By Jen See | Photography by David Reddick
It is easier to count the races Marianne Vos has not yet won, rather than list her many successes. She is one of the most decorated riders in the sport of cycling, and even the most creative of writers will fast run out of superlatives to describe her career. Vos has world titles on the road and in cyclocross, and Olympic medals on the track and the road. Even she is sometimes taken by surprise when she hears the list of races she has won.
"When I hear the call-up this morning, and [they say] she won this and she won this, and this and this and this, and every time I think, I did? And then, yes. Yes, I did," a smiling Vos told Paved between races at the Sea Otter Classic where she is racing the cross-country and short track mountain bike events.
So far this season, the Rabobank-Liv/giant rider has won two world cup races, and it's still only April. Vos has also returned to mountain bike racing after an eight-year hiatus. She raced cross-country as a junior, but abandoned it to focus her full efforts on road racing and cyclocross. Now, she is back on the fat tires and eyeing the Rio Olympic Games.
Though her list of victories is long and distinguished, one big race had continued to elude Vos. She had never won the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Though she had come close with three visits to the podium, Vos had never stood on the top step in Oudenaarde.
With its cobbled climbs and narrow roads, the Ronde is the hardest single-day race on the calendar. "It's a tough one," Vos said. "It's only big names on the list. I wanted to get there, too." The Ronde's history runs deep and it exerts a powerful on cycling's imagination. Second only to the world championship, it is the race every rider wants to win.
"That was the thing I still wanted," she said. "You have to keep your goals and keep fresh, but that was a thing I really wanted so bad."
The Ronde requires a perfect mix of tactical acumen and physical strength. Some races are won at nearly the exact same kilometer each year. Everyone knows, for example, that Flèche Wallonne is won on the Mur de Huy. Not so for the Ronde. It is rarely the same race twice.
"It depends on the race, who can win," explained Vos. "You have the climbers there, you have the classic riders, but also, the sprinters. Everybody can win that race. So it is the whole bunch that prepares for the Ronde."
On paper, Ronde van Vlaanderen seemed like the perfect race for Vos. But the pieces never fit together for her until this year. The racing-winning break went free on the Oude Kwaremont when Vos went to the front and set a torrid pace. Only Emma Johansson and Elisa Longo Borghini could follow her. Ellen van Dijk later came across to form a group of four.
"We were waiting for the good moments, but then, it was a hard race in the final," she said. "It is always nice when the best riders are up there in the final and the strongest riders are battling each other."
In the final five kilometers, the four riders attacked like it was the last race before the end of the world. Johansson, Longo Borghini, and van Dijk all tried to escape, but Vos controlled the race and the four riders crossed under the red kite together. Then, Vos won the four-up sprint. It was her first ever victory at the Ronde van Vlaanderen and her second world cup victory of the season.
"I was three-times on the podium, but never made it to the win," she said. "It was really good to win. We had a breakaway of four, with the four strongest riders, and then to win, it's cool."
Another world cup, another victory: Vos followed the Ronde van Vlaanderen with a record fifth victory at Flèche Wallonne. In contrast to the Ronde, the tactics for Flèche Wallonne are remarkably straightforward. Get to the final climb—that's the bike race. Vos is quick to credit her Rabobank-Liv/Giant team for delivering her perfectly. "You wear the world cup jersey, the pressure is on, the pressure is on the team, and you have to take responsibility during the race."
By now, the Mur holds few mysteries for Vos. The climb, famous for its six chapels and absurdly steep gradients runs 1.3 kilometers. The early meters deceive. Then it's all steep, all the time. The most difficult section comes at around 400 meters to go. To win Flèche Wallonne requires perfect legs and rock solid sense of timing. Sprint too early and watch the winner ride right by.
"It's sprint, sprint up! And you know it's going to hurt. You know," she said. "But then, okay, you know on the line that the victory is there."
To win a race like Flèche Wallonne five times requires a once-a-generation talent. Currently just 24 years old, Vos is already a two-time world champion on the road and a five-time world champion in cyclocross. She owns Olympic gold medals in road racing and on the track in the points race. At this point in her career, Vos has celebrated more major race victories than birthdays.
Two days after winning on the Mur de Huy, Vos traveled across the planet to California where she traded her road bike for fat tires. Despite a nine-hour time difference, Vos promptly won again. In the short-track race at Sea Otter, she never sat much further back than fifth, and in the final lap, she escaped to take a solo victory ahead of Luna's Katerina Nash.
The turn to mountain biking offers a new challenge for Vos. Though she raced on fat tires as a junior, eight years has passed since then, as she focused her energies on road racing and cyclocross.
"[It is] a new challenge, [I want] to keep the motivation and to keep the fun, and to have the thrill of the learning experience," said Vos. "Now every time I ride my bike, I learn new things."
Navigating the tricky dirt descents is Vos' newest trick. "Sometimes, I'm up a mountain and they say, well, you have to go down here," she said. "And hmm. Is that possible with the bike? And yep, after a while, it's possible with the bike, even for me."
She is still working to master the technical challenges of adding yet another discipline to her racing calendar. Vos hopes to strike a balance between mountain bike racing and her ambitions on the road. She has two mountain bike world cup races on her schedule so far. She will race Altstadt in May and Vallnord in July.
Keeping up with the training on both bikes and learning the technique for handling the mountain bike is keeping Vos busy. She is famous for her non-stop racing schedule, and she takes only a short break between road and cyclocross seasons. Now she has added mountain bike to the mix.
"It's difficult, [because] it's so intense on the mountain bike," she said. "And I need to work on the technique. You have to spend time on the bike, and I don't have time to spend on the mountain bike!"
Vos lives to push her boundaries as a person and as an athlete. After winning both the Olympic and world championship titles last year, Vos could legitimately ask what more the sport had to offer her. Though she loves to win, Vos says she does not race to break records or count victories. Mostly, she just wants to ride her bike.
"After last year, I asked myself that question: What do I want to win more?" said Vos. "And it's not more, it just loving the life as an athlete. That's what I want to keep on doing."
But don't be deceived. Vos is already looking ahead to the Rio Olympics. She has the road race title to defend. She also won a gold medal in the points race in Beijing, a result she says people often overlook. "There's a lot of people who don't know," she said, laughing. And, if all goes well, Vos hopes also to race her mountain bike and win a medal in yet another discipline.
Though she wins with machine-like regularity, Vos remains human. She gets nervous in races just like anyone else. There are no sure things in bike racing, as Vos knows well. She spent five-straight frustrating years finishing second at the world championship road race. The biggest race, and every year, she finished second.
The memory of those disappointments nagged at her mind in London last summer during the Olympic road race. As they came to the finish, the winning group included local girl and sprint speedster Lizzie Armitstead. The sky opened up, and the roads gleamed with the shine of rain. Vos knew Armitstead posed a formidable challenge at the line, and she did not want to finish second. Not again.
"I was really worried," she said. "I was so scared of getting second. I thought, oh no, it's not going to happen to me again. It's not a good thought, you shouldn't think about getting second. You should think about there's a gold medal on the line, just go for it."
With the chase group coming up fast, there was no time to play games in the sprint. The break rode hard until the final kilometer. Then, it was all down to the sprint. Vos saw how strong Armitstead was riding, and knew she had to time her sprint to perfection.
"It was so nervous, and the heartbeat is just going up, up, up," she said. "Okay, keep calm, keep calm. If I see the picture, I look back, I can see the emotion at the finish line, crossing the line. It was huge. Huge."
Despite her many successes, Vos does not expect the world to bow down at her feet. It does not keep her up at night that people can't keep track of her many victories. Certainly, she is not spending her time counting trophies.
"I don't look back too much. The most important [thing] for me is to enjoy the ride," said Vos. "I don't look back on the results too much, but if I'm looking back, I can have a big smile on my face."