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Cyclist’s 31 Inspirational Women No21: Marianne Vos

The greatest female professional cyclist of her generation

Maria David Sponsored
21 Mar 2021

Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women

To celebrate International Women's Month, we have partnered with Zwift to tell the stories of 31 inspirational women across 31 days

Words: Maria David Photo: Offside

When people talk about the greatest male bike rider in history, ‘The Cannibal’ Eddy Merckx is invariably the name they settle on. As for the women’s equivalent, look no further than Marianne Vos.

But while Merckx’s nickname was well earned, Marianne definitely leaves him behind in terms of versatility.

The Dutch rider has won races in the velodrome, on cobbled and smooth roads, she has won muddy cyclocross events and even World Cup mountain bike races.

She has been pedalling ever since her father, Henk, bought her her first road bike when she was six years old. She has almost 300 victories in total, including seven World Cyclocross Championships, three World Road Race Championships, two World Championships titles on the track and Olympic gold medals on the track at Beijing 2008 and in the road race at London 2012.

Safe to say the mantelpiece in her home near ’s-Hertogenbosch in the south of the Netherlands is being put to good use. Yet after all these years, including periods where she has suffered injury and physical burnout, Marianne shows no signs of slowing down.

Now racing for the newly formed Jumbo-Visma women’s team, Marianne is looking forward to the new season, and to being part of a bigger structure than what she has previously experienced.

‘Racing in a women’s team [being run] alongside a men’s team is not new for me but what is different is that it is a way bigger structure, and there is so much knowledge and experience.

‘We have a lot of people working on every detail that is important in cycling, from the bikes to the tyres to the clothing, the food, the training, personal progress. It’s a very big organisation but it still feels like a family.’

I wanted to win [the 2012 Olympic road race] so badly and then everything just clicked at that moment. It was the perfect day with the perfect team

Since turning professional in 2006, Marianne has seen women’s cycling develop significantly. Although she acknowledges there are still improvements to be made, she thinks women’s bike racing is in a good place.

‘It is growing, but it is not completely there yet. You can’t ignore that some organisations might be in difficulty. Some teams might make huge steps that other teams will find difficult to make.

‘But I think we are in a very good place and women’s cycling has made a huge improvement over the last decade.

‘In the past 10 or 15 years that I have been in the peloton, and in the senior category, the depth of the field is way bigger, with 10 or 12 teams, and the overall standard is very high.

‘We can be happy with where we are, with all the fans that want to follow cycling, and with all the effort that organisations make around the world.

‘Media-wise it’s very important for fans to have the opportunity to follow cycling and to know where to follow women’s cycling without having to search into the deep dark internet.

‘All World Tour races are live, and Eurosport and GCN are doing a huge job, so I think that is making the biggest difference, along with the fans that are following the teams, and this helps the bicycling industry.”

Marianne has had notable success on UK soil, winning the Women’s Tour in 2014 and the Tour de Yorkshire in 2019. But winning gold on The Mall, on a rain-soaked summer day at the London 2012 Olympics, was one of her most memorable moments of her entire career.

Marianne recalls:

‘It was such a great feeling. Four years before at the Beijing Olympics I won gold in the points race on the track and from that moment I really thought, “Now London 2012 road race is my next goal,” and I was really focussed on that.

‘For five world championships in a row [before London 2012] I won silver, so there was quite a bit of pressure from myself rather than from the outside world.

‘I wanted to win so badly and then everything just clicked at that moment. It was the perfect day with the perfect team.

‘Bad weather was really what I wanted – like Lizzie [Deignan] too. We were probably the two happiest girls in the bunch. And [Olga] Zabelinskaya was with us too. It was very good to have Lizzie there in the break, but it made me pretty nervous for the sprint finish.

Find the rest of Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women here

‘After the finish I questioned myself, saying, “What happened? When did I attack?” We had had a plan and everything worked to plan. But when things flow so well it’s hard to think back and say what happened or what you did.

‘This is the best feeling you can have. It’s not often that you have such a perfect day on such a big day.’

Marianne takes a lot of inspiration from Nelson Mandela, saying that his determination and courage are a big example for her. On two wheels, her biggest inspiration is Hanka Kupfernagel.

‘I love how she combined road racing with cyclocross. When I came into the elite category of cyclocross, I saw this hard-working German who had successfully combined the two disciplines that I also wanted to try and combine.

‘It was fantastic to be able to get into the elite category with the woman who inspired me to make the best of myself in both of those disciplines.’

When asked if Marianne sees herself as a road cyclist, a track cyclist or a cyclocross rider, her answer is plain and simple:

‘I am just a bike rider. No matter which bike I’m riding, or the terrain I’m on, I feel comfortable.

‘The biggest motivation for me to race is my love of cycling. I love the game, and I love the competition of the race.’

For more from Zwift this International Women's Month, visit here.