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Interview: Marijn de Vries - "Hoping for great and inspiring adventures"

I first interviewed Marijn de Vries for Podium Café in October 2010. She had just finished her first season as a pro, having given up her demanding career in television to see if she could seriously become a pro cyclist in her 30s, documenting her journey on her blog. Since then, her journey has only got more interesting. She’s written a book, Vrouw & Fiets, expanded her journalism, commentated the Worlds for Dutch tv – and in the meantime her riding has gone from strength to strength. This season she’s moved to Lotto Belisol, and had her best World Cup results yet – including 8th place in the freezing Ronde van Drenthe. I caught up with her after the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and we talked about how things have changed in her cycling and her life, Frozen Eyeballs, the upcoming Energiewacht Tour, and much more.

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Photograph used with kind persmission of Marijn de Vries
Photograph used with kind persmission of Marijn de Vries

Podium Café: When I interviewed you last time, you said you still felt like Alice in Wonderland - now, two and a half years later, how does your life in the world of cycling feel?

Marijn: Sometimes it still feels the same! I try to realise every day how extraordinary and special my life is - but I must say, the longer I do this, the more 'normal' it gets. Most things are not new anymore. So I'm not constantly walking around frowning over new things.

Like yesterday, during the Ronde van Vlaanderen, I found out that races like these are much less hectic to me than two or three years ago. Back then, it was just a rollercoaster doing a race like Flanders. Now I'm able to ride in the front, to manage the hectic moments and to deal with it much better - which makes it also much more fun, because I can really play a role in the race!

PdC: And your results seem to be getting better and better too - are you glad you didn't retire at the end of last season?

Marijn: Hahaha, sure. I wasn't ready at all to retire. I think I'll never be - that's the disadvantage of starting so late.

PdC: We're really glad you didn't - Frozen Eyeballs and all! Can you tell us some gorey details - what ARE frozen eyeballs?

Marijn: Yes, that was pretty special. Actually you're eyeballs don't really freeze. Because of the cold and the strong wind, you get a kind of whirl behind the glasses - unless you wear glasses that totally cover your eyes. Apparently it's hard to find glasses that fit my face well. My optician and I are still working on it.

What happened to my eyes is this: the upper layer of the cornea - the epithelium - got damaged. It's a very superficial damage, but it makes your vision blurry and it hurts, like you've got sand in your eyes.

It takes a couple of days to heal. The biggest problem was that I wear contacts during the night. They're ideal for cyclists, because they correct your eyes during the night and during the day you don't need glasses or contacts. I used to wear normal contacts during the day, but they made my eyes pretty sore during bike races and sometimes I lost one during a race. That's why I decided to wear the night contacts. Those contacts are pretty hard ones. You can't wear them if your eyes are painful or damaged. If I don't wear them during the night, I don't have clear sight the day after. So my eyes had to heal, I couldn't wear the contacts and I was kind of blind for a couple of days.

Wow! And that happened in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and you still finished in the first chase group!

Marijn: Yes. It wasn't the sight that was a problem in that race, although I constantly thought my glasses got dirty because everything was so blurry. I got a bit high because of the cold I guess. Couldn't focus anymore. Like the body started to shut down due to the cold - which also happens when you're frozen. After a couple of hours after the finish, in the warm car, my eyes started to unblur.

In Drenthe I had the same problem after the finish - I guess my eyes were still sensitive. And with all the rain and mud and dirt on the road (I’d had to take of my glasses because they were totally covered in dirt) it's pretty easy to damage them. Odd injury, don't you think?

PdC: Bizarre! It's been a crazy season-start, in terms of weather - I can't quite believe you're all racing in it, when I'm wrapped up just to go out for coffee. How does it change racing, riding in zero degree temperatures?

Marijn: I must say you get used to it! First of all your muscles get really stiff. Normally they're painful due to the lactic acid after a race, but I've got the feeling in this cold you don't lactate as fast, the muscles just get stiff. You're not as explosive as in normal temperatures. Some girls really can't handle the cold - I always though I also couldn't, but apparently I can. Surprise!

Although last week the Trofeo Binda was horrible. If it's just cold, you can stay warm if you take the right clothing. But if it's also raining, you get soaking wet in the end and it's impossible to stay warm. Especially when it's a hilly race with descents. I haven't been so cold in my whole life. So I guess it's all about mentally handling cold conditions.

PdC: You still finished 14th, though - great result!

Marijn: Thanks! But halfway during the race I was sure I wouldn't make it to the finishline...

PdC: How did you manLotto_profieltje_2_mediumage to keep going? Those last laps are killers.

Marijn: If you're still in the front group, it would be crazy to stop, no? I just thought: the conditions are the same for everyone, we're all freezing, and I tried to focus on the race and not on the cold. Someone once told me: cold is all in the head, so that's my mantra this spring.

PdC: And that would have been your best World Cup finish..... except for your 8th place in Drenthe! How did it feel, being up there in that group?

Marijn: I was klappertanding (shivering) severely on every downhill. Horrible. Actually the only thing I could think was: I want to get to the finishline. Now. I want this to be over.

Motivation to finish!

Exactly! It was really surprising though to see Marianne Vos dropped in the last climb. She's human after all! But I'm really happy she won Vlaanderen yesterday - I feared she would get sick after Binda and being sick last year also just before Vlaanderen would be so shit for her. Great she was totally back yesterday.

I think a lot of girls got really motivated to see Marianne drop last week. That's good for our races - to see she's beatable. Makes us try harder, I think.

PdC: Tell us a bit about the Ronde van Drenthe - your best World Cup finish, on the roads you grew up on. You ended up in the final chase group behind Vos, Ellen van Dijk, and Emma Johansson - and that was a tough group to be riding in!

Marijn: Yes it was! I’ve never raced Drenthe before. Actually, I was a bit afraid of it, because the narrow roads and the cobbles used to be totally not my terrain - especially in these conditions. In the previous years, it was hard for me to get in the right position. That's where you really notice I've started racing late. A lot of the other girls have so much better skills. Before hitting the cobbles there's always a real fight going on. I used to brake too quickly, so I was always too far in the back. But I think something has changed, not only skills-wise, but also mentally. Now I just know I have to be there. No matter what. And somehow I managed to do that in Drenthe, also to my own surprise. That's so good for your self confidence.

After the cobbles our DS started to coach me over the radio - it was really good to have him in my ear. He told me to be in the front before the last VAM climb. Of course I know that myself, but if someone's coaching you all the time, it makes you try even more.

I think I started in 7th or 8th position. No one could counter Marianne, but over the top I found myself back in that small group of 6. Did you realise that 4 of us – Kirsten Wild, Shelley Olds, Lizzie Armitstead and me - were AA Drink riders last year?

Yes! I was wondering about that! And how you go from team-mates to rivals - knowing each other's weaknesses.

Marijn: That made it much easier for me, actually. I've never been in the front of such a big race, but these girls knew what I am capable of, so they were happy I was there. Actually they were all really happy for me. That was so awesome, I can't even describe it. They know I tried hard last year, but never got a chance to show myself and now I finally can.

That must be good for the ego, too - because I bet, if they didn't want you there, they could have made it super-hard for you.

Marijn: Yes, they would have dropped me if they didn't want me there.

PdC: That's so exciting - it must be amazing, discovering these things about yourself. It really feels like you've "found yourself" as a rider - and that's great to see.

Marijn: Yes it is. I'm in a team now where they believe in me and support me in every kind of way. That's totally new. I'm so happy I can live up to it!

I was just going to ask, has changing teams made a difference? It must be odd, having raced in the same team your whole career, to move now.

Marijn: Yes, on the one hand it was odd, and I still miss the girls from last year - but we get along really well in the peloton. I noticed that of course you are rivals in the end, but in the races it's just fun to see them all again.

But on the other hand this has been the right decision for me. If you're in a team for so long, you've got to deal with the verdict the others have over you. That was my disadvantage last year - our DS thought I wasn't good enough for the team and so I didn't get to ride the big races, and no World Cups at all. It was an extremely frustrating, almost wasted year for me.

PdC: It was a weird team last year - far too many stars, maybe, with the late addition of the ex-Garmin riders.

Marijn: Yes, that changed a lot. It was a great team, we had so much fun, butGroepsfoto_bovenaf_medium maybe too many really strong girls. I can imagine it was hard for the DS to keep everyone satisfied. But in my opinion, you should at least give everyone a fair chance. He didn't do that.

But! This year is the total opposite. I get all the big races. That is so cool. Being in a smaller team makes a great difference.

And getting results!

Yes! Last year it was really hard to keep believing in myself. I am so happy it all seems to turn out well this year. Of course we've just started, the season is still long, but I'm very happy with the start.

PdC: Did it make a difference, racing the Ronde van Drenthe on the roads of your childhood, or was it extra pressure?

Marijn: I really wanted to perform well. I was very nervous, but in a good way: excited. I've never felt like that day: the cold and the rain really didn't seem to bother me. I had this warm and focused feeling all the time. It was so cool to cross the village I grew up in. Along the road I heard my name hundreds of times. Just awesome! Indescribable!

PdC: And then, you finished in the top 10 - in that group of stupidly good sprinters!

Marijn: Haha yes. But I was 5th of the 6 riders, remember! I knew I would lose the sprint, that's why I tried to attack two times, but they were weak attacks because we were all looking at each other and my legs were cramping so I couldn't really kick it. But still... finishing 8th in that race almost felt like winning to me. The most important thing was that I proved to myself that I actually CAN do it, after they've told me a whole year long I couldn't. I think that's also the first thing I said to my parents, who were at the finishline: See, I can!

And then the Ronde van Vlaanderen - you sounded really pissed off on twitter, after the race - what happened?

Marijn: Well... I had really good legs. I was a bit afraid of the Molenberg, because I knew it would be extremely hectic before we would hit it. It's so narrow there and also the sharp corner would make all the riders race to it like it would be the last thing they'd ever do. This race the Molenberg was not decisive, but it could have been. To be in the front there was extremely important. I think I was with the first 15 riders to get to the top. We were in a small group with all the favorites, but no one would wanted to ride at that moment, so the bunch came together.

From that moment on it was important to stay really focused before every hill and cobbled section. It all went pretty well, until Oude Kwaremont. We all knew it would happen there. I was in the front before we hit the cobbles - with the first 25 I think. But after a couple of meters on the cobbles, this American girl suddenly came to the left of the road and forced me into the fences. I really couldn't see that coming: I already saw she was struggling to keep her line, but I expected her to go to the right if she couldn't because at the left side there were the fences. That's why I decided to pass her on the left side. Wrong decision... It almost looked like she fell off the cobbles - in the middle they are higher then at the sides.

There was this policeman at our side of the fence, so I decided to bump into him, hoping he would grab me and prevent me from toppling over. Unfortunately he didn't. So there I was, on the ground, with my feet still in the pedals. It took a while before I was clicked out and back on the bike again. I chased as hard as I could and before the end of Oude Kwaremont I was back in the front again, but the first 9 riders had already gone. That was such a pity. I'm pretty sure I could have followed them if luck would have been more on my side. The legs felt good enough! So... That's what happened.

I guess that's bike racing, isn't it - and especially in a peloton with such a difference in skills.

Marijn: Yes. That's bike racing. Nonetheless frustrating now and then. The only thing where I can really blame myself is that I should have been even further towards the front before Oude Kwaremont. Stupid.

PdC: Here's a question I have - all the riders talk about how important positioning is, but with 150 riders, all sharp elbows and shoulders, trying to get to the front - how DO you manage to get good position?

Marijn: It's all about timing, not being afraid, willing to take risks. If you're on the front too early, girls will pass you and you're at the back again. If you're afraid, you'll brake if it gets too hectic. And you've got to take risks, the others are also doing so, so if you don't, you'll be in the back before you know it.

And also: it's about staying calm and being focused on what's happening around you. Because we don't ride in a straight line, there will always be gaps you can steer your bike into. But you've got to stay calm to see them. Don't brake. Just let your bike do the work and get there before another rider does.

It must be a nice feeling, now you're doing that instinctively, after a couple of years learning.

Marijn: Yes it is! But it's still hard. Some riders manage to stay at the front all the time where I still struggle. Also yesterday I found myself back way too far in the back. Then I have to give a big effort to come back to the front. So I'm still learning. But at least I know I can be in the front when I really have to. That's a big victory over myself.

PdC: How do you move through the peloton? It seems a little bit like blood-sport, sometimes - not a sport for the shy, retiring girls!

That's true. It's all about seeing the gaps and the way the peloton moves. Most of the times girls try to ride to the front at one (or both) side(s) of the road. You've got to go with that flow. Or stay in the middle, because if everyone goes to the sides, the gaps will be in the middle. Sometimes I also prefer riding to the front in just one rush, through the wind. I know it costs me energy, but it's also easy because you're there with just one effort.

I love your blogs about it - the way you tell all these stories about what it's really like out there - riders swearing and yelling at each other, but also having a great time and looking after each other out of the races.

Marijn: I think it's important to share our stories. We can complain we get so little media coverage, but we can also try to get people interested ourselves. That's what I try to do. People love good stories. And there are so many stories out there in the peloton - we just need to tell them. That's also why men's cycling is so popular - because of the stories. If people get to know us a little, they also might get interested in following us over a longer term.

PdC: Do you feel pressure to have to promote the sport? Personally I love your balance between the good and bad sides of cycling - and the funny sides too. It makes it more real - but how do you achieve that balance?

Marijn: I started my blog just to tell my friends and family what I was doing, because becoming a bike rider is pretty shocking to the people around you I guess. My life changed completely and I wanted them to get the chance to read and understand what I was doing.

Soon I found out I was entering a totaPortret_met_zonnebril_mediumlly new world. Being a journalist, I felt some kind of urge to describe this world. I always like stories from people and lives that are not mine. So that's what I tried to do: give a bit of an insight in my new world. Got a bit out of hand.

Just like the riding did!

Marijn: I never had the goal to get so many followers, it just happened. Of course I realise now that I am in a position to promote the sport, but I think I have to give a honest view. If you only write about the good and the positive things, it gets boring pretty easily. The story of a winner is always more boring then the story of a loser.

And I've got the advantage of being a journalist, I've learned how to tell a story. At least, that's what I hope. I just try to give this whole life more depth.

Yes - and also there's the things we can see - the rider who's far too skinny, the team that's treated badly, getting changed in car parks - so no one would believe it if you only told the happy sides. That's what can be frustrating about some team and riders' media - it's all happy happy happy, when anyone paying attention can tell it's not

Marijn: In men's cycling that never happens because everyone can see on tv how a race develops. It's always better to be a bit critical towards yourself, I think.

Yes - and as you say, stories of struggles are more interesting than those of easy wins!

Marijn: All things in sport are more or less in a pressure cooker compared to real life. Everything is more raw, more crazy, more exuberant, more painful then in real life - if you know what I mean. That's why people love the stories. They can identify with athletes because the same kind of things happen to them, but just with more impact.

PdC: You wrote your book, Vrouw & Fiets, with Nynke de Jong - are there plans for more books in the future?

Marijn: Of course there are plans for future books! But at the moment I'm too busy to write a book. Maybe we'll make a Vrouw & Fiets part 2. Maybe there will be a book from just me. Maybe both.

PdC: So the next race you're riding is Energiewacht Tour - one of the nicest races of the year to follow, as a fan - but what is it like for the riders?

Marijn: No idea! I haven’t raced it before! I’m looking forward to it, though. Especially to the last stage, which finishes in Groningen. That's where I went to Uni. I've lived in Groningen for 5 years. It's such a great city. If you ever get the chance you should visit it!

PdC: It's lots of days of circuit races, flat - with intermediate bonifications, right. Dutch-style carnage! I think this is the race where there's always a stage where Rabobank, or Specialized attack at km 12, and there's a breakaway group of 12 riders, with 4 minutes - and everyone else cursing behind them!

Marijn: Yeah, crazy things happen in these windy races! Great there's an individual time trial in it by the way, which makes it more interesting.

PdC: So this time it'll be uni friends, you friends from the bar, and the guys you started riding with, on the streets? Will they be cheering for you, or yelling jokes?

Marijn: Hahaha, most of them don't live there anymore. Groningen is the city where you go to uni, most people get a job in the Amsterdam area. My brother still studies in Groningen, so he'll be there. And one of my friends, who's pregnant with her second child. That's the life of my friends.

PdC: So no more wild nights! It's a terrible thing, to be in one's 30s!

Marijn: On the other hand: my friends are also really busy with their kids and jobs, so they don't really notice I'm never there!

PdC: I love the Energiewacht Tour for their super-friendly twitter, and their excellent website, and the daily tv coverage - is that as exciting for riders as it is for fans?

I guess so. I'm really happy about the tv coverage. For me, as a rider, the twitter updates don't make a big difference, but it's so great they do this, because it's so much more easy for my family and friends (and fans!) to follow the race. I know my parents are checking websites every minute by the time I have finished a race. Sometimes it's just so hard to find results, or any information at all. It's great the Energiewacht Tour makes this happen.

PdC: It seems very Dutch - the regional tv channels really supporting races. It's no wonder the Dutch and the Italians still dominate the peloton - both countries show races, and little girls can grow up watching riders, and wanting to be like them, in ways the British, etc, just can't.

Marijn: True. But I'm not very sure if a lot of girls watch these races - since the 'regional' tv doesn't have that many viewers. But I'm sure Marianne is a great inspiration to young girls. I wonder how many girls pinned a photo of her above their beds!

PdC: I can imagine - the fact she comes across as a genuinely nice person, too!

Marijn: Yes. She is super nice.

PdC: So I was wondering - you've changed and grown as a cyclist over the last few years, but has cycling changed you as a person?

Marijn: Cycling has certainly changed me as a person. First of all: my English has improved so much!

Cycling has given me so much more self confidence as a person. I'm doing things with my body I could never have imagined. And although it seems it's just fun all the time, of course I've had (and still have) hard times. If you overcome them, you get so much stronger mentally.

Also the choice to really do this, to give up my job and all the certainties and to see it turned out well again was very good for my self confidence. If I've got to make a hard decision now, I just know it will all be okay in the end, because the last couple of years has always proven that.

PdC: That's fantastic! It makes me smile, reading that.

It's such a nice feeling. Of course there are still many things to be insecure of. But in general I trust my own judgments more.

But it's inspiring, too, knowing that you did this - riders like you, or Evie Stevens, or Sharon Laws, who've given up well-paying careers to chase their dreams - it makes me believe that I can chase my dreams too, which is why I always love your stories. It can be hard - especially with Evie and Sharon having such horrible injuries recently - but it's always a great thing to see people take risks, and follow their loves.

Marijn: That's the biggest compliment you can give me, do you know that?

I've never planned to or intended to inspire people, but if I do so, it's a great reward. Now and then I think this life is awesome for me, but it's also pointless. I don't contribute to society. In men's cycling you could say they give entertainment, but we're never on tv, so I actually only do this because I like doing this, whereas other people are doctors or teachers. Pretty selfish life I'm having. But if someone tells me it's inspiring what I do, I've got the feeling it's not totally pointless. So many thanks for that!

PdC: It's true, though - it's important, when security can be so seductive, to have examples of people taking those risks, and getting the rewards. There being more to life than a career one's parents understand, you know?

Marijn: True that!

So how would you describe yourself as a cyclist, now?

First of all I just hope this start of the season wasn't a 'coincidence'!

I think in our team I'm a motivator. At least, that's what I hope to be. Although I'm still the least experienced girl in our team, I've got the feeling the young girls really like to listen to me. Now I feel the positive side of having raced in such a big team for the last couple of years. I've learned so much about team tactics and riding as a team - I've got the feeling I can teach my new teammates some of the things I've learned. I hope I can!

Also in the race I really like to motivate the other girls. To give them more self confidence.

PdC: What are your goals for 2013? And after this season?

Marijn: For 2013, the Worlds is my biggest goal. There's a big chance I will be in the selection for the Team Time Trial - so I will take part in the Worlds for the first time of my life! That would be so awesome.

Of course I hope to do well in the big races. I really like Flèche Wallone (even after my crash two years ago), I'm looking forward to that one. And also to the Giro Donne.

The Dutch national championships will be on the same course as last year I understood - I think that will be a nice race again.

And after this season... I can't tell you yet. I've got no plans - just see how it comes.

I'm just really happy I got the chance to do this in life. It's such a great adventure. When I really think of it, I get goosebumps all over. I mean - who gets the chance to do this after they turn 30? When I ride my bike during a weekday, I have to think of the people working in an office a lot. When it's raining or when it's really cold, I now and then envy them, but most of the times I just can't believe I'm out there, riding my bike, being able to do this for a living - I mean: there's someone crazy enough to pay me for this!

The funny thing is that I've almost forgotten how it is to work in an office 5 days a week - although it's only 3 years ago I did the same. I'm thankful there are so many people supporting me. Of course I hope for great results, but more importantly: I hope for great and inspiring adventures.

To read more of Marijn’s excellent stories, take a look at her website, in Dutch and in English, and follow her on twitter. And if you read Dutch, or just want a copy, you can buy her book, Vrouw & Fiets, on

The Energiewacht Tour runs from 5th to 7th April, and there is a huge amount of information about it on the excellent race website. There will be daily tv coverage on Dutch channel RTL7, that in previous years has been shown without geo-restrictions on the website – check back to the race thread for more information. And if you want to send Marijn, or
any other rider in the race a "good luck" message, enter the Energiewacht competition and win a jersey – the deadline is 5th April, and you can win a race jersey signed by the Tour winner.

All photos copyright and used with kind permission of Marijn de Vries.