The professional cycling world patiently awaited the return of Marianne Vos while she took ten months off, struggling to recover from injuries and over training. After dominating the sport for some five years, her absence was an astounding, irreplaceable void in the women's peloton.
Her fans, teammates and rivals watched as she began what was dubbed her "comeback season" late this spring. She started slow, almost under the radar, but her trajectory has culminated with her first Women's WorldTour stage win at the Tour of California in May. She's still far from the fierce athlete of seasons past, but she has faith in herself, that she will once again be the world-dominant Marianne Vos that the cycling community craves to watch at races.
In an exclusive interview with Cyclingnews, the 12-time multiple-discipline world champion spoke about the ups and downs of her comeback and her realistic chances of defending the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
It seems long ago when a hamstring injury forced Vos to the sidelines at the Dutch national cyclo-cross championships at the beginning of January 2015, and then ended her six-year reign as cyclo-cross world champion. Her consistent display of strength over the years made it hard for anyone to suspect the seriousness of her injury or underlying health issues, at that time. But what started out as a typical muscle tear turned out to be much worse.
She briefly returned to road racing for two races in April and May. However, Rabo Liv announced last June that Vos would not return to road racing and that she had written off her 2015 goals. Vos later described her health problems and tired feelings as a sign of being over trained, and that her recovery process would be complicated. During that time, she maintained that she would return in 2016 with an eye on the Olympic Games in Rio. She took a cautious approach to her recovery; resting and paying close attention to her daily activities and diet.
"The process had its ups and downs," Vos told Cyclingnews in a phone interview. "The hard part was feeling that I was getting better, but then going down again, so I had those ups and downs. For me, that was pretty hard. But it was encouraging that there were improvements along the way, and I had faith, and I would try to do as best I could at the moment."
Her comeback-day came, later than scheduled, at the Drentse Acht van Westerveld in mid-March, where she placed 10th, and then the Pajot Hills Classic at the end of March. She won. It was a sprint, beating Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans) and Lotta Lepisto (Cervelo Bigla). That success was a good start, and a sign of good things to come, but what was most important to Vos was the fact that she was back in her natural environment, surrounded by familiar faces, teammates and competition.
"I started the season a little late, even though it was March, so most of the riders had done a spring campaign," Vos said. "I wanted to start well, but I also wanted to start racing. I knew that I was not at my top level but that I was at the level that I needed to be, to be able to make a difference in the races. My results were immediately quite good, and I felt better and better each race. Just being at the races again has helped me to get better and stronger.
"I had felt a little bit lost [during her recovery] because I was out of the scene and when you come back you realise how beautiful this life [as a professional athlete] really is. Also, being able to train, race, feel yourself get better every day, was a positive experience for me. I was really happy to get back into my normal routine again, to get back to my team, to build up and train for races. That is what I do."
Vos went on to race Ronde van Gelderland (4th), Women's WorldTour La Fleche Wallonne (9th) and Dwars door de Westhoek (9th). She was then second in the prologue at Elsy Jacobs and won Rabobank 7-Dorpenomloop Aalburg. She travelled to the US to compete in the Women's Tour of California, the first stage race on the WorldTour, where she won stage 3 in Santa Rosa and placed fourth overall. She was also fourth at Boels Rental Hills Classic and recently won Keukens van Lommel Ladies Classic.
"Of course, I was a little nervous for my first races because I knew that I wasn't in the shape that I had before but I was not thinking too much of what other people thought of me," Vos said. "I wanted to try my best, and I knew ten months without racing, it would be normal to have some nervousness. I was mostly looking forward to it, but also a little bit nervous.
"The good thing was that I really felt at home. Right away from the first race, everyone was welcoming me back to the bunch, and that gave me a really good atmosphere. I knew that the only thing I could do was to try my best. I knew that I had a long way to go, and I still do now, but I knew I was capable of doing some good riding, and being there for the team."
Even Vos acknowledged that she still has a long way to go to becoming the best in the world again. Some reports have questioned whether she is capable of returning to her highest level of form, as it was before her injury, especially in time for the Olympic Games, where she is the defending champion having won the gold medal in London in 2012. Vos admitted that she has often doubted herself, too, but that she continues to believe that she will return as the world's top rider.
"Of course, I question myself," Vos said. "Every athlete has doubts. When I was off for so long and then started training again, it didn't go as I had planned with how my body responded to training and how it responded to rest. It was hard to find a balance and get to know my body again after being off for so long because of being over trained. I didn't know how my body would respond to what was normal to me before. I used to need specific training, specific nutrition, specific rest, and then I'd be good, but it didn't work out like that this time, so I had to find a new balance.
"Of course, you get some doubts when it doesn't work out. I'm still trying to get there, but one thing that I know is that I love competition, and I am still improving. I don't know what I have to base this on, but I still have faith that I can return to the top, even though it might take more time."
The landscape of the women's peloton has changed in the ten months that Vos has been absent. There is the new Women's WorldTour (which is new for everyone). Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans) has made impressive strides in her performances and has climbed to the top of women's racing. She won the road race title at the World Championships in Richmond last September, and while wearing her new world champion's jersey she has dominated the spring season with victories at three WorldTour races: Strade Bianche, Trofeo Alfredo Binda-Comune di Cittiglio, and Tour of Flanders. She also won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Boels Rental Hills Classic.
Armitstead isn't the only success story, her teammates Chantal Blaak and Guarnier have also had their share of success. Blaak won Ronde van Drenthe and Gent-Wevelgem, and Guarnier has been on a winning streak of her own, securing the overall title at the Tour of California and Philadelphia International Cycling Classic. The US road champion also has a commanding lead of the Women's WorldTour. Regular faces on the podiums are Vos' Rabo Liv teammate Anna van der Breggen, who won La Fleche Wallonne, UCI world ranking leader Emma Johansson and Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5), UCI Hour Record holder Evelyn Stevens, among others.
"These names aren't new to me, so it's not that much of a change, but yes, Armitstead and others are riding really well, but it's not a big, big change," Vos said. "The teams have gotten more and more professional; we have some great new races on the calendar with the WorldTour. For me, it is great to see the level getting higher and higher."
Olympics: 'At the moment I'm capable of helping the team, but I'm not good enough to make any difference. But I'm going to try to get there.'
Since her comeback, Vos has been vocal about her goals of competing in the Olympic Games in Rio. The Dutch federation announced the women's road team to include Vos, Van der Breggen, Ellen Van Dijk and Annemiek Van Vleuten, with Blaak as the first reserve.
Some questioned the Dutch national coach Johan Lammerts' selection, particularly his decision to exclude Blaak, who had an outstanding spring campaign that included two WorldTour victories.
In an interview with Cyclingnews, Lammerts defended his selection saying, "We match the qualities of the riders to the demands of the race course. If you study the race course, you will know that the course is very demanding with respect to climbing. All four riders will have a role inside the team [for the Olympic Games]."
The road race course in Rio is certainly challenging and includes a roughly nine-kilometre climb toward the finish, followed by a technical descent and some flatter sections to the finish line.
"The [national] team went last year and gave me some good information on the race," Vos said. "It's really hard, and that's all I know. If it's hard, it makes it easy to race because the best riders will be in front. There will be a lot of suffering. It's also important that, without mechanicals or crashes, we will have the best women in the world racing for the gold medal."
There are only five nations that have secured the maximum of four riders for the women's road race: Netherlands, USA, Germany, Italy and Australia. The remaining 33 nations will start with three riders or less per team. Vos acknowledged the strangeness of a race that has a mixed number of athletes per team, and that only includes 67 riders in total on the start line. However, given the difficulty of the course, she believes tactics could play less of a role and that only the strongest riders will be there during the final segment of the road race. A stark contrast to the road race she won at the Olympics in London, four years earlier.
"The difference between London and Rio: London was not too selective, and the rain made it pretty difficult, and it was hard to avoid a bunch sprint. In Rio, it will be really, really hard to get a bunch sprint."
Vos will next line up at the Aviva Women's Tour, the tenth round of the Women's WorldTour. She has decided to skip the 10-day Giro Rosa in July, a race she has won three times, for fear not being able to recover in time for the Olympic Games. She has instead opted for a training camp in Italy.
"I'll go to the hills somewhere in Italy and find some nice mountains," Vos said. "No altitude because I have not responded well to altitude in the past, and I don't want to take the risk to go to altitude now before Rio. I'll have a good training block, and that will be my last preparation for the Olympics."
Asked if she believes she can win a gold medal in Rio, Vos was realistic about her chances and acknowledged that her form right now is not where it needs to be to be a contender for the victory. She also explained how she currently fits into the four-woman Dutch team.
"Talking about myself is a little bit strange, but at the moment Van der Breggen is a better climber, and we can work our tactics around that.
"The question is whether there will be a sprint or one person going to the line, and so we will have to see how it goes and how the race develops. For sure Ellen and Annemiek will be there to control the race to help Anna, and eventually me if I'm there in the final.
"For me, right now, it's more important to work up until August 7, to get into better shape," she added, not excluding herself completely as a potential gold medallist.
"At the moment I'm capable of helping the team, but I'm not good enough to make any difference. But I'm going to try to get there."
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