My Rabobank Marianne Vos Classic
I remember racing the (what was then known as the Aalburg Classic) Rabobank Marianne Vos Classic back in 2009. It was one of my first races in Europe. Like most of the races I did with my small Dutch club team, I loved it. From memory, Vos won that year, as she has done every year since.
Flat, windy, small roads, big peloton that appropriately summaries the Dutch one day race. I didn’t know before I came to the Netherlands in 2009 that that was what I loved but I learnt pretty quickly. The love affair, like red wine, has only gotten stronger with age.
It’s funny when you rock up to a race and the wind is blowing trees sideways. Walking to the bathroom or coffee shop your often receive looks of disdain from team staff, spectators and other riders, looks that essentially say, ‘how crap is this?’ I don’t return their looks of foreboding.
In my opinion, there is nothing worse than Dutch races without wind. Racing with a peloton of 200 or so on roads barely wide enough for one car is almost as traumatic as finding yourself in the path of a twenty sugar crazed toddlers at a McDonalds birthday party. If I’m racing in the Netherlands I want wind, and lots of it.
So, I was just a little bit happy when I woke up yesterday before the start of this year’s edition of the Marianne Vos Classic and my roommate Eileen Roe and I could hear the wind howling. Perfect.
With only four riders lining up yesterday – myself, Eileen, Elisa Longo Borghini and Audrey Cordon – we knew our tactics had to be conservative. In the team meeting our director talked us through the course, pointing out the crucial points of the race and where the wind would be the strongest.
The start of Dutch races it sort of like tetris; riders try to squeeze their bikes into any available spot to try to be as close to the front as possible.
With all the formalities out of the way, he turned to tactics. It was simple, we needed as many riders in the front selection as possible and from there we could play with our numbers. Sometimes you can make the most in depth plans and talk about every possible scenario, other times you just have to wing it.
Rolling to the start line with more than 40 minutes until we would roll away it was already packed full of riders. The start of Dutch races it sort of like tetris; riders try to squeeze their bikes into any available spot to try to be as close to the front as possible. Unfortunately, my teammates and I were not at the front.
Bumping into my team director who I raced this event with in 2009, Chris Rouw, I asked for some final words of advice. He said the first 5kms were very important and to be at the front. Then he turned around and looked at the packed start line and said in his Dutch English, ‘But yes, I don’t know how now.’
Despite what seemed like a road block in front of us my teammates and I did manage to navigate our way to the front and for the first 20kms were all policing the front. I was worried that I might be doing too much, constantly rolling through the echelons teams like Liv-Plantur were trying to establish but as I told Eileen before the start, in this style of race sometimes you need to use energy at the beginning to make sure you are there at the end.
I’m not really sure how it happened but about 25kms into the race the bunch split and all of sudden there were 13 riders clear. Looking behind me I saw the gap and quickly assessed the composition of the break. We had three riders there – myself, Eileen and Elisa –Rabobank and Park Hotel also had three and Liv-Plantur and Orica-AIS had two. This was good. Yelling to Elisa and Eileen I said, ‘Go, go go! This is it!’.
And it was. It was like because we committed the other teams did too. The break worked well for the next 75kms and we extended our lead to more than five minutes.
While we kept rolling through the echelon I was constantly speaking to the girls. Reminding Eileen to make sure she was in the top five when she knew a left or right hand turn was coming up, or just telling Elisa ‘good job’ which according to Elisa makes her feel, ‘very important.’
‘We want to always have one of us on Vos, one of us on Emma (Johansson) and one in between the Rabo girls,’ I said to the girls as we got closer to the finish. I was paranoid the group would be split again. Rabobank did try but the entire group must have known they were planning it and we all reacted.
As we entered the three 11km finishing circuits I told the girls we had to cover one Rabo each and thats exactly what we did. Rox Kneteman was super active launching attack after attack, I think I covered two before I passed her onto Elisa and Eileen. I knew if I kept jumping to cover her my legs would be gone for the sprint.
With 11km to go we still had more than 5 minutes on the group behind and as a result our speed dropped to less than 20km/hr. It really was like a giant track race. I was pressed all the way to the left hand side of the road watching over my right shoulder.
Vos is one of those super explosive riders that if you don’t react as soon as she jumps it’s hard, read almost impossible, to get on her wheel. I knew it would be easier to react straight away rather than have to swap off with my teammates to attempt to bring her back.
While a few different riders tried to launch themselves off the front we were all together as we sped towards the 1km to go banner. Then Elisa went. I’m sure the other teams weren’t expecting it. I had told her if she felt a good moment to go then just do it. It was perfect. It strung out the group and I was able to perfectly slot onto Marianne’s wheel as we flew under the 1km to go flag.
Even with 1km to go I wasn’t overly confident though. We were maybe placed 6th and 7th wheel and I knew I had to be at least third wheel through the final right hand corner which came at about 250 metres to go.
The internal struggle in my head began; do I stay on Vos’ wheel and gamble that she brings me up or do I put my nose in the wind and try and sneak up onto someone else’s wheel?
In the end the decision was made for me when Amy Pieters launched herself on the left hand side of the road with 350 metres to go. I jumped straight on her wheel and followed her through the final corner.
Just as I was about to start my sprint Vos appeared on my right. I was boxed. Stuck between Amy and Vos I thought I was about to get myself yet another European podium.
I’m not entirely sure how I did it, I guess instinct took over, but I took the power off my pedals, maneuvered my bike backwards around Vos’ back wheel and then put my head down and went for it.
With 100 metres to go I could feel myself powering over Amy and Vos. With 50 metres to go I was waiting for someone to come over me but they didn’t. I crossed the line with a huge smile on my face and my hands in the air. Surprisingly, I don’t think I screamed.
It was a fantastic feeling to put my hands in the air for the victory salute. I was so happy with how our small team of four approached the race. It would have been easy to go in with a negative attitude because we were already starting with a disadvantage, but instead we rode to our strengths. It’s how we have raced all year and it’s how we continue to win races.
That’s why I love bike racing, it’s not always the strongest that wins. More often than not it’s the smartest.