We are in Mallorca, in a hotel room looking out over the sea, without the usual socks and underwear strewn over the floor, not even a lipstick on the table beside the bed. “I can’t handle a mess,” she says. “You’re a perfectionist then?” I laugh. My impression of her shifts. “So what if I am?” Marianne replies, her eyes closed to the evening sun. Her voice slips back into the voice-over which has been playing in my head.
It is the spring of 2012. Two young women share a hotel room, as they always do when they are away at training camp. Today was like every day on the island—wake up, get dressed, push through the old folks down at the breakfast buffet, eat, brush your teeth, fill up your bidons, then get on the bike for a long ride in the sunshine to prepare for the classics. On the bike, she didn’t say anything. She was waiting until afterwards, when they would be back at the hotel, in the room, on the balcony where we are now, with the sun falling, looking out over the sea. She swallowed, set her glass down on the table, turned to Marianne and said: “Do you know what you are doing to yourself?”
Annemiek van Vleuten was the first to bring it up. Jeroen Blijlevens had mentioned it too, but Annemiek was the one who made her face it directly. In the silence that fell, Marianne looked out over the glimmering water and realised this was the question she had been waiting for, which she hadn’t dared to ask herself. “You aren’t yourself anymore,” Annemiek said, with a concerned look in her eyes, a note of relief in her voice. The painful silence had been broken. “How happy are you?” she asked.
Marianne held her breath, bowed her head, and sighed, deflating the balloon in her chest. She had felt it herself; the skinnier she got, the unhappier she became. Her hormones were shot. She was moody. Laughter had given way to tantrums. At home, they never spoke about emotions. They were close in the Vos family, but no one ever shared their feelings.
“What do you really want?” she heard Annemiek ask. At that moment, nothing was more important than the Olympic Games. The Olympics were more important than happiness. “Something inside wants gold,” Marianne explains to me, without looking up. Her eyes are focused somewhere off in the distance. Her mouth trembles. “It all comes down to ambition.”
I catch her in my gaze, amazed that the most beautiful pair of eyes— which shimmer like crystal water— can burn with such fire. That her mouth— now formed into such a calm, subtle smile— can let out such wild cries, can bite down to endure such pain, when she races. Ambition creates champions, but ambition is destructive.
“I lost myself in my preparation for the Olympic Games. The satisfaction is temporary— I know that. When you wake up the day after winning the world championships, you are still Marianne. Winning a race does not necessarily make you happier. It is the road to it that counts.”
It went so quickly. Marianne Vos came, saw, and conquered, on the road, in the fields, and on the track. People began to talk about her, to judge her, to say that she was just a boring farmer’s daughter, that her hair was never right, that she was timid. “People have no idea who I am. They only see the cyclist, Marianne Vos.” Expectations grew as she became more famous and her palmares became grander. The general public expected more of her, as did those within her circle. Suddenly, she was the new Leontien van Moorsel, with even more natural talent perhaps. “It was as if everywhere I rode I was expected to win, as if it were nothing,” Marianne sighs. “Because, yeah, of course Vos will win, she has so much talent. It’s only natural. As if you win on talent alone and don’t have to do anything for it. My talent is for one-day races, championships. I am not a climber, not a time trialist. Stage racing is a different story altogether. So, I thought I would go for something you can only achieve through devotion and sacrifice. The year before the Olympics, I would go for the Giro.”
Immediately, the film begins to play in my mind. Marianne shrouded in the most beautiful pink. Of the ten stages, she would win half. She climbed with the climbers, skinny women on tiny bikes, over the high mountain passes. One after the other, they were dropped. Marianne: “That didn’t come naturally. To ride with the best in the high mountains, I wanted to lose weight. I could never follow the real climbers in previous years. I thought I should weigh 57 kilos. To get there I would have to lose four kilos.”
The story sounds familiar. Leontien van Moorsel wanted to win the Tour Feminin. To do so, she had to lose her feminine figure. She trained and trained, starved herself, won the Tour, became World Champion, and was the unhappiest woman on earth. She became weaker, collapsed, and quit, an emotional wreck with the rainbow jersey still on her shoulders. “I designed a diet for myself,” Marianne tells me. “I ate pasta and bread, but always took in less energy than I spent in training. It worked. Except, I didn’t stop at 57 kilos, nor at 56. After the Giro, I continued, because losing weight had brought me success. On Mallorca, I weighed 51 kilos. I had gone way too far. I trained much harder, but no longer recovered. My blood values were all bad.”
“You know how it works, eh,” I say.
A small nod: “Yeah, but as long as you are successful, no one says anything. You don’t really understand it yourself.”
“That was the same with Leontien,” I say, asking myself if the drive to win and happiness are mutually opposed. How can you find fault with a champion?
“Leontien went much farther than I did. She was off the map for years. With me, it was anorexia athletica. I turned the tide just in time. Annemiek was crucial for me. If I hadn’t started eating differently after Mallorca, I would have been too weak to race at the Olympics in London.” In a blink, she is back in Mallorca, staring over the golden surface of the sea. She knew then, she could feel it.
November 2007. Marianne was tired, overtrained they called it. She needed rest. In the south of France, she began riding again, to prepare for the cyclocross season. Her wheels spun along unknown paths, beside peaceful vineyards, winding through villages abandoned by the tourists, on the road towards the vague shadow which loomed out of nowhere, off in the distance. The trees had lost their golden colour. Winter was arriving and the mountain didn’t know her happiness yet.
Marianne points out a path up onto the dyke. She turns on. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her hands holding her brake levers lightly while her calves dance down below. She is just as I know her from television. Her derailleur glides effortlessly from cog to cog. I shift as well, with the heavy click of old Campagnolo. The dyke offers a view out across a wide sweep of water. Great schools of ships float out to sea. Behind us, the sun is falling. A windmill rises off in the distance. There is always a church tower somewhere, and water, and wind. “If I don’t win, I don’t want to say I have lost,” she says, riding easily beside me. “Just, listen to me,” she laughs. “A couple of years ago, I never could have said that.”
Six years ago, I spoke to her for the first time, in the canteen at the Radboud University. She was a star in the firmament then, still a little girl, not yet a young woman. She came out of the train wearing a KNWU backpack, with a magazine in her hand. The world was open to her. She spoke with the obviousness and playfulness you often see in talented twenty somethings. She trained on feeling, without following a programme, just her intuition. The ambition was always there. After a wasted chance at a race in Italy, she rolled through the crowds, past the cars, silent but boiling with anger. She threw herself off of her bike and sat down on the curb, trembling. Someone called her name. She pretended she hadn’t heard, stood up, and locked herself in the camper.
Now, she pedals beside me, drinking from her bidon. She laughs: “I can handle it better now. Certainly, when I’ve done everything I could, when I’ve gotten the best out of myself, and someone is, at that moment, just better, then I have more peace with myself.” The greatest victories are victories over one’s self.
The road brings us through the pastures of Altena. We overtake a man on a racing bike. He sees the rainbow jersey and settles onto our wheels. We slow down. He keeps riding behind us. Marianne shrugs. The Bergse Maas glistens in her glasses. She rises out of the saddle and dances a couple of powerful steps. I think of Bradley Wiggins, the man who has won everything he is capable of. And her—the woman with so many rainbow jerseys?
“In your dreams, what do you still want to achieve?” I ask.
“I want to find new dreams,” she replies, immediately.
“I want to continue to grow, to try new things. I’d also like to try focusing completely on time trialing.”
“Do it all again?”
She flashes a cheeky smile, drops her elbows slightly, and accelerates. Our tempo increases. Our companion is left behind, a tiny dot on the dyke.
A sign. Bédoin. She knows the name from stories. It is the gateway to the mountain. She didn’t need to be there, but she was anyways. Marianne looked down. One bidon would have to be enough. A left turn at the roundabout and she was climbing. The wind was cold on her cheeks. The Ventoux, she was dreaming. She rode on, climbing out of the year’s last warmth, following her desire. The mountain was permissive, did not dictate a tempo, though it resisted every turn of her pedals. She was out of food. Her bottle was empty. She blew hot breath against her fingers. Go back? Never. She doesn’t know the word ‘quit’.
We rest our bikes against the wall. A table in the sun is waiting for us. She sinks into the chair and crosses her legs, taking a sip of her cappuccino. Feeling dozy, I squint and examine her. Something about her fascinates me, something about the look in her eyes. Perhaps it is her fragility that touches me. A rainbow jersey is no armour. It offers no protection.
“It all means nothing of course, sport,” Marianne says. “Sometimes, I feel guilty about that. It is so egotistical. I mean: what do you actually do for others? What do I mean to other people? I wanted to be a doctor. Shortly after we spoke at the university, I dropped out. I had been studying biomedical science. At first, I tried to continue at the Open University, studying psychology, but I couldn’t manage. After training you need to rest— rest your mind as well. I can read a novel, but studying costs so much energy. It was too much for me. I really feel guilty.”
“Guilty for being a cyclist?”
“Guilty because I haven’t done anything with my other talents, because I am only an athlete. I think it is important to do something for others in life. Cycling is all about me.”
“And that’s not okay?”
“How you are as a person is much more important than winning some race or a rainbow jersey. Fair play comes before winning for me. I can put sport into perspective.”
“Except during the last kilometre,” I say.
“Yeah, except during the last kilometre.”
“Does your faith have something to do with it?”
“Certainly, I was brought up as a Protestant. Not that I go to church, but it is something I think about every day. I am absolutely not materialistic. In fact, I think the world is far too materialistic.”
“So you believe in God?”
“Who is that then?”
“Someone who listens to me, who sees me, who can always give me direction — a father in heaven, though I have no personified image of Him.”
“Do you pray then?”
“Yes, before eating, and in the evening before I go to sleep. Then, I think about the day, set myself at peace. You need to create your own silence, otherwise you are always chasing, you forget what is important. That still happens to me sometimes, of course.”
“And God listens to you?”
“How is it seen within the team?”
“It is completely normal. Everyone has their own way of life. I’m not the only one in the team who wants to pray, eh.”
She looks at me, with a shy smile.
“Would you like to get married? Have children?” I hear myself ask.
“And would you bring them up with your faith?”
“Yes, it is a good foundation for life. It gives you peace and trust.”
“To have children, you need a man…”
Marianne sets her coffee cup back on the table. My eyes glance over to our bikes, to her helmet with its rainbow stripes resting on her handlebars. “Technically,” she winks.
Without speaking, I pick up my glass, then continue: “On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be much that is more pointless than racing bikes.”
“I thought so too, at first. But in the past few years, I’ve come to realise that my performances do touch people, that I do inspire people, and bring joy to them. That realisation really helped me accept myself as an athlete.”
“And as a person? Can you accept yourself as Marianne Vos?”
“Yes. Now, I can be myself, the racer, the woman I am. I am nice — I can see that now. I’m not just a woman who can ride fast, who you can only talk about cycling with. I have many interests. I read books, novels, biographies of Mohammed Ali, Ghandi, Mandella— those give me great pleasure.
“Happiness doesn’t depend on sport or how I perform. I realised that after the Olympics in London. I achieved everything I had lived for for months, even years. What should I do? Staying the same doesn’t interest me. On the road, on the track, I can only try to stay at the same level. To make big improvements, I need to look to other disciplines. What should I do? Go mountain biking? Stop and become a doctor?
“Find a new dream.”
“Yes, and joy in my new dream. I have to find joy in what I do and share that with others. Maybe, that means doing a clinic where I inspire others to get the best out of themselves on the bike.”
“Matthew,” I mumble, surprised at my knowledge of the Bible. She gives me a sideways glance. “Developing talent, I mean,” I add.
Marianne runs her hand through her hair. “To find your own talent in life, and to live from your talent is a victory. You need to accept yourself. That is happiness. That is where satisfaction lies, in yourself. No rainbow jersey or gold medal can beat that.”
When did you experience real inner happiness? In London? After the world championships in Valkenburg?
“No. When no one was around, after an epic solo.”
She ducked under the barrier by the chalet. Her windbreaker could no longer hold out the freezing air. She suffered as only a cyclist on Ventoux can suffer. Her eyes searched for the top, the white tower, as white as the walls of snow by the side of the road. “If only I had put my gloves on, my overshoes. If only I hadn’t…” And still, she found happiness, out there alone on the mountain. No one else knew the salvation that occurred on those slopes. Time slowed down. Another corner, “there it was,” she said later. There, the ultimate satisfaction. Riding for the sake of riding, to be alone, to suffer, to conquer, without cameras, without the photographers’ blinding flashes, never to be in tomorrow’s papers, without the reverberating noise of a radio or a television on a table surrounded by people who only mention her name when there is something to gain. Forget the people, Marianne. Forget their judgements, their endless commentary. Take their cheers with a grain of salt. Do you not see that your victories make their lives a little more bearable? Only the wind, Marianne. Only the breath of the great Ventoux. He knows. She took a quick photo on the top, with trembling hands. She was there.