Blazin' Saddles

Vos: Britain ‘way ahead’ of Netherlands for women in cycling

Blazin' Saddles

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Dutch superstar Marianne Vos returns to British soil this weekend for the Prudential RideLondon 2014, where she will take part in the Women's Grand Prix on Saturday and the amateur Surrey 100 sportive on Sunday.

Having out-sprinted Britain's Lizzie Armistead to Olympic gold on The Mall at London 2012 before winning the inaugural Women's Tour over the roads of the East Midlands and East Anglia in 2013, Vos certainly feels at home in a country still riding the crest of a wave following the Grand Depart of the Tour de France in Yorkshire.

In this exclusive Q&A with Eurosport's Blazin' Saddles, the finest cyclist of her generation talks down her chances on The Mall, reveals she loves to sing while in the saddle, and discusses both the challenges facing women's cycling and her plans for the future.

Blazin' Saddles: Hi Marianne - and welcome to sunny London...

Marianne Vos: I haven't arrived yet! I'm in the Netherlands at the moment and it's pouring with rain and quite cold. Maybe I'll be bringing the rain with me from Holland tomorrow...

BS: Having seen the forecast, I fear that's going to be the case. So, Marianne - you've won on The Mall before - with the Olympics two years ago - and recently you added a La Course victory on the Champs-Elysees to your extensive palmares. How does riding in London and Paris compare?

MV: They're two big capital cities with historic and iconic landmarks. It's fantastic to get the chance to ride in these cities because normally they're so busy and filled with cars. Thanks to the Tour de France, riding the Champs-Elysees has a great cycling history. The cycling history on the Mall is much shorter, but it has history since the Olympics - and cycling fans have good memories of these rides, and, of course, I have them myself. Racing along Buckingham Palace gives something extra to a race and to have a finish on The Mall gives you extra motivation. It's smoother than the Champs-Elysees and wider - fantastic to race on. And there are no cobbles and it's not an uphill finish like in Paris.

BS: Being the Olympic champion and very much in form, would you say you were the big favourite for the Prudential Women's Grand Prix on Saturday?

MV: Definitely not - I wouldn't go as far as to say that. There are other big names up there. For La Course the whole world was watching, and this Saturday, with the BBC covering the race, it will be a fantastic stage for us women professional riders to show the beauty of women's cycling. It's fantastic that there are so many big names. Laura Trott won last year and is very good at this kind of racing. She will be very tough to beat. I think Lizzie [Armitstead] definitely wants to win. For sure, she has very good motivation after the Commonwealth Games. She's been in great shape all year but had some bad luck [crashing in La Course]. But now we're back to the same setting of the London Olympics, where she got silver. So, yeah, she's going to want to beat me this time. If [Trott's team-mate] Giorgia Bronzini is there then it will be even more difficult because they will have two cards to play. That will make it even more interesting - can they gamble a little bit with Giorgia in the sprint or will they play the card of Laura, who has beaten me twice on the world championships? The spectators will be a big, happy crowd if that happens I think.

BS: Do you think bad weather could be a factor?

MV: I'm from Holland and I'm used to rain. But Lizzie Armitstead is used to rain, too, and she would love it to be terrible weather. We are used to rain on the Mall - it was pouring in the Olympics - and if it's the same then we'll have flashbacks to 2012. But for the event and spectators, I hope it will be better - at least a bit dry.

BS: You were last over here for the Women's Tour in May. What do you find special about racing in the UK?

MV: The fantastic atmosphere and the passion for cycling. Road cycling might be a young sport in Great Britain but people are really, really enthusiastic and it gives you a special feeling. It's not only men's cycling that the fans find interesting, just cycling in general - no matter whether it's men or women. In some more traditional cycling countries, we have a bit of trouble with that, so it feels fantastic to race in England with all the enthusiastic reactions. You get extra motivated yourself to race hard and show the beauty of cycling. I watched some of the Grand Depart from Yorkshire while we were riding the Giro Rosa and it was impressive. I've never seen such a thing before. The Tour has big crowds - but never like this. You can see just how much it's booming in England.

BS: Are you not worried of people in the crowds getting over-excited and taking selfies?

MV: There can be crowd issues everywhere in cycling. But it's a good thing for cycling that it's so accessible for spectators. That's why it's so popular - because fans can get close to the road and the race. But you also have to be aware of the dangers. Fans must be aware that we need the whole road and that we ride fast - and I think the fans learned some lessons during the Tour.

MV: You're only 27 years old and have a bright future ahead. But Bernard Hinault famously set a cap on his career when he reached 30. Do you have a similar exit strategy lined up?

BS: I haven't set a cap because I'm just passionate about the sport and want to do it as long as I feel good and feel motivated, as long as I'm healthy and continue to be good enough to beat the competition. I don't know how long that will be. But first I just see it year by year. At the moment, I'm not looking beyond the 2016 Olympics in Rio. I won't go back to the track in Brazil. I don't think the time trial suits me but it depends on how it goes. But the road race, as reigning Olympic champion, I'm going to try my best.

BS: You mentioned motivation just there - when you're so dominant in so many disciplines, just how do you keep your motivation high?

MV: On the sporting side, I've won a lot and there aren't many races I'm missing on my palmares. That's a pleasant thing. There's no pressure for me to win, just a desire to continue winning. It's a good feeling. Since the Olympics, things changed: there's no 'have-to'; now it's just 'want-to'. And I still love cycling and I love the competition. Sure, you have to keep on working and improving yourself. And it certainly helps that there are new events like the Women's Tour, like La Course, like this Saturday, the Prudential RideLondon. With new events comes new motivation. We have to work on the grassroots of cycling. In England the the States it's ok but it's something we have to work on internationally. It would be fantastic to have something like the women's Tour de France back. And not just with the Tour. I'd love to see more combinations with men's races. It would be great to have a more balanced calendar and to share the attention with the men's races so that we can use it as a boost and showcase for women's cycling. In England, it's way ahead of the traditional cycling countries - such as the one I live in.

BS: England is also home of the Wimbledon tennis championships, which famously pays out the same prize money to the men and the women. Is this something women's cycling should strive for?

MV: In some races we already have equal prize money. But it's a process. We have to show the value first. Of course we want to have the same stage as the men, but we need to build it step by step. I think in a few years it will be better. We have to take the example of tennis and athletics. More combinations of men's and women's races, and organisations with men's teams, will help grow women's cycling.

BS: What do you say to the people who make flippant remarks about you racing with the men?

MV: There are still physical differences between men and women. The level of the field in women's cycling is still high enough for me to have to work hard to stay at the top. I still have my struggles. There's no question of racing with the men. You don't see it in other sports so why should we? But sometimes I train with guys in Holland, and there are amateur races that are combined which are fun to do.

BS: With women's cycling trying to attract sponsors and grow, does it help that there's a huge superstar like you or is it a hindrance - a bit like when Sebastian Vettel dominated Formula 1 for so long?

MV: Like in all sports you need superstars and people whom fans can identify with. If you look at Laura Trott or Lizzie Armitstead - they're pushing the sport to a higher level. They are the famous superstars that children look up to and that motivate and inspire people to get on the bike. Sure, maybe people like to cheer for the underdog, but to have an underdog you have to have riders who are winning. Too much dominance might not be so good. But if people actually see the races - watch me, Lizzie and Laura racing - then they know that we have to work hard, and they appreciate it.

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BS: Do you get more satisfaction from a race you really have to win.

MV: For sure. The satisfaction is way bigger if it's a struggle or if the competition is really hard and you have to fight for it. It's always good to have rivalries and battles between riders.

BS: When you hit your 30s would you ever be tempted to take up something like, say, triathlon, or perhaps target the Winter Olympics with your previous hobby of speed skating?

MV: I like swimming and I like some running, but I think I should stay with the bike and stick with just cycling. I still do speed skating, if there's ice on the rivers, but I have enough challenges in cycling to think about taking up other sports.

BS: What are your other hobbies when off the bike?

MV: I like to sit down, relax, have a cup of coffee on the terrace and read I book. I like to travel the world - and I'm lucky to see so much through cycling. I'm reading 'Mountain To Mountain' at the moment [a book about adventure and activism for the women of Afghanistan]. I like biographies or action thriller books - especially when racing or training, because they take away the focus for a moment and help me relax.

BS: Is it true that you often sing in the peloton?

MV: Yeah, it's quite annoying I think. It's a bad habit. Normally it's the song I woke up with or heard on the radio before the race. It's always while I'm focused and going uphill - or downhill (it doesn't actually really matter - straight or flat). It's not because I'm bored that I start to sing. I just do it.

BS: It's not like a game of poker when you singing perhaps precludes an attack?

MV: No [laughs]. But if it was I wouldn't say because then I'd be giving it away.

BS: If you weren't a professional cyclist what would you have done?

MV: Well, of course, you never know how long a career lasts. As a kid it was not my dream to become a professional rider. I wanted to become a doctor. But then later on I developed as a rider and I felt that I had a chance to get to a professional level - and it's fantastic to get to the level when I'm a full-time pro. But next to the sport I have goals too. For me it's fantastic to be busy creating a stage for women, to be getting more high-profile races for women, events for the grassroots level and to be able to use my knowledge, my experience and my name to give something back to the sport. I think I can carry this on even after my sporting career. It will be my dream to develop this and push women's cycling further - and to just get more women on bikes and spread the passion for cycling.

BS: When Britain's Nicole Cooke retired last year she was quite negative about the sport - primarily about the Lance Armstrong scandal. As you said, the women rely on the men's sport to boost the profile of your races, but at the same time, if the men are dragging the sport down then the women really suffer from that.

MV: Of course, women's cycling suffers when cycling suffers - but we are also a separate platform to show the beauty of cycling. Of course, Nicole's problems were real. But a lot has changed in the past four, five and six years in women's cycling and it's up to us to show the world this. We can show the world that we don't have this same history [as men's cycling] and so that actually means we have an advantage. [The fact that Rabobank stayed in the sport to continue sponsoring my team after they ditched the men's team] is the perfect example of this. We have an advantage on men's cycling in this case.

BS: Thanks very much for talking to me today, Marianne. Good luck in the Grand Prix on Saturday and I'll look out for you through the rain on Sunday during the Surrey 100 sportive.

MV: If you get to see me... I'll be starting from the front of the first group at 6 a.m.

BS: Ah, I start at 6:40pm so I don't fancy my chances.

MV: Perhaps you will pass me! When you see rainbow stripes, wave and say 'hi'.

Felix Lowe - Twitter: @Saddleblaze

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