Flashback (2012) when Marianne won at home…

RIDE_58_Cover_LR575On 28 September 2013, the elite women’s road race will be contested at the UCI world championships in Florence, Italy. On the eve of that race, we have a look back at the efforts of two champions from one year ago: Marianne Vos and Philippe Gilbert. In part one of this flashback to RIDE #58, Raymond Kerkhoffs explains the achievements of the Dutch woman who was crowned champion (again). And part two, by Jean-François Quenet, profiles the ride to the top of the podium by the third Walloon winner of the elite men’s title…

These extracts were first published in November 2012…

 

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On a hill in Holland two riders became world champions. 

It’s where cycling was celebrated. Riders were cheered. Politics were forgotten – momentarily – and there was joy from racing.

This is the worlds of 2012…

 

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The worlds 2012: when the favourites succeeded

 

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The Marvellous Ms Vos – Winning end to a golden season!

 

By Raymond Kerkhoffs

(Translated for RIDE by Marianne Westacott)

 

 

At the age of 19 she claimed her first elite road cycling world crown. Marianne Vos had won championships before that: one on the road as a junior, another in the elite cyclocross titles early in 2006. It was clear that a big racing career was to follow for this Dutchwoman. This year everything aligned. She is the Miss World of cycling: winner of the cyclocross world championships, the women’s Giro d’Italia, the Olympic road race, the World Cup series and the world road race title. There is a potential for many other nicknames but as a true sign of respect in this sporting realm she is lovingly referred to as ‘The Cannibal’, after Eddy Merckx, widely considered the greatest cyclist of all time.

In October 2010 she laid the foundations for future success with a holiday in Australia. From the Great Ocean Road to the Great Barrier Reef, she spent a whole month with no bike. Just enjoying the trip and forgetting about all the responsibilities that come with being an elite athlete. And she didn’t miss her training routine at all. Not for a second did she feel any guilt. Her form and training lag hardly crossed her mind.

Earlier in her career she would never have considered such a trip. She’d thought that the Spartan way of training and all the sacrifices that go along were a necessity. And she would have cheated her own philosophy. “You get to know yourself over the years,” said the 25-year-old from near ’s-Hertogenbosch. “You realise you have to be ready for the next season. It’s very important to properly recharge, both physically and mentally.

“For years I have been obsessive towards the sport. Now I realise I have to be careful not to get drained of all energy before a big race. Having a great time training and riding is the best motivation. You have to be able to see the fun side. When you have fun, you’ll be able to go one better when you need to. It’s not that I regret my past. I’ve learned from everything I have done. I was only 21 when I competed at the Olympics in Beijing. I was inexperienced. Things are different at that age.”

What did she learn from Beijing, where she experienced both her biggest disappointment (14th in the time trial, sixth in the road race) and biggest success (a points race gold medal on the Laoshan Velodrome) in the space of 10 days?

“That I have to follow my gut instinct,” said Vos at the end of 2012. “That I have to consider other people’s advice, but eventually have to choose my own way. Besides that, Beijing taught me that the mental aspect is incredibly important – that I don’t have to have any doubts about myself. I can deal with setbacks and I’m able to flick a switch in my mind when things don’t go as expected and move on. Those days in Beijing were very helpful for my future development.”

The order of things was right, the ideal scenario had been written. The disappointment of the road race was followed by a success on the track. She returned home feeling euphoric. The long and arduous road she travelled with her coach at the time, Thijs Rondhuis, to the Chinese capital, eventually led to gold.

“Looking back, 2008 was a pivotal year. In order to step up to the next level it was very beneficial to start training with a specific purpose. Before that, I was never worried about where I was going to end up. But with that mindset you will never be able to find out what you are truly capable of. That year I stepped it up physically. I became stronger; a more complete rider. At 20, it’s a necessary step to progress.”

A few weeks after the Olympics, Vos found herself in void, just like many an elite athlete who worked towards a goal. “For months all you think about is that one race. You think about it when you go to bed and as soon as you wake up. The pressure slowly builds. Life revolves around that goal. Succeeding at the Olympics became the only thing… and only when that goal has past are you able to see things in the right perspective. You have time to think and you figure out that you’ve lost touch with reality: what really matters and what you truly desire.

“I realised that I wanted to enjoy this sport for more than just a few years. I had to make some crucial decisions. The way I lived and trained would not have been sustainable. It was too extreme, too demanding.”

A new beginning meant taking a step back. She had to go back to basics. She wanted to be in charge of herself again, just like she had been prior to Beijing, when she used to plan her approach. “I would study the race schedule and design my own training plans. In the weeks leading up to an important race I would add certain efforts. This is how I train again now. You can have someone else write a training program but only the rider can tell how far they can go. But I consult coaches, sports doctors and physiotherapists… We regularly butt heads over what type of efforts can be added. If you just keep doing what you have done before, you won’t improve. You won’t push your limits. I am ultimately responsible for my programs. I don’t blindly follow a coach’s program – I do it my own way”.

In this respect she differs from many athletes. Even more so because these days training is becoming increasingly scientific, so much so that entire support teams are developed around the world’s best. “Most athletes know what they need or how to train, but there’s a lot of insecurity. They look at their coach for reassurance and guidance. It motivates me when I can follow my own program. Anyway, I hate to be told what to do.

“I don’t feel comfortable doing something because someone told me to, I’d rather do it because I want to do it. These are signs of knowing myself and being strong-willed and stubborn. Although I am sure most people who know me well would say it’s more likely to be the latter.”

 

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After her holiday in Australia she critically evaluated the 2010 season. The conclusion: Marianne Vos was not satisfied with her achievements thus far. She had won plenty of races and was certainly able to look back on a successful season. “But I felt I could do better. I felt I hadn’t really stepped it up that year, something that I should be able to do at my age.”

She reassessed her training program. The urge to improve made her realise she needed a new approach. “If I wanted to make real progress, I had to train accordingly. I was able to do that in my 24th year. In 2008 I hadn’t been able to muster that strength, not physically nor mentally.

“I now work with the SRM power system and follow the well-known ‘block training’ program. I still write my schedules and analyse my own data. This way I try to incorporate the scientific side of training whilst still maintaining the fun element of riding. It’s been a lot more focused. I also spend more time at the gym doing strength work.”

Gaining strength has been a necessary development. She was able to mix it up with the best based on her litheness and explosiveness, but she still lacked the pure strength necessary to be competitive in a sprint. “I also needed a little bit extra to finish on the podium in time trials. And the strength gained has also given me more power when climbing.”

Anyone who looks at photos of her taken two years ago will have a hard time believing their eyes. But her already lithe body still could stand to lose weight. Vos dropped an incredible seven kilograms, and weighs in at her ideal of 52kg! She doesn’t have to carry so much up hills anymore, but she’s been able to retain her power. “I had my doubts about this step,” she said.

“With the races in Copenhagen and London in the back of my mind, when a sprint would likely be a deciding factor, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to drop a lot of weight. And there was no way I was going to compromise on power. That would severely diminish my sprinting ability. I had to balance reducing body mass and maintaining muscle power. I think I succeeded in achieving that.”

In 2011 Marianne Vos won 39 races. Yet the important one eluded her. At the world championships in Copenhagen she again made a mistake in the final sprint, taking silver for a fifth consecutive time! “But there was a lesson in that too. It showed me that we, the Dutch team, have to take control of the race – that we have to make the race a tough one, tire the competition and take other sprinters out of contention. That was the main lesson for London.”

There was plenty of success already in the opening half of 2012 but the latter part of the season is when she proved that her new approach netted the dream results. There was a reason why a whole nation followed her journey as the leader of the women’s Rabobank team that had essentially been established to support her quests. The newspaper De Telegraaf spoke with her regularly and here is a diary of dates that helped to make The Marvellous Ms Vos the rider of the year in 2012…

 

Sunday 05 August 2012

Kicking back during a cruise on the Thames aboard a luxury yacht, the sight of five imposing Olympic rings in the distance literally causes goosebumps to appear on her arms. All the pressure that has been building up inside Marianne Vos over the last few months is finally released. With the Olympic road race gold medal in her pocket, she’s achieved her main goal.

“Everything turned out to be just right. This is one thing I’ll never be able to trump. A blissful feeling of happiness has washed over me. This is the best feeling ever. The ultimate sense of happiness,” she says, staring at the lights of London.

It’s now that she realises the points race gold from Beijing has not only made her more driven but also more mature. “After my first Olympic experience it dawned on me that winning gold on the road was my ultimate dream. This was the thought in my mind as I flew home from China. From that day I have been preparing for London.”

It proved to be a good decision by the Dutch squad to stay in a hotel at the foot of Box Hill instead of the Olympic Village in order to prepare in relative peace. “While others had to ride an hour and a half to reach the course, we were already there, training. On the last day of preparation we laid the foundations of my victory. We figured out four different ways to attack the climb. On the day of the race we knew exactly what to do in order to win. And we executed that scenario perfectly.

“Prior to the race I had a feeling this potential gold could be big. London is close to home, and it made these Olympics feel more alive than in Beijing. Four years ago I was essentially still an unknown athlete, this time I was one of the most favoured ones. Many hoped for – even expected – a road race victory. If you manage to actually pull it off, that win gets extra meaning. It was also the first gold of the Games for The Netherlands. In Beijing I was shocked by the attention I received. This time I was somewhat prepared.”

 

Thursday 20 September 2012

The key to being prepared involves being able have little or no obligations post race and to resume training as soon as possible. After winning her Olympic title Vos did not rest on her laurels. With the world championships being held in her country it was important to not get careless. In the early hours of the day after the biggest homecoming party in her home town of Aalburg, she boarded a plane for Sweden for her next race. From that moment onward she would forget about her Olympics… for a while, and fully focus on the rainbow on top of the Cauberg.

Vos is remarkably fresh. Physically or mentally fatigued? She hasn’t really noticed. It’s why she has trouble understanding the question if her win in London could prove detrimental to her chances of winning the world championships. “No? No!” She emphasises it twice – a question followed by a statement. “My motivation for these world championships is too great for that to happen.” She didn’t have to flick a switch, because the will to succeed in Zuid Limburg has been there for years. Of course there’s extra pressure to perform at home, but Vos knows like no other how to use that to her advantage.

She insists the Olympic title only has benefits. It allowed her to forget about her five consecutive second places. She knows she’s a winner and is no longer preoccupied by her collection of silver medals. “Although there is a sense of inevitability; it has to happen some time.”

She believes she rode The Perfect Race in London. The team in orange took initiative and made the race a hard one. And that was the key to success. It’s a tactic they needed employ again on the Cauberg because the hills in Limburg are even more selective – and the depth of the Dutch squad is great, this would have to result in another successful campaign.

Where all the other Dutch Olympic champions were able to relax and celebrate their achievements, Vos was firmly planted on her narrow saddle. She had no problems turning down invitations to Olympic parties. Of course she made herself available for the odd interview here and there. But while the Games are the pinnacle for most athletes in an Olympic year, the road racing season was still in full swing. “The worlds are still very special. Mainly because you get to wear the rainbow jersey for the entire year. Even though I have got an Olympic title to my name, I am not allowed to display the five rings.”

The only physical reminder of her Olympic title during races is her gold-coloured bike frame. “Every time I look down when I’m suffering, I am now greeted by that gold. And it gives me extra powers,” she says with a wink.

 

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Saturday 22 September 2012

It is the mark of a champion when, only 35km into a race, she’s ready to make her move. It’s during the race on her ‘own’ Cauberg that it becomes clear just how revered Marianne Vos is. After just five kilometres of chasing, the peloton gives up. It’s a clear sign of how she’s viewed by the majority of the women’s peloton. An unbeatable ruler. A racer on a different plane. A super athlete you rarely come across.

It’s such a familiar sight to see Marianne Vos getting out of the saddle and going on the attack. Whoever follows the history of road racing understands just how special her achievements are. With enormous willpower she’s able to generate impressive power. Ever since she first started to pedal in the peloton she’s been head and shoulders above the rest.

In her first season in the elite category she became world champion on the road in Salzburg in 2006 and since 15 May 2007 she’s been the number-one on the UCI world ranking list!

The fact Vos only managed to take her second world title on the road in Valkenburg shows the progress she’s undergone during these last few years. Ever since that win in Austria, she knows that her rivals are trying to beat ‘La Vos’ before they even think about their own chance. As they say: getting to the top is hard, but staying there is even more difficult.

Her goal-driven way of training led to her to a golden 2012. She grew in confidence and started to take initiative in races. With the support of the excellent Dutch squad she knew she had the trump card up her sleeve. And this had been the key to success in London. It was this that gave her the confidence and the belief in her capabilities during the race in Valkenburg.

The ‘Cannibal from Aalburg’ only needed to worry about how she was going to win. Solo to the finish after an attack on the Cauberg? Or stay with the peloton and sprint to victory? “If I had any doubts about being able to follow through I would have never have taken that chance. A world title is still a world title,” Vos mused after the finish.

In London she dropped her demons 44km from the finish, in Valkenburg she chose to escape on the second-last ascent of the Cauberg (35km). A well-considered tactic, with the strong Anna van der Breggen setting it up for Marianne to join her.

After having ascended the Cauberg hundreds of times over the years, she knew she would be able to bridge a gap of 35-45 seconds. Exactly at the top of the most famous berg of the Netherlands she made her way to the front of the peloton. From there onwards she was calling the shots and she knew the world championship title was hers. Exactly like she announced when watching the team time trial in Valkenburg six days earlier: “I am going to be the new world champion.”

It would be a glorious ride, something to cherish. Near the end, she spotted someone on the left side of the road with a red-white-blue flag. Spontaneously she decided to pick it up; but even in her state of euphoria she didn’t lose focus. “I knew there were strings hanging from the flag – and I didn’t want those getting tangled up in my wheels. I also quickly realised I was about to hold the flag the wrong way around, which would have made it seem like I was holding a French national flag… and I wasn’t going to let that happen.”

These are some details that highlight the might of Vos. The most beautiful rainbow jersey is reunited with the woman who deserves it most – even though she knows it doesn’t come easily.

After she fractured her collarbone in May and momentarily panicked, she was forced to take some much needed rest. This forced break would lead to her win in the Giro d’Italia Donne (plus victory in five of the nine stages), the overall World Cup title, the Olympic gold medal and the world title. Add to this the world cyclocross and she can boast a palmares unlike any other rider in professional cycling.

Driven by huge ambition and buoyed by the public, she ended 2012 in spectacular fashion. It’s a season that will be difficult to top. “But if I’m doing well, I know I can beat the rest. That confidence and inner peace has been the biggest revelation this year.” It’s with this knowledge she’ll start 2013, a season in which the hunger for the bike will undoubtedly lead to many more success stories.

 

– Raymond Kerckhoffs*

 

[Part 02, coming soon...]

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*Kerckhoffs works for De Telegraaf in Holland. This article appeared in that newspaper earlier this year. The translation was done for RIDE Cycling Review by Marianne Westacott.


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Author: rob@ride

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