To Marianne Vos, an extended break from training and racing in 2015 was worse than any suffering she experienced in the myriad road, track, and cyclocross events she dominated over the years. The Dutch woman was all-conquering, winning rainbow jerseys in all three disciplines. Now, after a lost season in 2015, due to injuries, she’s returned to the pro peloton, racing Sunday at Drentse Acht van Westerveld.
Vos, 28, finished a modest 10th place at the UCI 1.2-ranked event in the northeast of her native Netherlands. Her presence in the winning break showed that her racing instinct was not dimmed, but her legs still need to catch up. Vos worked to set up her Rabo – Liv teammate, Anouska Koster, for third, admitting she lacked the form for the sprint.
The 2015 lay-off would have been a test for anyone, let alone a woman so competitive. Doubt has crept in: “I have had moments when I thought it would be really difficult,” Vos told VeloNews. “I’m not sure I can get back to the level I have been before, but on the other hand, I at least wanted to try. I have had my doubts, I still do of course, but most of all, I was positive.”
The last time Vos was competitive on the road was during the 2014 season when she amassed 22 wins in 46 race days, including her third general classification victory at the sport’s toughest event, the 10-stage Giro d’Italia Femminile. However, in that year’s world championship road race, she appeared to lack confidence and eventually lost her rainbow jersey to Pauline Ferrand-Prévot.
Winter injury saw her unable to add to her haul of seven ‘cross world titles, again losing her jersey to Ferrand-Prévot and, despite an extended period without racing, she could not return to competitiveness, eventually writing off the 2015 season.
The intervening year has seen a period of rest and recovery; training only began in earnest last fall. The time off in itself was a challenge for the multiple world champion, “I love to be outside and feel the wind, so I went for walks and little spins, but not the tiring stuff, and that was difficult because I want to push my limits and hurt myself. I want to suffer, and the most important suffering was resting.
“I have to be really careful. As a top athlete you have to push your limits sometimes, but I have to balance this, even as a pro athlete your health is not for granted. I will be relaxed at the moment that is possible and more focused on the moments that are necessary.” The focus also means Vos will race less ‘cross next year. “I’m not really thinking about that now, but I want to try a combination, but it won’t be a full season, I will do some races if it is possible.”
She also hints that her role as the face of women’s cycling, a political leader, contributed to her extended absence. “I positioned myself in that role, and it was my own choice. Have I ever regretted it? Yes, because I don’t feel comfortable in that place; it costs energy to be in that place. On the other hand, it has brought me a lot and brought the sport further, so I think I could have done things differently, but you can’t change it now.”
For the next few weeks, Vos will race smaller events and is unlikely to compete at the upcoming Women’s WorldTour stops. “It is important to take those little steps. We have a strong team, so it’s not that I want to take someone’s place on the team, and I know I need more time. I’m going to suffer, and I’m going to have fun,” she said.
Vos’s pure love of the sport and the responsibility that came with her dominance seem to have been her downfall. Her 10th place on Sunday is only a first toe in the water. It remains to be seen whether one of the world’s greatest ever cyclists can return to past glories.
Just don’t be surprised if she does.