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A life in cycling: Catherine Marsal

Road World Championship Utsunomiya 1990 - Japan - Catherine Marsal (France) - photo BettiniPhoto©
Road World Championship Utsunomiya 1990 - Japan - Catherine Marsal (France) (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

The 2021 Olympics in Japan will mark 31 years since the World Championships were held in the Land of the Rising Sun. Procycling meets Catherine Marsal, the gold medallist in the women’s road race in 1990. 

This article was taken from Procycling magazine issue 265, February 2020.

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Saturday September 1, 1990, Utsunomiya, Japan. Catherine Marsal is in her pre-race bubble. It is the biggest day on the calendar and she is among the 75 riders waiting to start the World Championships road race. Marsal is fully focused, oblivious to those who surround her. Where others talk, Marsal is silent. Where others move, Marsal is still. Riders approach her on the start line and tell her that this race is hers, that she is untouchable, that no-one can beat her. Marsal does her best to ignore them.

Marsal is just 19 yet she is already France’s national champion and the favourite for this race. At last the race gets underway. On the opening lap she easily gets a gap on the circuit’s main climb. Marsal is caught before the lap is done but this initial effort has proven to everyone, including herself, that she is the strongest. Now she knows the title is as good as hers. “The first time, when I looked round and saw how far ahead I was, I knew I would win,” she will say later. “When I was caught, I wasn’t worried.”

Lap two. Marsal may not be worried but she is wary. All season long she has been racing the Italian great Maria Canins. In July, en route to winning the Giro d’Italia Femminile, Marsal had nearly fainted at the side of the road, such was the intensity of their battle. “It was so hard to break that Maria Canins,” she says years later. So, on the roads of Japan, the Frenchwoman isn’t looking at anyone other than Canins. She thinks the Italian may give her a hard ride.

Second time up the climb and again Marsal drops everyone. This time it is for good. After two hours and 72.5 kilometres of racing Marsal crosses the line 3:24 ahead of anyone else. Marsal is immediately hailed as the new Jeannie Longo, the five-times world champion. “I had a thought for her in the morning,” Marsal says. “It was she who taught me to ride, to attack, to dare, to win.”

Friday December 6, 2019, Dragør, Denmark. Time has flown. With Japan gearing up to host the Olympic Games this summer, Procycling has just reminded Marsal that 2020 marks 30 years since her winning ride. “Oh, my god. Thirty years,” Marsal laughs. “I never thought that this day would come – that someone would want to talk to me about the 30th anniversary of my victory. Sh*t, man.”

Born in 1971, Marsal was raised by her farming parents near Metz, eastern France. She was the sixth of eight siblings and the first girl. “[My brothers] shaped my competitive mindset,” Marsal says. 

“I always had to push to prove to them that I was as strong as them. When I was 13 and they were 14 and 15, they never wanted to ride to school together. We would go to the garage to prepare our bikes and then we would leave at 30-second intervals – we were all so competitive.”

Marsal was usually the last to start the family’s individual pursuit to school. “You could see the red light of the person in front on the 5km ride to the college. Our training was to catch that f*cking red light in front of you,” she laughs. “Then of course we came home for lunch before going back in the afternoon. We were doing a 5km time trial four times a day, five days a week. That was my training, basically – apart from maybe a club ride once a week – until I started with the national team. Then I had some structured training.”

Marsal’s rise through French cycling was rapid. At 15 she went to her first national team training camp and one year later claimed the Junior World Championships road race while still officially a cadette, a juvenile. In 1989, now officially a junior, she finished second in the elite Worlds, sandwiched between Longo and Canins. Twelve months on came her win in Japan.

“I have no memory of being a junior,” Marsal says. “In my region we had races where all categories started together. Yes, the under-17s and under-19s had a shorter distance than the elites, but we were still racing together. I remember feeling like I was competing within the elite class even though my finish came earlier than theirs. I remember one time Pascale Ranucci was there – she was one of the best riders in France at the time. I remember she was looking at me like, ‘Who is the little kid kicking my ass?’ I wasn’t afraid to compete with them. I was looking at them as my idols but as soon as the start was given it was like, ‘Okay, now we race and I don’t care if I am younger than you.’”

In 1990 Marsal and the French team – minus a temporarily retired Longo – arrived in Japan one week before the Worlds. “We arrived and tried to figure out where we were,” she recalls. “We had to teach [the hotel staff] how to cook for us because they wanted to feed us Japanese food. We taught them how to do mashed potatoes because the first time they tried to cook it they [mashed] the raw potatoes first. We were like, no, there is an easier way!”

The aftermath of her win was hard. Photographers and press arrived unannounced at her parents’ home, demanding photo sessions and interviews when all Marsal wanted to do was return to normal life. The family unwittingly signed an exclusive contract with one photography agency before agreeing to photos with a competing company, completely unaware that they were breaching anything. “We were like, ‘What? Really? We did that?’” remembers Marsal. “It was difficult for all the family. Everyone suffered.”

Marsal also struggled with the increased expectation her successful 1990 brought. “[The media] wanted me to defend that jersey, to perform even better. How can you want to perform even better than that season? It’s impossible,” she says. “When I was second at the Tour de l’Aude in 1991, immediately it was: ‘Marsal second!’ I was only 20 but people accepted that a race could be defined as: ‘Marsal second! Marsal defeated!’ It was very difficult.”

The result was self-doubt, which caused Marsal to push her body harder. “I was training a lot,” Marsal says before pausing. “Would you call it an eating disorder now? I don’t know, but I was really trying to get skinnier and skinnier and I touched the line where you can talk about anorexia. Everything became too much and my body just went, ‘Arghh, stop.’” When Marsal finished 27th at the 1991 Worlds in Stuttgart she finally felt able to breathe again. “I was almost relieved to lose the jersey,” she reflects. “It’s incredible to say that, but that jersey weighed heavy on me. I was not equipped to deal with it. Not my family, not me. I was absolutely not ready.”

Three difficult years followed, even if her talent meant that good results still came. It wasn’t until 1995 and an Hour Record attempt that Marsal truly turned the corner. Longo had held the record for six years and, backed by the French carbon wheel and frame manufacturer Corima, Marsal set about trying to break it, training throughout the winter on the outdoor velodrome in the Provençal town of Hyères and with the Mistral wind blowing strongly. “I threw myself into it and I beat Jeannie’s record when no-one, absolutely no-one, except one of my best friends, believed that I could do it,” Marsal says. “Even the guy who was doing my training said to Corima the day before, ‘I want to prepare you. She is not going to beat it.’ But the magical day happened, I beat that record, and that was the turning point of my career.

“That Hour Record taught me things that I still use in my professional life today,” Marsal continues. “To focus on the Hour was a learning process of understanding where your limits are, how much further you can go, how you can trick the mind to go through periods of discomfort. Some riders just get stuck in that pain zone but if you can manage to get through that, everything flows. I learned there is a zone [beyond that] which you can step into.” 

Marsal continued to ride professionally until 2004, taking another two podium places at the Worlds: second in 1995 in Colombia and third in 1997 in San Sebastián, Spain.

Saturday October 15, 2016, Doha, Qatar. Twenty-six years on from Utsunomiya, a French woman is celebrating a Danish winner in the women’s road race in

Qatar. Marsal poses for photographs, celebrating Amalie Dideriksen’s World Championships-winning ride. Earlier, in a race that had been dominated by the Dutch, Marsal had directed the 20-year-old Dane to a narrow victory. Now she stands happily behind the flag of Denmark, next to the rainbow-jersey-wearing Dideriksen and her two team-mates.

Marsal had moved to Copenhagen from France in 2005 to take the position of sports director with Team S.A.T.S. When the outfit folded at the end of that season she took a degree in nutrition and health. In 2015, having moved out of the city centre with her family to Dragør, a place she describes as “a very horsey area in the middle of nowhere alongside the airport”, she was appointed coach of Denmark’s national women’s team. “It was really big for me to get that Worlds victory,” Marsal said in 2017. “We started a programme where nothing had been done for 10 years. I don’t think women’s cycling can be handled the same as men’s. You need to bring your concept and explain it and that means it is all a little bit uphill. It’s not that people were convinced of the potential of Danish women’s cycling but I kept pushing it and then all of sudden comes this kind of result. It’s sort of a relief because it means the decisions you made for two years were right. I felt as if I had won myself.”

Under Marsal’s watch the transformation in the performance of Denmark’s women was marked. In 2015 the nation was ranked 35th by the UCI; by the end of 2019 that had become seventh. But by then Marsal was no longer the national coach. In May 2019 she was called to an urgent meeting and five minutes later was leaving the federation’s building, bewildered at having just lost her job. “I still don’t understand why they needed to get rid of me so fast, so close to the Olympics,” she says. “There was no reason. I didn’t get any answers that I could understand.” Marsal trails off. “You can question the timing; you can question the reason. You can ask, aren’t they looking at the results? Even though maybe we had some conflict,” Marsal says, emphasising the ‘maybe’ in that sentence. “The results are more important so that can be fixed. I must have trodden on the toes of some people.”

Talk to Marsal and the care and development of young riders features strongly in the conversation. That is unsurprising given her experiences as a rider. “We had this crisis in the 90s,” she says. “Half of the peloton were anorexic. We had a lot of the best athletes suffering by being too skinny. [Today] the way you structure your nutrition can be done so you reach the same result but without destroying your body and punishing yourself.”

For 2020 Marsal will be working as sports director for Team Ciclotel, a Belgian outfit embarking on its debut season. Marsal is excited by the prospect of helping the team develop. “What is interesting is to work with girls who really want it, to work with girls that really need your support and your experience and want to grab everything,” she concludes. “To help a rider achieve their goal, to feel you can have an influence and impact on their development, is really satisfying.”

This article was taken from Procycling magazine issue 265, February 2020.

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