The Netherlands' Marianne Vos will attempt to secure a fourth world title in the elite women's road race at the UCI Road World Championships in Yorkshire on Saturday. It's been six years since she last won a world title on the road, and even though she's had a turbulent few years in between, she has steadily risen back to her best form.
Vos told a small group of reporters on the eve of the event that the Classics-style course suits her characteristics and that she's still hungry to win the rainbow jersey.
"I don't think that it's specially made for me, but I have to agree that it should suit me well," Vos said. "It suits my specialty, and the characteristics are good for me, especially if you look to the local lap that is technical, and where there's no rhythm. The finishing straight is uphill, and I'm pretty happy with the course."
The women will race 150km, starting in Bradford, and travel as north as Masham in North Yorkshire before looping back south towards the three undulating finishing circuits in Harrogate. It's expected to rain, which could make the parcours dangerous, particularly the local circuits.
"The Worlds are always nervous, and, with rain, things can happen," Vos said. "Luckily, we have had a lot of rain already, and so it won't be slippery, but there is always more danger of crashing in the rain.
"It's always nervous because it's the World Championships. It's always nervous at the front, where it's dangerous, but I hope that it won't play too much of a role. You always hope that the best riders will end up in front. I think the course is hard enough to make that difference."
Vos is one of a strong eight-rider Dutch team that also includes defending champion Anna van der Breggen, Annemiek van Vleuten, Chantal Blaak, Floortje Mackaij, Lucinda Brand, Amy Pieters and Demi Vollering. Vos declined to say whether she was the outright leader, but instead pointed to the collective strength of the team.
"I'm not going to talk about the tactics in detail, but obviously we have a strong team, and we have different cards to play," she said. "We have options to go for different scenarios."
'At 19 I had nothing to lose, now I have nothing to prove'
Vos won her first elite women's road race title in Salzburg, Austria, in 2006 when she was just 19 years old. She then took five consecutive silver medals before winning the rainbow jersey on two more occasions: in Valkenburg, in the Netherlands, in 2012, and Florence, Italy, in 2013. She said every one of her titles was important.
"The first one was very special," Vos said. "The second in front of home crowds was special. The third, being not at my best, was very special. Every win is different and always special in some way. Over the years, I have managed to enjoy the process as well. It's not only about being focused on a job and winning. I'm still successful because I enjoy the journey to a championship and being at my best."
Vos, 32, said that when she won her first elite road world title 13 years ago, she never imagined having the kind of success she's had during her career. She also never thought she would have a career that lasted as long as it has.
"Not in that moment, no," Vos said. "I could never have imagined having this kind of career. Of course, I love cycling, and I wasn't thinking about ending my career at 25, but the years fly by so fast. It was 13 years ago – it's incredible. I have teammates that are nearly that age. It's gone by so fast."
Vos is still hungry to win, but she said that she handles pressure differently and views success differently.
"I'm more relaxed in terms of not having pressure on me; pressure to do something. At 19 I had nothing to lose, now I have nothing to prove.
"I'm still as eager [to win]. I was afraid that maybe after a couple of years, I'd get bored. I thought maybe I would be done with winning, but no. I believe that I have a chance."
This year, Vos has proven to be one of the most dominant riders of the season winning the Trofeo Alfredo-Binda, the Tour de Yorkshire and a stage at the OVO Energy Tour. She also secured four stage wins at the Giro Rosa, followed by victories at La Course by Le Tour de France, the Ladies Tour of Norway and this week the Tour de l'Ardeche. She said she also still finds excitement in being the best in her sport.
"The thrill of being at your best and at the highest competition, and to race for your country, being in that moment, and with that pressure, is a thrill," Vos said. "All the work you put in... Of course, you know that it can also go wrong, but that's the excitement that I'm looking for."
The thrill of making a comeback
Vos took a nearly two-year hiatus from the sport that started with a hamstring injury but morphed into a long period of having symptoms of overload and fatigue. She tried several times to get back to her top form, but, just as she felt as though she was improving, her symptoms would return.
"It took a long time," Vos said. "I had to stay calm and confident and try to stay relaxed and not give up. That has been the biggest fight – more than any race I've done."
It wasn't until the beginning of the 2017 season that Vos started to see a glimmer of her old form with high placings during the Classics and then wins at the BeNe Ladies Tour, the European Championships and the Ladies Tour of Norway. She finished the 2018 season having swept the Ladies Tour of Norway, winning all stages and the overall title. Fast forward to this year, and she has been arguably the most dominant rider of the season.
"I kept the faith that I would be able to get back to this level, steadily," Vos said. "This season, though, I could not have imagined it. It has been about patience and persistence. It took time. I kept working and kept my faith."
Vos attributed some of her success to working with her new coach, Louis Delahaije, who also coaches Mitchelton-Scott's Annemiek van Vleuten.
"He works with each us as individuals," Vos said. "I've been happy to work with him, and it's been almost a year. We make a long-term schedule, we talk about it, and it's good to work that way because we have trust and a long-term plan. He's been an important part of my success."
Beyond the Yorkshire World Championships, Vos will continue building her form with a focus on the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. She also has a contract with her CCC-Liv team until the end of 2020.