Marianne Vos isn’t just one of the most talented and successful riders of her generation, she has also been an outspoken voice for change in pro cycling. She broke into the Elite ranks at a very young age, and experienced first-hand many of the changes which currently define women’s professional cycling today. As a representative of the UCI Athletes Commission and a member of The Cyclists’ Alliance, she believes her experience and insight can help the women’s sport take more steps forward, and to secure more equity for the next generation.
“Professionalization has been the biggest advance for us in the sport,” says Vos of her 12 years as a pro. “Of course there is still a long way for us to go. But I remember when we all traveled in one van, all of the team and staff and equipment, everything and everyone together and we drove to all the races. But there was a time when some of the biggest men’s teams also sponsored women’s teams, and they shared the team structure and planning with the women. This raised the example for all the best teams, and now you see many of our teams have our own buses and bigger support vehicles for the equipment.”
Vos recalls some of the tough lessons she learned when she first broke out into the top ranks. She was winning big races at an early age – several when she was still a Junior! “I was lucky to have good coaches at that age, even in our small Dutch team. But I know not every rider has good coaches and managers at every stage of her career.” Vos has a very important lesson to share with her fellow riders: “The best coaches put the riders’ interests above everything else, including their own self, and even the sponsor. A good coach also looks for the best sporting opportunity for the riders, and this is not always easy because of sponsor pressures and other influences.”
“But a good coach will be able to listen to you, even when they are being tough to help you find more motivation,” says Vos, “This is sometimes hard for a rider to hear, but good coaches always say these things for the right reasons and best interests of the sporting goals of the athlete. You are responsible for your own choices; you might have the best team support, but it all comes down to you. For me, the hardest is still when there are expectations and you can’t meet them, if you aren’t on top of your form. A good coach can help you get through this.”
Having experienced a lot of changes in her career, Vos believes the current proposal for a two-tier Women’s calendar is one of most important ones to encourage growth and economic opportunity in women's cycling today. “We need this structure in UCI racing to help differentiate the level of development between the top WorldTour teams, and teams which are still developing,” says Vos.
“I think a smaller number of super-professional teams should be at the top level, and make another level of developmental events for the other UCI teams,” continues Vos. “We can structure it as a professional league, which I think will also good for the sponsors. I think women’s cycling is ready for this kind of tiered model, there shouldn’t be much more debate, because that will delay the benefits.” Most importantly, she adds, “This would be a big step in the right direction for the top level teams to talk about how to implement minimum wages, and also better anti-doping.”
Anti-doping is an important topic for Vos, who is a strong believer in clean racing and clean sport. She is now starting her third term as a member of the UCI Athletes Commission, and will make anti-doping a big priority. “It is so hard for a clean cyclist to stay in the sport and explain to others after every race, ‘I’m clean’. I think everyone in the sport can be more honest and transparent, and we should communicate more with public about the things we do to keep cycling clean. This will help us to change public perception about women’s cycling, I think maybe it’s something else we can do different or better than the men’s WorldTour in the future.”
Vos adds that having a clean image and more public support will help the women to build equity and equality in pro cycling. “Of all my goals for this next Athletes Commission, equity is the most important thing that I want to change – equity, which helps us to build equality. Every woman racing today, and who may reach the top level in the future, deserves an opportunity to get the most from her career, and better sporting opportunities like the men have.”
Vos says she will race for a few more years at least, but she remains good friends with many former professionals like the founder of The Cycling Alliance, Iris Slappendel. “I trust Iris,” says Vos, “She really works from her own experiences. She is doing this association for the riders, because she experienced all of the bad things which happen in our sport herself. I think she sees it is necessary for her to do this, and she is dedicated to make it work. But not for her, instead for her to help others. She has good respect in the bunch, and I think she will succeed because she is looking for solutions. She won’t give up. She has seen a lot in her life as an athlete and refuses to let these things happen to other women.”
Would Vos encourage other UCI-licensed women to join The Cyclists’ Alliance? “Women’s cycling is overdue for an independent association,” answers Vos. “Riders have always raced for the passion of the sport, but often they don’t think about their place in life and the future. Cycling can become more professional when the women have someone or an organization to help them focus and prepare for the future. And also, cyclists need someone who can help them to uphold their rights if they are abused or exploited. It is very hard for a rider to get help today, to resolve problems that affect their rights. Iris has proven that she can get answers and find solutions, and she won’t back down from a tough situation if she knows it will make another rider’s life better.”
Looking ahead, Vos is focusing on her next challenges in cyclocross – especially the World Championships in her home country, the Netherlands – and the 2018 WorldTour. The passion for racing is still there, but with all of her experiences, she is becoming more comfortable as a role model for the next champions of the sport, and as a voice for change.”I never thought that I would be a role model, and maybe I still don’t see myself as one,” Vos shares as we end the interview. “But I’m very happy when I see young girls who want to ride, and it is very satisfying to hear them say they want to be like me. I think in the future I won’t be far from cycling, maybe I will be a coach – nothing is for sure, but I would like to share my experiences. I hope I can make cycling better for the racers of the next generation.”