Marianne Vos is one of the most decorated cyclists to ever live. There’s not enough space here to include her complete palmarès, which encompasses World Championships in a variety of disciplines, Olympic medals, and Monuments. Here she talks to us about her nomination for the title Queen of Pain, Alfonsina Strada, and her ideas for the growth of women’s cycling.
Who is your King or Queen of Pain?
There are so many people to choose from, and so many names in cycling that deserve this honour, but if I have to choose then I will name Alfonsina Strada as my Queen of Pain. She achieved so much in her time, but she’s most well known for being the first woman to ride the Giro d’Italia.
That was in 1924, when it was rare for a woman to even ride a bike, let alone take part in a Grand Tour. There are so many good details in her story, like how she asked for a bike for her wedding present and how the race organisers offered her a huge sum of money when she threatened to abandon – the publicity she generated was just too good.
That year, the Giro covered 3,600km, which is longer than this year’s race. She crashed hard in one of the race’s most difficult stages and finished outside of the time limit. But still, she kept going. She arrived in Milan a hero, surviving the race when two thirds of the men’s peloton couldn’t.
How did people react to Strada riding the Giro?
As you might expect, some people reacted horribly to a woman competing in a men’s race – they called her ‘a devil in a dress’. What’s special about her is that she carried on despite this; she took her opportunity and rode the race despite the negativity. It was an amazing physical achievement, of course, but also an amazing mental achievement.
To do this, I think, requires a special passion for cycling. She was never invited back to the Giro, which is a shame, but she had a long career. She rode men’s races, she raced in the Tour Féminin, she set records on the track. She showed what is possible for women in this sport, and I think this is especially important when you think about the changes of the last few years.
What has been the best development in women’s cycling during your career?
I just finished the women’s Tour of Britain, part of the growth of the sport since the London Olympics. It was a great showcase for women’s cycling, and now we know that it’s time to bring the sport to more people. We have the chance to inspire riders, and we shouldn’t let go of that.
What are your ambitions for the coming years?
As for my ambitions, well, I’ve already got a cabinet full of medals and now I want to be a part of the sport’s growth, particularly on the women’s side of the sport. I love racing my bike, obviously, and I’m ready for another year of aggressive racing with my team, Rabobank-Liv.
We saw you announce your ‘roadtrip’ on Twitter, how did it go?
It was fantastic. I sent out a tweet asking who would like to come ride with me in Lanzarote. It was a chance for six women to ride bikes, have fun and learn from each other. We stayed in Barcarola, on east side of the island, and enjoyed the food and the weather and the fantastic riding. Some nights I would stay out after the group ride to get in a little extra training, but the best part of the trip was riding in a group and learning about each other’s stories.
Being an athlete is tough, sure, but hearing what other people deal with in their lives puts things in to perspective. It makes me want to go out and ride more.
Cycling has done so much for me. When I first started racing I was a bit quiet, a bit shy, and I found it hard to speak out in team meetings. Cycling made me express myself. I learned the skills I need to lead the team, and now I’m learning how to teach these skills to my younger team-mates. Like at this year’s Flèche Wallonne Féminine, I knew I didn’t have the strength to win, so I worked for the team as a domestique. My team-mate, Ferrand Prévot, won because she wasn’t afraid to dedicate herself to winning and we weren’t afraid to back her efforts.
What inspires you?
If I’m ever in need of inspiration, I think of all the riders who came before me and what they have made possible, and what we can do for the riders who will come after us.