Editor’s note: The January 2013 issue of Velo magazine, which is on newsstands now, is our 25th annual awards issue. Our 2012 Cyclist of the Year was announced on November 29; we’ll be rolling out various other award winners throughout the month of December.
Meet the new boss
Her brother and father streaked by. She took note, and decided that she’d like to race bikes, too. Marianne Vos was five.
Her father went and bought the smallest bike he could find. It was still too big, but the pint-sized Vos could manage, and she began riding at the local club. “Immediately,” she said, “I liked the speed.” On Tuesday and Thursday evenings after school, Vos trained, if that’s even possible for six-year-olds. Cycling was her first love, she would later say. At age seven, Vos was allowed to race, and she used the same bike for road and cyclocross.
A seven-year-old Marianne Vos, running through a field with the smallest bike her father could find. Looking back, it makes perfect sense.
Her Dutch family summered at the Tour de France, and Vos’ best memories are from l’Alpe d’Huez, where she’d watch the climbers slither past, gleaming under a July sun. “To be there, to be part of that big event, and wait for the riders, to hear the helicopters coming and feel the thrill when the riders come up…” she told Velo, her usually calm voice ringing.
Vos would stake out team hotels for autographs. It’s charming to think about it now — riders signing autographs for a little girl who would go on to achieve as much or more than most professionals could ever dream of.
When she was just 19, Vos won the UCI world road championship, and the world cyclocross title. She was a shocking talent then, and remains so now, a rider so gifted that she is virtually unrivaled in the women’s peloton — and perhaps in the sport of cycling as a whole.
True, Eddy Merckx is the standard by which all pro bike racers will forever be held to; on the road he won grand tours and classics, field sprints and summit finishes, and on the track he won 17 six-day races and held the hour record. But a look at the 2012 women’s road season reveals a startling display of Vos’ dominance, and a Merckxian ability to win races on any terrain.
In 2012 alone, Vos won the world cyclocross championship, five stages and the overall at the Giro Donne, the Olympic road race, the World Cup overall title, and the world road championship. She won the nine-event women’s road World Cup series, her fourth title, even though she skipped three events; she won three of the six races she started, and finished second at another. Of the six World Cup races she entered, she never finished worse than third.
All told, the 25-year-old has collected nine world championship titles across cyclocross, road, and track. (She also holds the dubious distinction of finishing second in the world road championship for five straight years, from 2007 to 2011.) Flatly, there is no one like her, man or woman, who has ever pinned on a number; Merckx was not this accomplished at 25. Vos plans on racing mountain bikes again next season, and there is no reason to think she cannot win those races as well.
She’s the sort of talent — so brilliant and pulsing — that can take something she uses for training and parlay it into a world championship. Like track riding. Vos has good speed and power, and she likes to compete in the winter to stay sharp. It turns out she’s one of the best track riders in the world. After just 10 months, she was the 2008 Olympic champion in the points race. That’s how gifted, and how driven, she really is: 10 months, Olympic champion.
“I just love the competition too much. I’m not tired of racing all the disciplines,” she said. “You need the bike handling skills from cyclocross and track, and the speed of the road. Of course, you have to set goals and make a proper plan. And it didn’t always work fantastic, but most of the time you can have a proper plan.”
Proper dominance is the plan. Vos doesn’t have a favorite discipline. It’s probably easier to like them all when you can win across the spectrum.
“It’s the combination of the different disciplines that’s so much fun,” she said. “I like the speed and the tactics of the points race, and I like the explosiveness and the honesty of a cyclocross race, but I also like the suffering and the team tactics in a road race.”