Marianne Vos has not worn a rainbow jersey in almost four years. For someone who had barely been out of one since the age of 18, that's quite something – something she's out to put right this year.
Once the overwhelmingly dominant force in women's cycling, Vos has endured a rocky few years. In 2015, she was beset by a combination of injury, illness, and pushing herself too far for too long, and was forced into an extended break from the sport.
After coming back part-way through 2016, she was good – there were the European road race and the Ladies Tour titles, among others – but it was a far cry from the dominant, cannibalistic Vos of old. Prior to 2015, she was averaging more than 20 wins per season on the road. Since her comeback, it's been more like seven.
Yet, the back end of 2018 – and indeed the start of 2019 - have seen a glimmer from the shadows, a hint that Vos might be 'back' – not just in the peloton but back to her old self.
The start of 2018 saw her out of shape during the cyclo-cross season, ill during the cobbled classics, and then out of action completely when she broke her collarbone again at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. She came back in June and there was immediate cause for encouragement, with a string of high placings at the Women's Tour and a stage win at the Giro Rosa. She then won the overall at the Ladies Tour and says things truly clicked into place as she won the Crescent Vagarda. From there she went to the Tour of Norway and won every stage. The run crossed over onto the mud, with Vos winning the World Cup series with victories in four of the nine rounds.
"The consistency at the end of the season, and also the start of the cyclo-cross season, has given me a lot of confidence and motivation. That has been the biggest win of the past year – not exactly the results themselves but more the consistent shape, the feeling of being fit and healthy and being able to do what I have in my potential," Vos says.
"The problem since 2015 is that I needed to find balance. When you don't have a strong base, things like injury or sickness have a bigger impact. It's difficult to explain. I had some good results but was still not consistent. Time was the biggest thing. I had to be patient and just keep going, build the foundations. But it's hard to stay patient as an athlete. You don't want to be patient; you always want to be focusing on your next goal. That was really a learning process, to relax and see longer term instead of focusing on the next first thing. It has been an interesting situation for me. When you're on an up, you just want to win all the time, but when you're up and down all the time, you just want a more consistent period. That's why 2018 was so special."
The problem is that, as she finds that consistency, expectations naturally rise. It once looked like Vos would never return to the peak of her powers – even she doubted as much – but those predictions are looking increasingly shaky. It's easy to forget, too, that time is hardly against her; she is still only 31.
"It's difficult to say. I think I'm close to my best but I still have a little bit to improve. I'm working hard to get that last bit out now. That's the part you can't really explain, the zone athletes talk about where everything just falls into place and instead of nearly there, it's there, and you go in a flow," Vos says.
"If you have those setbacks of course it's hard psychologically, because you don't know if it ever comes back, but now, I still had the feeling that 'OK, if I have a longer period with good training, I can reach my level again'. That's where I am and that's why I'm really motivated for 2019 now."
Vos and Worlds
With that, the colours of the rainbow are beginning to crystallise on the horizon once again. First up are the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Bogense, Denmark, where Vos will start as one of the top favourites after winning the World Cup. She will then have a break before switching her focus to the road, with a training camp in late February followed by a racing return at the Classics in March. Once she moves through the gears, the UCI Road World Championships in Yorkshire will edge towards the forefront of her mind. She knows the rolling course, liable to end in a reduced group sprint, suits her perfectly.
With a rainbow double on the mind, Cyclingnews sat down with Vos at the start of the year to discuss her relationship with the World Championships and re-live her victories. There have been 12 in total - three on the road, seven in cyclo-cross, and two on the track.
"I like the concept of a world championship. One race, and you have that rainbow jersey," Vos says.
"You could say it's not the consistent results, it doesn't say anything about being the best of the season... but it just is. To wear that jersey and show you're the world champion through a whole year, that's one of the best things we have in cycling. The rainbow jersey has always been very special during my career. I know the feeling, and it never gets boring. I want to have it again."
2006 Cyclo-cross Worlds - Zeddam
I was 18 but I'd been racing as a junior in the elite category so I wasn't new to the field. I had some experience already. It was a hard frozen circuit that day, and that was good for me. I lacked power, compared to the stronger, older women, but I had the speed, explosivity, and technique.
That day went perfectly for me. I was in a break of three with my big idols, Hanka Kupfernagel and Daphny van den Brand, so one German and one Dutch. The other two were stronger, so the only thing I could do was follow. Then Daphny had a flat tyre. Of course, I was sorry for her, but for me, that was a situation where Hanka had to do all the work. She tried to drop me and tried to keep Daphny behind, so I was in her wheel for like two laps, hanging on. I knew, once we had the bell lap, that I had a chance. If I could stay in the wheel, I knew I could outsprint her. So that was the main focus: keep the wheel.
I still remember, I was very excited, coming out of the last corner, I started my sprint, and I was faster on the line. I was really happy, but then I saw Hanka so heartbroken. My idol, who I'd just beaten. Then of course Daphne was disappointed because she might've been the best that day but she had bad luck. It was an interesting moment, I have to say.
2006 Road Worlds - Salzburg
I was a co-leader in the Dutch team with Chantal Beltman. We were both in a break of 17 that day, and I ended up twice in a break with three, with Nicole Brandli and Nicole Cooke. At one point during the race, Chantal comes to me and says 'you're the fastest from this group - you know that right?' And I said 'errr…well…errr…well, yes… I guess so.' I was in the moment so wasn't thinking about the sprint but once she said it, it sounds stupid but I felt 'yeah, there's a chance'. Also, during the season I won some races and it may sound arrogant at 19 but from that group I knew I was fast so if they didn't drop me I had a chance.
Then we made a tactic to see who attacked. I would wait, and if Chantal didn't get away, she would ride for me in the last part. It was a good tactic, then it was a perfect sprint. It was one of those moments where you don't think - you just handle it by instinct - and it worked out fantastically.
That was the second world title that year, and of course a road title is even bigger. I didn't realise what it would do to me. You get all this attention, people expect things from you, you get sponsor and media stuff. That all happened to me when I was 18 and still in school. For a shy girl, I didn't know how to handle all the attention.
Cyclo-cross Worlds - 2009-2014
The two more in Hoogerheide [2009 and 2014] were very special, racing in front of home crowds. In 2009, I was in a three-up sprint with Hanka again and with Katie Compton. The other one was my last title, in 2014. I have special memories I guess because it was the last one, until now. I hope to repeat that feeling again. That course was slippery and muddy and not exactly how I wanted it but I was still the best that day. When you really have to put every bit of effort in, and it turns out to be your day, that gives a lot of satisfaction.
In Koksijde in 2012, I really had a good season but the sand isn't really my piece of cake so I was curious to see how that would work out. For that reason, taking the world title there was very special. Racing in Louisville  with the American crowds was great. Winning with a big advantage in Tabor  was great. Each was special in its own way.
2012 Road Worlds - Valkenburg
This was a home Worlds, and what made it even more special was that, after 2006, I had been second five years in a row. Second is still a good result, I know, but being second and not wearing the rainbow jersey anymore, you really feel you lost it. Over the years there were different kinds of second places. Looking back now, I'm pretty proud of the less top results but in that moment, especially the fifth one in Copenhagen, I was so angry with myself. I started my sprint too late and got boxed in. Losing to Giorgia Bronzini was no shame, but the Dutch team was riding for me and I really felt I let them down. But I knew after the fifth, it was 2011, and I thought 'OK, next year it's 12 and everything will be all right. And I don't know why, but it happened.
After I won the Olympics… the pressure was fully on the Olympics and, when that happens, the pressure is off the Worlds. I still remember I had to really switch to race mode again after the Olympics. The week before I felt really bad, I was maybe in bed a whole week, but I felt so good that day. We had a plan with the team, and everything worked out as we wanted. We wanted to have one of our riders in the break, to keep the gap at 30 seconds, then for me to jump on the Cauberg. On the top, I was there and Anna van der Breggen was the one in the break and she pulled when I came across.
I went solo to the line, and it wasn't really relief, it was… the Olympics was more relief, because the pressure was on and the opportunity only comes once in four years. The road Worlds was just one big celebration, so I felt relaxed, I didn't make any mistakes, everyone was cheering, I had goosebumps going up the Cauberg making the decisive attack. It was a very special feeling, totally different to the Olympics.
2013 Road Worlds - Florence
Florence was totally different again. I wasn't at my best, but the course suited me well. Once again, I was in a break with Anna. That title is totally on her, actually, because she was so strong that day but I think she didn't really feel it. I have to say, for those three road world titles, of course you still have to ride, but the Dutch team played a big role.
We had the same sort of tactic that she'd attack on the longer hill and, if she didn't make that, we'd continue and I'd attack on the steeper part. I just hung in when she attacked then made my move on the final climb. I was so exhausted.
In Valkenburg, I was in control of everything, but Florence… in Dutch we have a saying that translates as 'walking on your toes', when you do so much you can't handle it. I was really, really exhausted crossing the line. The satisfaction was maybe even bigger because I had to put more effort in. I really had to put everything in.
2008 Track Worlds (Points Race) - Manchester
Manchester was pretty special. It was my first season on track. My coach back then wanted me to improve my cadence and speed and instead of doing a full cyclo-cross season, he wanted me to train on the track. I love competing, and Beijing would be the Olympics, so we said 'OK, we're going to do the Beijing round of the Track World Cup to do a recon of the road course and race on the track.' I was doing a lot of my training on the track but I didn't expect to win. I did Scratch Race and Points Race and won both. Then I qualified for the next World Cups, and if I did well I might qualify for the Olympics, but I totally screwed up the next World Cups. The only other option to qualify for the Olympcis was to win at Manchester Worlds. It was a big task, but I qualified for Worlds, then went there to Manchester and won the points race, and qualified for the Olympics. In Beijing I screwed up the road race but won the points race. That whole journey, in just a few months, was very exciting.
2011 Track Worlds (Scratch Race) - Apeldoorn
It was back home in Apeldoorn, which was very cool. After the Olympic programme there were changes to the omnium which didn't suit me that well. I tried but Kirsten Wild was much faster in the sprints so I decided to focus on the road for London 2012, but for Worlds in Apeldoorn I wanted to race there. I got the opportunity to race scratch and points. Points had always suited me best because of the intervals and it's longer. Points was first and I didn't do well, I spent the whole race behind, never in the right moves and never in the right sprints. It was the same as in Beijing, I just let go – one more chance and just give everything. That scratch race was pretty cool and I can still feel the crowds following me around the track.