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Editor’s note: Portions of this interview originally appeared on the website of The Cyclists’ Alliance.
Marianne Vos isn’t just one of the most talented and successful riders of her generation, she has also been an outspoken voice for change in pro cycling.
After breaking into the elite ranks at a very young age, she has since won Olympic gold, multiple road, track, and cyclocross world championships, just about every important women’s race on the calendar, and is the reigning European Union Road champion. She has experienced first-hand many of the changes which currently define women’s professional cycling today. As a current representative of the UCI Athletes Commission and a former member of many other UCI committees, she believes her experience and insight can help the women’s sport become better organized and economically successful in the future.
“Professionalization has been the biggest advance for us in the sport,” says Vos of her 12 years as a pro. “Of course there is still a long way for us to go. But I remember when we all traveled in one van, all of the team and staff and equipment, everything and everyone together and we drove to all the races. But there was a time when some of the biggest men’s teams also sponsored women’s teams, and they shared the team structure and planning with the women. This raised the example for all the best teams, and now you see many of our teams have our own buses and bigger support vehicles for the equipment.”
Vos recalls some of the tough lessons she learned when she first broke out into the top ranks. She was winning big races at an early age — several when she was still a junior.
“I was lucky to have good coaches at that age, even in our small Dutch team,” Vos said. “But I know not every rider has good coaches and managers at every stage of her career.”
Vos has one very important lesson to share with her fellow riders: “The best coaches put the riders’ interests above everything else, including their own self, and even the sponsor. A good coach also looks for the best sporting opportunity for the riders, and this is not always easy because of sponsor pressures and other influences.
“But a good coach will be able to listen to you, even when they are being tough to help you find more motivation,” Vos says. “This is sometimes hard for a rider to hear, but good coaches always say these things for the right reasons and best interests of the sporting goals of the athlete. You are responsible for your own choices; you might have the best team support, but it all comes down to you. For me, the hardest is still when there are expectations and you can’t meet them, if you aren’t on top of your form. A good coach can help you get through this.”
Vos has struggled with her form this winter, having been ill with a virus for part of January, but she has a long-view of her goals in the sport and knows there is plenty of time to build up for the 2018 season.
“I will race for a few more years at least,” Vos says. “I always try to learn new things and to listen to myself better. I think I can still find my best form and perform at 100 percent when I ‘play the game’ and make the race. That is the best feeling you can have as an athlete, especially in the big races.”
Vos is unique among her peers in that she was involved in the management of her teams for several years. The elite club she was attached to after her junior world championship wins attracted bigger sponsors who wanted to link to her as an individual, so she built a stable team structure that she believed would work for everyone around her.
“When I went to Rabobank, I stepped away from team management since it was already run very well,” says Vos of her management experiences. “But when Rabobank left cycling, I decided to step back in. We found a sponsor but had no management structure. It was easy for me since I already knew how it should be run.”
Last year she stepped away from managing her team when she realized the energy it required was affecting her focus.
“I found a great operational manager, someone I’m confident in. We have a good structure now but I don’t have to run it,” she says. “The double-role of manager and rider made it difficult to perform at my best. It wasn’t the time commitment, maybe a little of the mental energy, but mainly it didn’t feel right. It affected my relationship and communication with my teammates, to make the hard decisions.”
The important lesson Vos has learned is that it’s not easy to run a team — finding the sponsors, balancing books, and involving the media.
Vos adds, “Even with Rabobank, we were winning everything, but where were we on television? This makes it so hard to find new sponsors. I appreciate what we have in our team even more, and the people around me who are doing their job to make our team run smoothly. I learned how hard it is to manage and to control the costs, and I appreciate all the work that goes into it.”
Having experienced a lot of changes in her career, Vos believes that an emerging proposal for a two-tier women’s calendar will encourage growth and economic opportunity in women’s cycling going forward.
“We need this structure in UCI racing to help differentiate the level of development between the top WorldTour teams, and teams which are still developing,” says Vos.
“I think a smaller number of super-professional teams should be at the top level, and make another level of developmental events for the other UCI teams. We can structure it as a professional league, which I think will also good for the sponsors. I think women’s cycling is ready for this kind of tiered model, there shouldn’t be much more debate because that will delay the benefits.”
Most importantly, she adds, “This would be a big step in the right direction for the top level teams to talk about how to implement minimum wages, and also better anti-doping.”
Anti-doping is also an important topic for Vos, who is a strong believer in clean racing and clean sport. She is now starting her third term as a member of the UCI Athletes Commission and will make anti-doping a big priority.
“It is so hard for an ethical cyclist to stay in the sport and explain to others after every race, ‘I’m clean,’” she says. “I think everyone in the sport can be more honest and transparent, and we should communicate more with the public about the things we do to keep cycling clean. This will help us to change public perception about women’s cycling, I think maybe it’s something else we can do different or better than the men’s WorldTour in the future.”
Vos adds that having a clean image and more public support will help the women to build equity and equality in pro cycling.
“Of all my goals for this next Athletes Commission, equity is the most important thing that I want to change — equity, which helps us to build equality,” Vos says. “Every woman racing today, and who may reach the top level in the future, deserves an opportunity to get the most from her career, and better sporting opportunities like the men have.”
As the sport has grown, in part due to the launch of the WorldTour, the depth of the women’s fields is now extremely good and often very evenly matched.
“When I started out in like 2006, there were maybe 30 at the start line who could animate the race,” Vos says. “Now the level is really high. There are 50 to 70 riders who can shape the race.”
But she also points out the lack of media coverage, which is a disadvantage.
“Now we need to get our racing out there to the fans. Mental and technical aspects of racing really appeal to the fans, especially the tactics — that’s what I enjoy the most,” Vos says. “The emotions of winning and losing are amazing for the fans to see, but the tactics make that so much more interesting. Much more unpredictable than men’s racing. We are having really great battles on the road, which are great for the fans and sponsors, too.”
Even though she has been a world champion many times, Vos still remembers the lessons from early in her career and believes these kinds of lessons are important to teach to the up-and-coming riders.
“I was very young when I became elite, but my career took off very quickly. I was still in high school, trying to finish my studies and become a better rider at the same time. I was in a small Dutch team which didn’t have a big budget, and we weren’t the strongest,” she says. “But I learned and took with me an important ideal: It’s not all about money. If you have the right people with the right mindset around you, the motivation and joy of racing together really makes up for it. And I think that’s when your best results can happen because it takes some of the pressure off of you.”
Vos’s passion for racing is still there, but with all of her experiences, she is becoming more comfortable as a role model for the next champions of the sport, and as a voice for change. In addition to her role on the Athletes Commission, Vos is also a strong supporter of The Cyclists’ Alliance.
“Women’s cycling is overdue for an independent association,” Vos says. “Riders have always raced for the passion of the sport, but often they don’t think about their place in life and the future. Cycling can become more professional when the women have someone or an organization to help them focus and prepare for the future. And also, cyclists need someone who can help them to uphold their rights if they are abused or exploited.”
Vos is encouraging other UCI-licensed women to join The Cyclists’ Alliance.
“I trust Iris,” says Vos of her former teammate and Alliance founder Iris Slappendel. “She really works from her own experiences. She is doing this association for the riders, not for her, instead for her to help others. She still has good respect in the bunch, and I think she will succeed because she is listening to the riders and looking for solutions.”
Vos has some advice for women who are coming up in the sport now, based on her own career experiences: “I was lucky that there is a strong support system for me in Holland, to go to school, and do my selection of races. It is so hard to leave everything behind, like a woman who is leaving Australia to pursue her goals. You have to learn to stand tall in your own shoes.
“Race for yourself first, not for anyone else,” Vos adds. “Do it because you love it and not because someone is telling you to. Always hold onto your personal motivation and goals.”
“I never thought that I would be a role model, and maybe I still don’t see myself as one. But I’m very happy when I see young girls who want to ride, and it is very satisfying to hear them say they want to be like me. I think in the future I won’t be far from cycling, maybe I will be a coach or in team management — nothing is for sure, but I would like to share my experiences. I hope I can make cycling better for the racers of the next generation.”