Tour de France

"Mum, that's the lady from the Kruidvat, isn't it?" A portrait of Dutch cycling legend Leontien van Moorsel.

10min reading time   by Dries De Zaeytijd on 19 July 2022
With the Tour de France Femmes, in the summer of 2022 a full-fledged Tour for women will be held again. In eight stages, the riders cover more than 1,000 kilometres. Between 1984 and 2009 there was already a Tour for women on the programme, albeit in different shapes and formulas. In addition to 'our' Heidi Van de Vijver, the list of honour includes the Dutch Leontien van Moorsel.

At KOERS' request, the Dutch cycling legend travelled to Roeselare to be part of a discussion panel on the occasion of the Tour and the Tour de France Femmes. With names like Ferdinand Bracke, Heidi Van de Vijver, Josiane Vanhuysse, Peter Farazijn, Wim Vansevenant and Thomas Brochut-Goddet (grandson of Tour boss Jacques Goddet) a solid row of personalities is booked as speakers. However, it is the arrival of Leontien that causes a stir. We're not the only ones who see this as an opportunity to interview her; Sporza Radio does so as well, be it in duo with Heidi Van de Vijver. In between, Bahamontes' in-house photographer Jelle Vermeersch portrays the Dutch champion in the setting of the museum and a few journalists take their place in the room. It's an indication of the necessary fuzz that her arrival creates.

Fantastic youth

The cycling career of Leontien (°1970) started rather by chance: "My parents were not at all sporty. My father cycled to the pub, nothing more. I am the youngest of five children. My brother had problems with his motor skills and doctors advised him to go racing, in order to develop better balance. As my older sisters did not want to look after me every weekend, I often went with my brother to the races. When his racing bike became too small, my mother said that I should try cycling too, because she thought that my motor skills weren't that great either. No sooner said than done."

Van Moorsel grew up in the Dutch town of Boekel, North Brabant. With RNTC Buitenlucht, she found a cycling club in her neighbourhood: "I went to training with my brother on my bike. That was great. I actually had a very nice childhood. I cherish that. My parents allowed me to race, but they also let me be a child. They never pushed me. They wanted me to play outside, to do something besides racing. I am very grateful to my parents for that. I can actually advise every parent to do that. Don't project the dream you have onto your child's shoulders, but let a child be a child."

Don't project the dream you have onto your child's shoulders, but let a child be a child.
Leontien van Moorsel

A girl on the bike

Leontien started racing at a time when cycling was still a typical boys' sport: "I was one of the few girls who chose the bicycle. In the beginning, I was one of the guys, very cool. But when I got older, I just wanted to be a girl and I liked to put on some mascara and so on. But in my time, that was not done. When I moved from the juniors to the seniors, all the women racing were more sporty girls with short hair. I don't know how else to describe it. I didn't have it easy then. The acceptance towards me was certainly not always there. They thought it was weird that I wanted to look like a real girl. But I didn't want to let anyone impose anything on me. I didn't hurt anyone when I put on mascara and lipstick to go racing, but I was the only one. I am so glad now that I managed to keep that up, because when I look at the race now, I see very nice girls on a racing bike. And who are all themselves. And I think that's the most important thing, whether you have short hair or not, use mascara or not,...".

Competitive colleagues in the Tour

Van Moorsel appears to be a natural hard rider. She quickly scores in the sprint and the time trial. I saw how well-trained and skinny Jeannie Longo was and how she could climb very well because of it. She won the Tour for the third time in a row in 1989 and I wanted to be like her, at least in sport, and win the Tour. When I rode the Tour in '89, I was a tough girl from Brabant. Longo inspired me to become a sportswoman like her. I will never forget that Tour. We rode on the same day as the men, as a sort of support act. I rode whole sections with goose bumps. What an atmosphere, what an audience. It was fantastic for me to experience that as a young girl.

Leontien puts herself on a particularly sharp diet and trains extremely hard, with the sole aim of being able to win the Tour. In 1992 and 1993 she succeeded: "Then Jeannie Longo and Heidi Van de Vijver were my biggest competitors. However, I see Heidi as a colleague, Jeannie as a competitor. During the race, Heidi and I were competitors, outside the race we were colleagues. I didn't have that relationship with Jeannie." After all these year it's clear that that rapport is still there. Heidi and Leontien greet each other particularly warm in KOERS. During the conversation at the table with Heidi, things are also very amicable.

Comeback after eating disorder

However, van Moorsel's Tour victories have a particularly dark side effect: "By training so extremely and losing weight, I developed an eating disorder. By becoming very skinny, I was able to cycle very hard uphill for a number of years. If I could do that again, I would skip it. I would choose to win stages but not to pursue an overall victory in the Tour. It hasn't been worth it."

After a difficult and long struggle, Leontien overcame her illness. In 1998 she shows the world that she is back: "That year the World Championships were held in Valkenburg. That in itself made it very special, but to me that World Championship is still much more than that. I became world champion in my own country after I had overcome my eating disorder. I was back at the top of the world with a healthy body and a healthy mind. I may have won the Tour in '92 and '93 but at that time I had my illness and I couldn't enjoy those victories. But if you find the balance in your life again, then you can enjoy it again, also of sport successes. That was the case during the World Cup in 1998."

By becoming very skinny, I was able to cycle uphill very hard for a number of years. If I could do that again, I would skip it.
Leontien van Moorsel

Success at the Olympics

Leontien's list of honours includes, besides two Tour victories, nine (!) World Cup titles, ten national titles on the road and six in time trial, also many Olympic medals. And this in various disciplines: "I wanted a different goal every year. If I was world champion on the road, then one year later I wanted to be world champion in the pursuit. I also spent a number of years trying to break the world time record. And I really wanted to win Olympic gold in various events. That motivated me."

One of her most notable sporting achievements was probably at the 2000 Sydney Games. Van Moorsel won gold in the road race, time trial and pursuit, and also captured silver in the points race. An unprecedented run: "I spent three years thinking about those Games. Everyone declared me crazy. But I worked very purposefully towards those Games. I let my body slowly get used to the succession of races and copied the exact race schedule as it would be in Sydney. If you include that in your training time and time again, your body gets used to it. If I hadn't done that, I certainly wouldn't have succeeded in the series."

Her own Leontienhuis

The Games of Athens in 2004 are the culmination of her career. Van Moorsel was selected for the road race, the time trial and the pursuit. She crashed during the road race, but recovered in time to win gold in the time trial. As a dessert, she won bronze in the pursuit. Afterwards it was good: "On the flight back from Athens my husband [former rider Michael Zijlaard] and I were already thinking about what we were going to do next. We are both very entrepreneurial and wanted to organise sports events. But I also wanted to help people with eating disorders find their balance again. Immediately after my career, we set up a foundation, and first of all we supported various organisations dealing with eating disorders, financially. I really enjoyed that."

I never use the word 'proud', but I am really proud of the Leontienhuis.
Leontien van Moorsel

"I soon felt that I wanted to deal with such matters in my own way. In the way the Zijlaard family helped me at the time, by giving a lot of love, investing time... That's how I overcame it. People with eating disorders need time and a safe place. Ten years ago I said that and then my husband Michael took me to a small village near Rotterdam. There was an old farmhouse there, rundown but in a beautiful spot. Thanks to many volunteers and willing construction companies, the Leontienhuis was built there. And it was opened eight years ago by Queen Maxima. Now, we help more than a hundred families every year. We don't only help the children who have a disorder, but also their parents and siblings. I always say: with Olympic gold you make people happy, but in the Leontienhuis we really make a difference. And we save lives. I never use the word 'proud', but I am really proud of the Leontienhuis."

Sportswear in the Kruidvat

Van Moorsel is not only the figurehead of the Leontienhuis; she is also the race director of the Amstel Gold Race for women and has her own clothing line with her daughter. Together with Dutch presenter Wendy Van Dijk, she has been running her own sports clothing line for more than ten years, in collaboration with chain shop Kruidvat: "We have a mission to get more people into sports. Wendy and I are convinced that exercising gives you more energy and a more positive outlook on life. Exercise simply does people good. That is the message we want to get out with our clothes.

Meanwhile, Leontien's cycling career belongs to cycling history. People still recognise her as a cyclist, of course, but in 2022, she has taken on a different role: "Sometimes parents say to me that, thanks to me, their child has a new zest for life. But I also hear children say to their parents in the street: 'Mum, that's the lady from the Kruidvat, isn't it? You've cycled so hard and then the kids recognise me from the Kruidvat...".

Leontien van Moorsel

Leontien Martha Henrica Petronella Zijlaard-van Moorsel (born 22 March 1970) is a Dutch retired racing cyclist. She was a dominant cyclist in the 1990s and early 2000s, winning four gold medals at the Olympic Games and holding the hour record for women from 2003 until 2015.
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