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"You just have to suffer on the bike to improve": Ellen van Dijk interview, on Flanders, winning World Championships & more

Ellen van Dijk was one of the most exciting riders of 2013, winning the Individual Time Trial World Championships after a stunning season where she won the Boels Rental Ladies Tour, Lotto Belisol Tour, the Energiewacht Tour and pretty much every ITT anywhere, and lit up the Spring Classics. Her World Champs gold adds to two in the Team Time Trial and winning the Scratch race at the 2008 Track World Championships, and she's been renowned for years for her ferocious attacks for herself and her team-mates. I spoke to her about all of this and more, including one of the biggest races on the women's calendar - the Ronde van Vlaanderen World Cup, coming up on Sunday.

Ellen van Dijk on the ITT podium, 2013 Road World Championships
Ellen van Dijk on the ITT podium, 2013 Road World Championships
Luk Benies /Afp/Getty Images

This interview is available in two formats - listen to it as a podcast on my blog, or read the transcript below.


PdC: Hello Ellen, thankyou for coming to the Café! I wanted to start by asking you about your incredible season so far on Boels-Dolmans - how is it feeling?

Ellen: I feel really comfy in my new team.  I'm always wondering how it will be when you go to a new team, of course - new people around, new staff, new material, everything's different, so it's kind of a step to go to another team, especially since I rode for Specialized-lululemon for five years, and that was going well, so I was a little bit scared to go to another team.  But so far I'm really happy with my new team, and things are going really smoothly, so I've nothing to complain about!

PdC: It's a Dutch team - after being on an international team for so many years, is it different?

Ellen: It's quite different, but on the other hand we have quite an international team - in the two World Cups I've ridden, I was the only Dutch girl, so actually, we still are pretty international. But of course the staff and all the people around us are Dutch, and it's a bit easier to communicate for me.   It was working really well with Specialized-lululemon, but sometimes things are a bit easier for me, riding on a Dutch team - I go to the races with the team, and I don't have to drive anywhere, and everything is arranged really well, so for me it works out quite well.

PdC: The team's been having an extraordinary season so far, with Lizzie Armitstead winning the Ronde van Drenthe, and coming second in the Trofeo Binda World Cups - it must be amazing to have that level of success, how do you feel about that?

Ellen: I'm really happy that the team is functioning so well, I think the team made a big step compared to last year, and also I'm new to the team, so it's not that I want to have good results just for myself, but for the complete team.  I'm really happy that we are riding so well as a team, so far, as I said, there's nothing to complain about, it's just running super.  Lizzie coming first and second - there's not much else to wish for!

PdC: And Binda on Sunday, with Megan Guarnier going out so hard so early, and your work for Lizzie, was extraordinary - you look like you're having quite a lot of fun when you're riding that hard, do you enjoy it?

Ellen: Yeah, I do enjoy it a lot when the team is functioning so well.  Megan was in every attack that was on that day, so she was riding super-strong - but when your team-mates are riding well, you don't want to be any less good than them, so you try to match their level.  And Lizzie is in top shape, so I know that we can really win with Lizzie at the moment, and I am also going quite well, so if I can contribute a little bit to that, that's always great if you feel that something is really achieved together, not by one single person.

PdC: It feels like that!  And of course on Sunday we have Flanders - the Ronde van Vlaanderen World Cup.  Can you tell us your plan?

Ellen: No, it's top secret, of course!  We go there on Friday, and we've done a course recon, and it's just a super-tough course.  I think in the end only the best girls of the day will survive.  And also you need a little bit of luck - or not too much bad luck, because you can get a puncture or anything on the cobbles, you just never know.  It's just a super-tough race, and I hope we can play a little game in the final!

PdC: And you were second last year, weren't you?

Ellen: Yeah, last year was a really good race

PdC: How does it feel to come second there - it's one of the biggest races in the world

Ellen: It's always a big goal for all the girls in the bunch, and everyone wants to win there of course.  To come second, on one hand it's really nice, it's a good place - but on the other hand you're so close to winning it that at that moment it's a bit disappointing.  I was in top shape last year, and I was a little disappointed, but when you think about it later on, it's really cool to come second in Flanders.  But the goal is still to win it!

PdC: Go one better this weekend!  What's the course like this year?

Ellen: I think it's even harder that it was last year, because there are more hills, and they come even more close to each other, and there are more cobbles it seems, so it will be a super-hard pedal, and there are so many things in the course, normally it's kind of an elimination race, and only the best will survive, so there's not so much room left for race tactics at the beginning of the race.  You never know what teams are coming up with, but the race itself, the course is already tough enough.

PdC: And how does it feel when the hills are all lined with spectators, and they're all cheering?

Ellen: It's super-cool, that makes it so special to ride in Flanders with all the spectators, and the whole atmosphere is just crazy.  On tv for the whole week, it's all about the Tour of Flanders, and everyone in Belgium knows it.  Cycling's so alive in Belgium, it's almost like a national celebration day, it's just really cool to be part of that, and to ride in that atmosphere - it can give you wings sometimes, on some hills!

PdC: Oh, I hope it does! It's interesting, because I think of that race as an 'Ellen" kind of race - for you and Kirsten Wild, and Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, of course - the hard cobbles.  I always get the impression you all like the races harder - is that true?

Ellen: Yeah, of course, when you're in a good shape, and the race is hard, then you get an advantage.  It's better to get rid of some girls that cannot follow.  Of course suffering is not what I like the most, but when the race is hard that plays to our advantage, so I hope for some hard weather circumstances also, this coming weekend.

PdC: In Binda, when we watched you and Olga Zabelinskaya chasing back after the final climb, it looked like you chased back really hard and then got straight on the front, and started working!

Ellen: I actually wanted to try to attack for one more time in the last couple of k, but I was a little bit empty already, so there was not much left in the tank, so then I tried to help Lizzie as much as possible, and that worked out quite well, this time she only just didn't win, but that doesn't say so much for the coming weekend!

PdC: And it's only Lizzie's second time she's raced Binda, so…

Ellen: That's quite some improvement, eh?

PdC: You used to race Lizzie on the track, didn't you?

Ellen: Yeah, it's funny, I remember one year we did the under-23 Europeans, in Poland, I think, and we did the scratch race, and I started to sprint really early, and she started it later, and on the finish line it was a photo-finish between Lizzie and me, but nobody could decide who was first, so then they gave us both the gold medals!  I think it never happened again, but that time we had two European champions!

PdC: And now you're both on the same team!

Ellen: Exactly, who would have thought that?

PdC: I wanted to ask you some questions about last year, because you had such an extraordinary step up in your performance, but at the same time, Specialized-lululemon had so many difficult times.  Were you stepping up because you could, or because you had to?

Ellen: I think it kind of all came together, because it was really very unfortunate that all our girls had so much bad luck, with Ina and Evie [Stevens] and Trixi [Worrack] all had bad crashes and broke bones and had concussions and everything, and that was really bad.  But at the same time I would always work for them, as the leaders in the team, and at that moment there was nobody to work for any more, so I could go for my own chances  And I had worked super-hard that winter, and it all came together, and at that moment I could also do my thing in the finals of the big races and that made me step up quite a lot.

PdC: Did it give you confidence, when you were second in Drenthe last year, second in Flanders and third in Binda?  Did it change how you saw yourself as a rider?

Ellen: Yeah a little bit, you always need some results to get some confidence in your riding abilities.  As I said, I trained super-hard all winter, I had a perfect winter, when I would go from training camp to training camp and just keep training every day for four to five hours, and that was the first winter I could really do it that way, because normally I would always race on the track in winter, and this was the first time I skipped it, and that also made a huge difference.  Then together with the circumstances of being the leader of the team, that gave me the confidence to really finish it off.

I won some stage races, I didn't really win that many one-day races, but still, when you can be there in the final all the time, that boosts your confidence

PdC: And then you did win one very big race, at the end of the year!

Ellen: Yeah, that was a nice one!

PdC: Obviously you've now got World Championships medals from the scratch race, two from the Team Time Trial and one from the Individual Time Trial.  Is it possible to compare them?

Ellen: They are all very different, of course, but this last one from the Individual Time Trial was something I was dreaming of for so long, I worked for it so hard, so it's just a bit extra-special, when you know what kind of effort you put into it, and when it finally comes altogether at the right moment, then it was just the most incredible…  for me, emotionally, it was the best one, it was really cool to win that one.

And also the Team Time Trials are great because that's something you work for as a team, and to achieve something as a team is pretty special. Cycling is a team sport, but normally you never get together on the podium, and you never get the credit together, and in a Team Time Trial you do, and that's what makes it extra-special as well.

And then the scratch race was also really cool, because it was my first one, of course, but that was more a bit of a surprise, because it's not like I trained for that race for many, many years, so it's different.  I mean, it's really great at that moment, but it's not something you're dreaming of for ten years, or working towards, so it's different, but they're all great, of course.

PdC: I find it interesting, because I compare you with Judith Arndt, because obviously Judith was such a good time triallist and track rider too, and you both seem to have the same thing going on, where you're so good at the individual races, but you really love the team aspect - that's kind of surprising!  I wouldn't expect an Individual Time Trial Champion to really love the teamwork!

Ellen: I dunno, I think it's kind of in the character.  I do like to help others achieve stuff, I also just do like to ride in front of the bunch, just to close the gap - I don't mind that.  So it's nice when you can work for others, I think, and when you can be happy for others to win, that makes life better, I think, when you don't always have to go for yourself!  It's nice when you can share work and achieve things together.

PdC: Obviously the race I think about most with you in it is the London Olympic Road Race, and you and Loes Gunnewijk just attacking and attacking and attacking!  It was extraordinary - were you having as much fun as it looked like?

Ellen: Yeah, that was also a very special race, with so many spectators, and the whole atmosphere there was something I will never forget - and also something I will never experience again!  That was just crazy, we knew we had the favourite in our team with Marianne Vos, and we also knew all the other teams would look at us, we would have to open the race, and that was my task and I just did it with all that I had at that moment.  I had a really good day, so I also felt like I contributed a little bit to Marianne's medal, and as I said, it's really cool when you can achieve something together, and make things more special.

PdC: I think there was one point where you attacked, and were caught, and immediately attacked again, and were caught, and immediately attacked again!

Ellen: You know, when you go for something, and you give 100%, with all your heart, it doesn't make sense to do something half-hearted - when you're not totally convinced, you should not do it, so when I got the task, I just thought "Let's go until I'm dead, and we will see!"

PdC: I think it was interesting, because there were lots of people watching you'd never watching women's cycling, and on twitter, they were just blown away by it, they thought it was incredible - "Oh my god, does this woman never stop?"

Ellen: Yeah, it's cool, I got a lot of positive reactions afterwards, and a lot of positive reactions from women, actually, who wanted to start riding their bikes, and that's what's really, really cool, when you can inspire people with what we do, and especially if we can inspire women to ride their bikes, that's what we're really aiming for, to promote women's cycling

PdC: And of course, it was just wonderful - so thankyou, as a fan!

Ellen: No problem, I also thought it was fun!

PdC: Will you be getting the chance to ride for yourself this year?

Ellen: Yeah, I think so, every race we do is quite open.  It's nice to be in the final with more team-mates, so when we are in the final with each other, we play around and see who can win the race, and of course I will get my chances when I'm good enough.

PdC: Which of the races would you win, if you could have them, this year?

Ellen: I think I'm not super-fast in the sprint, so when I want to win, I'd better try to ride away solo, but sometimes I can maybe sprint out of a small group, and of course I'm still aiming for time trials, and some stage races, there's always chances in stage races.  There are lots of races that I would like to win, but it depends a bit on the form, and how things are going.

PdC: Will you be riding the Paris race, La Course by Le Tour de France?

Ellen: Yes I will, I'm really looking forward to racing on such a level, in front of such a crowd, it's really cool that they gave us the chance to race there.

PdC: I think you guys will put on such a spectacular show

Ellen: We need to make it a good race, lots of people will be watching, so I hope it's going to be an attractive race - but most of our races are attractive, so I don't worry about it!

PdC: Off the bike, what do you do when you're not racing?

Ellen: I had always been studying, Human Movement Science, but I don't do that any more, because I finished my Bachelor's Degree, and I haven't finished my Masters yet, but I don't know if I will ever finish it.   What else do I do when I'm at home?  I like to see friends, family, catch up with people because I'm gone so much.  I just have a normal life, training and resting, I like to cook, listen to music, sit behind my computer…

PdC: What training do you do for the time trials?

Ellen: Of course I ride a lot on my time trial bike, especially in season.  Not so much over the winter, but more when the time trials are coming closer, and when I ride my TT bike, I do a lot of specific efforts around my thresholds, or above, or sometimes a bit under.  I work with my trainer, Andreas Lang, he's from Germany, and I've worked with him for three years, and that's working well, and he's writing my training schedules, and they seem to work out pretty well!

PdC: So no secret then?

Ellen: Well if I had them, I wouldn't tell them!  Time trialling, I like it so much because it's such a pure event, it's just the one who's riding the fastest will win, and that's why I love it - it's just pure, it's nothing, no tactics or anything - which is also a fun part of road racing, but I prefer just fast riding.  Training is also the same - you have to train hard to be good at it, and there's no way round it, you just have to suffer on the bike to improve on it.

PdC: In the Worlds, you looked like you were on fire from the moment the tv camera started following you.  When did you know how fast you were going?

Ellen: Well I always ride with my SRM in a time trial, so I know kind of what I'm doing, but of course I don't know what the others are doing, so at the first intermediate split point I knew that I was about twenty seconds faster than Linda Villumsen who came second, and 20 seconds is quite a lot, but I still had 11k to go, and I also felt pretty tired already, because I started out pretty fast, so I knew that it was going to be a long way, and when you have 20 seconds, you know there's a chance that you will lose 20 seconds, but it's not so big - so that was really nice to get that information in the race!

PdC: Oh, I can imagine, that must give you wings too, just to know that everything's coming together.  And that course, it couldn't have been built better for you if it was designed by your coach!

Ellen: I know, I really liked it, it was so flat, with quite a few corners, so I knew it was perfect for me, and I also knew this was my chance to become World Champion - and that I had to take that chance

PdC: And of course, in 2016, the Olympic course….  isn't that quite flat?

Ellen: I think it is, actually, the time trial is supposed to be flat - or what I've seen of it

PdC: The road race is all hills, but the time trial course, it looks quite Ellen-like to me!  Are you thinking about that already?

Ellen: Yeah, I'm very excited, I was very excited when I saw the course, when I saw a map for the first time.   We'll probably go there in October with the national team, to check things out and to map the course and everything.  I'm very excited it's flat, and of course the road race course is very hilly, and that's not really my favourite, but I'm focusing on the Time Trial, and you can't really focus on the Time Trial and the Road Race - so everything will be on the time trial

PdC: Does that feel like more pressure, or less?

Ellen: Yes, of course there's pressure when people say "it's your course" and everything, that will bring some pressure with it, but the biggest pressure is from myself, and I would really like to perform well at the Olympics.  But on the other hand, the Olympics are made so big, and in the meantime there are a lot more great races, and it's not just about the Olympics, but of course I would like to perform there as well.

PdC: And the 2016 Road World Championships in Qatar - every now and then I think about a team that's you, Marianne, Kirsten, Loes…. It seems like that's going to be perfect Dutch racing!

Ellen: Yeah, that's going to be fun, the Dutchies love the flat!  We don't have any hills to train on, so we're pretty good at that!  But in Qatar you never know, maybe they'll build a mountain, they can do everything there!  It's still far away, so anything can happen in between, but if it's flat, for sure we will have chances.  If it's hilly, we also have chances - I think our Dutch team in general is just very strong.

PdC: How does it compare, riding with the national team compared to a trade team?

Ellen: Sometimes it's weird, because all year you are riding with your trade team, and you're used to all the girls around you, and then all of a sudden at Worlds you have to ride against your own team-mates, and you are team-mates with girls you ride against the whole year, so it's a bit of a weird situation.  But on the other hand, I really like all my Dutch team-mates, and we have some training camps together, and the atmosphere is always very good, and that helps a lot, when you want to ride for each other, that's also what makes us so strong, I think.

PdC: I remember Annemiek van Vleuten's blog from last year about your Dutch team training camp, where you came late, and they were all sprinting for road signs

Ellen: Yeah, those training rides are pretty hard, we all help each other to get to a different level, and if somebody is raising the bar, you all have to raise your bar, and the level will go up.

PdC: Does it help when you're riding against them, if you train with Marianne or Annemiek or Kirsten?  Does it help you know their secrets, when you're trying to beat them?

Ellen: I'm not sure - of course you know the characters of all the girls a bit, and with Marianne, we are the same age, so I've been riding with her since I was 15 years old, more than ten years, so I know her quite well - but it doesn't really change a lot, and I don't think there are so many secrets, it's just about riding hard.  And sometimes people have different tactics in the races, but that's not something you learn from each other in training!  It's nice to ride together, and to motivate each other, but not to find out secrets or tactics or anything.

PdC: So on Sunday, Flanders, who should we watch out for?   Apart from your own team, of course - who are your biggest rivals?

Ellen: Well, as you saw in Drenthe and in Binda, it's kind of the same girls who finished in the front, like Emma Johansson of course, she's in great shape, Anna van der Breggen is riding really well….  In Binda you had a bit more of the climbers in the front, and in Drenthe a little less, maybe.  Kirsten Wild will be in good shape, Amy Pieters - then Rabobank will have a strong team, with Anna van der Breggen and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot…  Alena Amialiusik was riding very well last weekend; from Specialized you have Evie Stevens of course, Chantal Blaak, some other girls.  There are a lot of girls to watch out for, but most of the times you can see on the climbs who are the strongest, and they will come back all the time, they will be on the top of the climbs first every time.

PdC: It's going to be so much fun!  I hope you have the best race, with people screaming and cheering, and beautiful weather!

Ellen: I'm sure the atmosphere will be good, and if the legs are good, and we don't have any bad luck, then for sure it's going to be a great day!


To find out more about Ellen, follow her website, her twitter and her Strava – and follow her team, Boels-Dolmans, on their website and twitter.

Fore more on the 2014 Ronde van Vlaanderen, check out Velofocus’ excellent preview, here's my guide to following the race live, and we'll have a live-ish thread here on the Café - and for another interview about the race, you can read or listen to my interview with Ellen's race rival Emma Johansson just before she won the Trofeo Binda, which included a lot about Flanders.

Finally, one of my favourite videos with Ellen in it - the moment she was reunited with the Netherlands National Team, after winning the ITT at the Road World Championships last year: