Nowadays, she lives on the edge of a village, with a breathtaking view of the fields behind it - "this week our cat was wandering around in it, beautiful!" Father Vos points to a village in the distance; they lived there until a few months ago. And there, he points out, while his arm moves a little to the left, they can see the Pagoda of the Efteling as it rises. "Yes, it's nice living here. And it's nice and quiet here," says Marianne Vos when we drive up to her house a few hours later. She likes the peace and quiet, Marianne.
Although she was born in a city - "in the hospital of Den Bosch, the mayor is still proud of it" - she grew up in the Brabant countryside, where she started cycling when she was six. In the past decade she has won almost everything there is to win, on the road, in the field and on the track. How did she do that? "Passion. And an urge to prove myself."
She is stubborn: if the world says it can't be done, she is not convinced. I'll try first, she thinks. She knocks herself out ten times and the eleventh time she demonstrates that it can be done. Being able to do something very well, that's what she wants. And if doesn't pan out? "Then I'd rather not do it. Or I practise until I can do it. On my own, because I hate the learning process. And if someone sees it, it's even worse. But then, when you do succeed... great!
In cross country, mastering all those different surfaces to perfection. Or on the road: figuring out the tactics in detail. There is nothing more beautiful than that. And the track - well, that was actually to support the road. She turned out to have a talent for it, and well, then she was unstoppable. When she looks back on it, how quickly that happened... "About seven months after my first track training, I became an Olympic champion. I didn't really realise at the the time, how special it was."
She is often referred to as the female Eddy Merckx and in Italy almost all cycling experts call her 'Cannibale'. She finds it a strange sensation; she is actually a little too down-to-earth for such superlatives. At the same time she sees it as a nice recognition of the women's race. In her own country, they are a little less fond of the hero worship. She laughs: "In the Netherlands it is not allowed to be different, to stand out, to find your own way. That's not what you're supposed to do. If you have an off-day and things aren't going so well, you'll get shot down in the Netherlands. In other countries they shrug it off, they think that lesser moments are just part of the game.
No, she has never spoken to Eddy at length and yes, it might be nice to talk to him. Informally then, no staged stuff. One minor problem, she has know idea on how to start a conversation. Yes, with "Good day Mr Merckx, how are you?", but then...? There are plenty of riders with whom she can easily start a conversation, but Eddy... "I am especially curious about the man behind the image that we all have of him and that he maintains; he does not show any weaknesses. That is why he remains the great Eddy Merckx, but his human side is not so visible. He is on a pedestal." Some people also put her on such a pedestal, then come at her full of oh's and ah's, completely off the map because they meet her. She can't really take it, she's just Marianne, isn't she? Fortunately, after a few minutes of chatting with her, the people forget they were so nervous - they just talk about cycling, nothing more, nothing less. Her eyes are shining: "That's what I like best!
Men's cycling derives part of its popularity from the heroism of the past, from stories about men like Eddy, but for women, those heroic tales of snow-capped mountains and heroic descents have been gathering dust for years. She finds that a pity. It is fantastic that they now have La Course, but who remembers that the women in the eighties and nineties also thundered over the cobblestones of the Champs Elysées, in their own Tour de France of course! From time to time she comes across some former female cyclists. Cyclists who rode with Elsy at the Grand Prix Elsy Jacobs, two-time world champion Keetie van Oosten-Hage at the annual cycling gala. What do they talk about? Well, about then and now. That the girls used to come to the races on bicycles, even when they were held in Belgium, that sort of thing. But anyway, even now there are still cycling teams who come to the race by train or with eight of them in a small bus.
She thinks it's a pity that the differences are still so big: "Everyone should be able to cycle, but in a race the difference between the professional teams and the teams from the lower regions is really enormous. With the arrival of the WorldTour for women that will change and I think that is important for the attractiveness of the race. It is better to have a smaller peloton of well matched girls, riders who radiate professionalism. Then you can at least offer the fan real top sport."
By the way, while she is talking about women's cycling... when will the literal comparison with men stop? That doesn't happen in tennis either, does it? Or in swimming, or athletics? Dafne Schippers running slower than Usain Bolt - nobody talks about that. Marianne shoots forward, her eyes bright: "I was watching the cross-country yesterday, and the commentator said that the women run a bit slower downhill. Which made me think: why is it necessary to point that out? Those girls ride, just like the men, at their max!" The same with the eternal emphasis on appearances.
In the past, the outside world saw cycling women as kenaus, masculine women, but she is glad that those days are over: the women's peloton is now a colourful bunch of made-up girls whizzing over the asphalt with flapping tails and painted nails. Fine, as far as she is concerned. What does irritate her, however, is that it always has to be about that. Appearance isn't a topic of discussion with men, so why is it one in women's sport? And she uses the word women's sports consciously, yes. Just look at swimming, athletics, tennis, football - as soon as it comes to women, appearance is just around the corner.
No, she was not a fan of Armstrong, Ullrich was her hero; the underdog. Armstrong showed too little emotion, was too much of a machine. And speaking of heroes and heroines... Jeannie Longo, she would like to talk to her. An intriguing woman, someone who perhaps didn't do everything right either, has been isolating herself for years and thinks everyone is against her. Whereas: look at her career! And that drive, unbelievable. This woman still rides up the Alpe d'Huez almost every week, in a time trial against herself. Why? That's what she would like to ask Longo: why do you still want to fight with yourself at 57, when you know it's less? Marianne sighs. "That seems so confronting! I would like to avoid that, yes. Why do you still hurt yourself so much? That intrigues me. Plus Longo has been through a lot in sport. We do not know what she did or did not do and that makes her elusive, just like Merckx. But her elusiveness is in her isolation, while Eddy's is in that pedestal."
Longo's story is also the story of relentless dissatisfaction. Despite that career. Marianne finds this painful; this woman has perhaps never been properly understood. "We are all looking for recognition, for appreciation. But what if you don't get it, time after time? Maybe that makes you a little less realistic. There are more stories like that, about federations and teams not understanding what the rider means. Maybe it has to do with the difference between men and women. A man thinks: fuck it! A woman wants a pat on the back from time to time, and if she doesn't get it, she's going to fight it out, which makes things even worse. And some man don't get that!"
She is sure that stubbornness also plays a role. On that level, she understands Longo: she is just as stubborn herself. Yet she always gets support from the federation and the teams, perhaps because she understands that they always have her best interests at heart. At the same time... She is silent for a moment, thinks. She starts a sentence, but cuts it off halfway. Then: "I really had to learn that sharing brings more understanding. Yes, it does. I went my own way without involving others and when you do, it creates misunderstanding. I'm someone who starts doing something and burying my head in the sand - if it goes wrong, I'll figure it out and if it goes well, well, it goes well. That's in my nature. More openness works better, I've discovered."
The need to keep things to herself may also have something to do with her penchant for harmony; she prefers to avoid conflicts. As a top athlete you always have to deal with others, she now knows: you work together on a goal, you make investments together. "I have to involve those people, otherwise it won't work. What helps enormously is that I can easily put myself in other people's shoes. Which helps me to diffuse a situation and prevents misunderstandings."
She was raised with faith and that faith is still her guiding principle, both in daily life and in sport. Of course, she also knows that you have to be selfish as a top athlete; in that respect, she is not prepared to compromise too much either. But hating her opponent? She shakes her head resolutely. She says she always looks for harmony, wherever that may be. "Within the team, but also in the peloton. We do it together, right?" She falls silent again for a moment, seems to weigh her words. Then: "Charity, it has everything to do with it. If your enemy is hungry, give him bread. That's how it works."
The old stories about cyclists bashing each other's heads in; she knows them, yes. But she really can't imagine it, and she doesn't think it's true now. And she knows that racing against her isn't much fun - we have to win, one way or the other - but she always keeps it sporting. The opponent really doesn't need to go to the roadside. "In fact, if someone is thirsty and has run out of water while I still have two bidons, I'll hand over one. But when the finish line is in sight, I'll do what I'll need to do, though!" She doesn't know why the hatred and envy of the past has disappeared. It could be that everyone was just fed up with it, with the whining. Rivalry is fine, necessary even, because without rivalry there are no beautiful victories. But after the race you need to be able to drink a glass together.
Her faith helps her to put things into perspective, even when she wins a lot. Thoughtful: "All that gold, all those medals in the cupboard, that is fantastic. But the next Monday it is just Monday again. That was the case when I won everything, it is the case now that I am on the sidelines. Not that nothing has changed this year, she would certainly not say that. For almost a lifetime she sought and found affirmation in her sport, so when that went away... She knew that cycling wasn't the only thing in life, but now she experienced it first hand, she really couldn't escape in the sport anymore. She started to do other things, became the Marianne who doesn't cycle for a while, but who comes to the race or gives advice to her teammates, the Marianne who comments on TV, the Marianne who gives a clinic or a lecture.
And the nice thing is: people appreciate her for that. Appreciation for the person Marianne, instead of for the cyclist Marianne - a new experience. She has grown through it, she is not afraid to say so. She laughs cheerfully, but admits immediately that this period was heavy and felt empty at first. While, when she thinks about it: cycling and wanting to be the first to cross the finish line - that is really empty! But then again, that victory, that high; life has never been more beautiful than that. So yes, that empty feeling, especially the first few months. She still finds racing the most beautiful thing there is. That's also something she learned this year. Now that she can't race, she feels that racing is what she loves most. She realises that it will end one day. And although she hasn't found anything that gives her as much satisfaction as the bike, she will manage without the high of the race; compared to what faith means to her, racing is just a side issue. A very beautiful side issue, but a side issue nonetheless. A side issue with which she is absolutely not finished yet, she likes to emphasise.
When it comes to her faith, she follows her own path. She doesn't go to church; there are so many denominations and there is not one in which she feels completely at home. Not going to church has a disadvantage, she says: "The world is moving fast and before you know it you are rushing around without a moment's reflection. Especially when things are going well... If you're not careful, you start to take it for granted and forget how special it is." She deliberately includes those moments of reflection. To show gratitude. To feel that everything is not so normal. As far as she is concerned, being grateful for the beautiful things is at least as important as asking for help when times are tough. She finds that without gratitude you are always living in the future without realising how beautiful the present is.
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