the recognition needs to grow. "We have nice races and it’s attacks over and over and it is really a top level sport," she said.
Vos believes it helps the sport when the women do similar races to the men. "I think you have to have the association, people have to recognize the men things, the big mountains, the big stage races, the big classics," she explained.
Her victory at the Giro Donne illustrates the point. "When I say I won the Giro d’Italia, people say, ‘wow! that’s cool!’ The Pink Jersey, that makes sense like the men," said Vos. A win at a less well-known race does not get the same response. "If I’d won the Tour de l’Aude last year, for example, then, well, ‘oh, nice.’ But the Giro d’Italia, then everybody is like, ‘wow!’" The Tour de l’Aude no longer exists, but it ran over difficult courses and it was considered one of the most prestigious races to win in women’s cycling.
A wide recognition of the women’s races simply does not exist yet. "I think awareness is the biggest point. So, Tour of Flanders, people know from the men, and Mortirolo, people know from the men. That would make a difference." Vos also believes that a women’s Tour de France would help draw interest to the sport. "We’re trying! We’re trying!" she said of building the sport.
Vos has called for expanded doping controls in women’s cycling. "I’ve had enough in-competition controls, this year. That’s due to the results," she noted. But the out-of-competition controls still fall short, in her view. "I still think the out of competition controls can be more. More controls, out of competition," she explained. After all, it is not all the difficult to plan a doping program around the big races. "You have to be stupid to be caught in competition," Vos said forthrightly.
For now, lack of funding limits the testing in women’s racing and the men receive priority. Vos understands that decision. "It’s totally logical." The top men’s professional teams also contribute €120,000 annually to the UCI’s bio-passport program. The women’s teams do not yet enjoy the kind of sponsorship support that would make a similar arrangement possible.
Though Vos understands the financial constraints, she does not want to see doping take root in women’s cycling. "It’s important to keep it away from women’s cycling, too. You can only keep it away if you have controls." Less money in women’s cycling lowers the incentive to use doping to get ahead, but there is always the danger that the desire for victory could tempt a rider to cross the line. "If you make a high barrier, you make it harder to make the wrong step," Vos emphasized.
Looking ahead, Vos still has plenty of races on her wish list. "Well, the Olympic road race, that’s one," she said. The London Olympics are fast approaching and Vos wants to be on her best form on the day. In 2012 Vos will focus on the road events. She will not attempt the omnium event on the track. She won the points race in Beijing, but Vos has decided to put her full energy into the road events at the 2012 Olympic Games.
Vos attributed her decision partly to the new omnium format, which makes it significantly more difficult to combine the road events with the track. "Three years ago, I got Olympic Champion in the points race, but the points race is something different, you can easily combine it with the road," Vos explained.
The omnium emphasizes sprint events that are not an ideal complement to road racing. "For the omnium you have to focus on the shorter races. You have to focus on top speed. And, that makes it hard to combine with the road," said Vos.
And Vos wants most of all to win on the road. "You don’t want to do the road race half," she said. Her victory in the points race may well have come at the cost of success on the road in Beijing where she finished sixth in the road race and fourteenth in the time trial.
Next season, "it’s going to be the road to London" for Vos. She will focus her training and race schedule on hitting the perfect peak for the Olympic road race. "I already have the Gold on the track, and my focus is on the road, because that’s my ultimate goal," she said matter-of-factly. Vos, she knows where she is going.
The London Olympic course is mostly flat, but after previewing it last week, Vos does not rule out a split over the climb on Box Hill. "The Box Hill climb, it’s pretty tough, it’s pretty steep and it goes up. So that’s pretty hard," she said. But there is around 40 kilometers of mostly flat racing between the climb and the finish line.
"With a small bunch and small teams, it’s hard to make a hard race and to get a split and work together to the finish," Vos said. If the teams decide to work hard on the climb, Vos believes it might be possible to force a split. "Otherwise, everyone will come back," she said.
Preconceptions about the course tend to influence how the race unfolds. "Like the worlds, if they say it’s hard before the race, then everyone’s scared and waits for the climbs," said Vos. "Every favorite wants to wait for the final climb, and save their energy for the last hill." A hard course can intimidate the riders into playing it safe. "If it’s easy, then, it’s going to be hard, because everyone’s going to race from the start."
Despite the climb and the possibility of attacking tactics, Vos thinks a big group will reach the finish together. "I think it’s going to be a sprint from a group, but maybe it’ll get smaller on Box Hill," she concluded. If the race does come down to a sprint, Vos will have to out-jump riders like current World Champion Giorgia Bronzini, reigning Olympic Champion Nicole Cooke, Trixi Worrack, Shelley Olds, and Emma Johansson.
Vos is no slouch in a sprint, of course. She won her World Championship title in 2006 from a bunch sprint ahead of Trixi Worrack and Nicole Cooke. Last year, she lost the Worlds sprint in Geelong to Bronzini. Vos has finished second at Worlds four years in a row. Sometimes consistency is frustrating.
"It’s only a year to go," said Vos of the London Olympics. "We were on the course on Sunday, and we did the course with the barricades and the spectators and it was really cool, and I felt the goosebumps coming up."
Like many riders, Vos also dreams of a win at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. This year, her Nederland Bloeit team-mate Annemieke van Vleuten won in Meerbecke, while Vos finished third. In 2010 Vos finished second, her highest ever finish. "It’s a hard race," Vos said of the cobbled monument and she does not expect to win it just yet. "It makes me go on for a few more years, I think. It’s really cool."
There are always new challenges, and so far, despite her many wins, Vos has not grown stale on the sport. "If you see you’re still improving, and I think I can still improve my time trial and my climbing capacities. That’s what motivates me."
Vos has the Olympic road race in her sights, and next year, the World Championship races take place in Valkenburg in her home country. "I don’t have to worry about my goals. There’s still a lot to come," she promised.
Thanks to Bart Hazen for the use of his photos of Marianne Vos on the Mur de Huy, celebrating victory, and racing in the Pink Jersey. All other photos are courtesy Getty Images Sport. All photos are copyright their owners and used with permission.