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Cyclocross

The golden touch: Why Marianne Vos is the greatest cyclist of all time

The Dutch woman has dominated cycling for almost two decades and took an unprecedented eighth cyclocross world title in Fayetteville.

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Marianne Vos still has the golden touch.

Vos’ victory in Fayetteville against the toughest of competition must surely mark her as the greatest rider of not just her generation, but of all-time — move aside Eddy Merckx.

Some 16 years after winning her first set of rainbow bands, the Dutch rider took an awe-inspiring eighth title, surging clear of one Erik De Vlaeminck — who she had been equal, with seven wins — to stand alone as the most decorated cyclocross rider ever.

Like De Vlaeminck, Vos took her first seven world titles in less than a decade — she won them between 2006 and 2014. But, unlike the Belgian, Vos has continued to compete at the top of the sport way beyond her initial run as younger, eager riders nipped at her heels.

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On the women’s side, she has double the number of wins as the next-nearest rider, with Hanka Kupfernagel sitting second with four world ‘cross titles. Vos also has more world medals than anyone else with her two silver and bronze medals giving her a mighty total of 12.

Vos’ win Saturday felt all the more special because it never seemed inevitable with Lucinda Brand pushing her the whole way.

No matter what Brand did to shake her, however, Vos could not be dispatched, and one wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the defending champ had the Jaws movie theme tune in her head as she raced with Vos in her wheel.

Despite making history, Vos was her usual understated self after the race.

“I knew Lucinda would be very hard to beat. She increased the pressure and then I tried. It was so hard to pull away. Then I knew I had to stay calm and do the right things in the last lap,” she told Belgian broadcaster Sporza afterward. “There are many years between my last two world titles, but I haven’t really changed much. I just did what I was already doing.”

In spite of all of her achievements, Vos has remained resolutely modest about her success and even keeps her silverware in her garage rather than a fancy trophy room.

Looking up to Vos

The competition may be tougher than ever — particularly from her own compatriots — but Vos has remained a steady force in world cycling. She is a shapeshifter who has adapted to the changing environment around her.

“When I was young, I really looked up to Marianne. Even now. She was a real role model for me. Many riders can only dream of so many world titles,” former world champion Sanne Cant told Sporza. “I had already said before this World Cup: whoever beats Vos is world champion. I think I was right.”

Cant has first-hand experience of the racer that Vos is, having been pushed to her limits by the Dutch rider en-route to her own first rainbow jersey in 2017.

She also knows just how difficult it is to maintain a long run of world titles. After taking three straight victories between 2017 and 2019, she has slumped to eighth and 10th respectively at the last two world championships.

Indeed, she’s taking solace in Vos’ victory that there’s always time for a comeback.

“The years before that, she just couldn’t do it. Maybe there is still hope for me after all,” Cant said.

With a big road season ahead of her, Vos has put an end to her cyclocross season so we won’t see her in the rainbow bands until next fall. She has an altitude training camp to pack in before she takes to racing on the asphalt, where we’ll almost certainly see her notch up a few wins over the year.

Taking an unprecedented eighth world cyclocross title is just the latest in a long line of huge achievements that Vos has set that will be hard to beat. Last year, the 34-year-old reached the milestone of 30 stage wins at the Giro d’Italia Donne — she’s also won three overall titles there.

What makes Vos’ success so impressive is the length of time that she has managed to hold a place at the top of the sport. She burst onto the scene as a teenager and she’s still bossing it in the pack nearly two decades later.

While some young stars burned bright and faded in their older years, Vos’ flame is still going strong. She’s had to overcome some serious injury problems over her career and even had to sit out most of the 2015 road season. In fact, she was fifth in the victory rankings on the road for last year, 10th the year before that, and she topped it with an impressive 19 victories in 2019.

Vos has won in pretty much every discipline going, road, cyclocross, track, and mountain bike — and she has world titles in three of those. As she has grown older, she has refined her goals and ambitions but she’s still racking up the victories.

It’s hard to say with complete precision just how many races she has won, but it is well over 400 and looks set to continue to rise for a little while to come.