The thatched house that Marianne Vos (35) had built in the Brabant village of Babyloniënbroek is somewhat hidden at the end of a cul-de-sac. The front door is hard to find, name and license plate missing. “We don’t necessarily have to stand out,” says her mother Conny. “We still get enough attention,” says father Henk. “As long as the delivery man knows where we live,” says brother Anton.
The Vos family – Conny, Henk, Anton and Marianne – lived together in the detached house for two years. “Until Marianne moved in with Moniek in 2017,” says brother Anton.
Moniek is Moniek Tenniglo, the 34-year-old road cyclist that Vos fell in love with when they rode together for the Rabo-Liv team. “A bon vivant”, Anton calls her. Their relationship has changed his sister. “Eating an ice cream together with Moniek can make her very happy. She regularly goes out to eat and to clothing stores. Moniek has good taste and this is reflected in Marianne’s clothing style. Her pants and blouses now match.”
Marianne and Moniek had been talking for a little over a year when Henk, Conny and Anton heard about their relationship. “What would you think if I moved in with Moniek?” she asked her father one day at breakfast. Now, for the first time in her life, she lives far outside her birthplace, in Borne in Twente, about two hours’ drive from Babyloniënbroek. “It took some getting used to,” says Henk. “But I was fine with it.”
Last July, years after they moved in together, Vos spoke publicly about her relationship for the first time. After her first stage win in the Tour Femmes, she thanked her friend in addition to her family. Her family – who have been at the finish line across Europe since her childhood – are considered loyal, says Anton. “But Moniek is just as much. Marianne thought it was time she got some credit too. And where better to do it than on the highest podium: the Tour de France?
When one of cycling’s biggest names talks about his girlfriend, it’s news. A message appeared in queer lifestyle magazine under the heading ‘coming-out’ winq. But Vos has no ambition to be a figurehead for young lesbian women. “She wouldn’t allow that,” says Gregory Vandamme, who has been friends with her for twenty years. Tenniglo doesn’t seem to feel much for such a role either; she does not respond to the request for an interview.
Did Vos wait a long time to talk about his relationship because it is about a woman? It could be, says former teammate Roxane Knetemann, because of her faith. Vos was raised in the Dutch Reformed Church. She doesn’t go to church much, but prays before dinner, even within the team. Knetemann: “Perhaps she had a picture in her head of how it should be.”
But even more important, Knetemann believes, is that Marianne and Moniek both find it difficult to publish their private lives. “I think she was afraid it would be too magnified,” says Vandamme. “That partner chooses you, not all the attention. She wouldn’t have it any other way with a man.”
According to childhood friend Vandamme, the most important thing is not that Vos has ‘come out’, but that she has dared a serious relationship at all. “That she let someone in. She used to be a lot more closed.”
Because of the steady relationship that Vos always craves, she shines, says father Henk. “She has also become much more open. She used to be able to be away from home for two weeks and not say anything. Now she sends an app, a picture or a gift almost every day.”
Marianne Vos is experiencing, as Vandamme calls it, her ‘career 2.0’. She is visibly comfortable in her own skin and is having a good year as a cyclist. In July, as points classification leader, she won the green jersey in the first Tour de France Femmes, an event she lobbied for almost a decade. At the beginning of this year, she won the cyclocross world championship for the eighth time.
Vos will be at the start of the World Cup in Australia next week, sixteen years after she became world road champion for the first time in 2006. At the time, she was still at the atheneum in Waalwijk, where a bike-mad geography teacher arranged trips. That year she also became world champion in cyclo-cross.
Since then, Vos has won everything there is to win, with Olympic gold in 2012 as the highlight, away in London. But in 2015, that success, even for her, was not self-evident. Vos was overtrained, the ‘burnout for athletes’. There has been speculation about her retirement from the sport.
“She had been torn down, it had been a tropical year,” says father Henk. “And Marianne has the problem that she can’t say ‘no’.”
Mother Conny: “It started with small ailments. Pain in the lower back, her legs.”
Anton: “The doctor said she could not race for six months. Otherwise it would be done.”
Her father says that Vos spent a lot of time at the Marktplaats during that rest period. They had just moved into the house in Babyloniënbroek and were driving around town and country together to buy new things. “She also bought a motorbike and passed her theory test. She did everything to fill the void.”
It must have been very difficult for her, says Jeroen Blijlevens, former sports director. “She had been an Olympian and a world champion. And suddenly she was in a deep depression, not knowing if she would ever come back. I think the fact that she succeeded is the greatest achievement of her career.”
The new Longo
Marianne Vos has been cycling since she was five years old and will soon participate in her first competitions. She learns the tricks of the trade from older brother Anton. But unlike her brother, she is “a pusher in everything she did,” her mother says. She is so bad about her loss that everyone around her has an anecdote about it.
“I see her kicking another row of trash cans,” says family friend Henri Manders, who helped the family with bicycle equipment after father Henk’s construction company went bankrupt in the mid-1980s. That reaction happened when, at the age of seventeen, she raced her first senior race, where she finished second to Daphny van den Brand. “She was so mad that she didn’t win. Then I knew: this is the new Jeannie Longo”, the French cycling legend.
Roxane Knetemann met Vos at the Dutch Youth Championships when they were both fourteen. Knetemann, who had just started cycling, surprisingly finished fourth. Fox third. “My father did the tribute. But Marianne was nowhere to be seen. She was angry because she had come third. What a strange girl, I thought.” A little later, when things had cooled down, Vos reported back. “She spoke very nicely and apologised.” This also characterizes her, says Knetemann. “My father said that unfortunately you lose more than you win in cycling, but that it is characteristic of her that she was so disappointed with that third place.”
“In the early days, everything was so easy,” says former sports director Blijlevens. “We made a plan and she executed it.”
Because of her physical characteristics, says Knetemann. But perhaps even more so because of her tactical insight. “The intelligence of a real top athlete is to learn why you lost last time. Marianne is super good at that.”
But winning on the bike was no antidote to her stubborn insecurities. Father Henk says that there used to be two Mariannes. “The withdrawn, quiet girl whose classmates didn’t know she rode a bike. And the terribly fanatical athlete who wanted to be better than the rest.”
Against the daily newspaper The press Vos said in 2011 that she couldn’t see herself on TV. “I don’t consider myself particularly attractive. And I can’t hear my voice. When my parents watch an interview with me, I leave the room. I don’t want to see what the outside world sees. The Senseless Peasant Girl: Terrible.”
As hard as she is on herself, she is just as kind to others. When her brother suffers a psychosis in 2007 – according to himself, because he could not cope with the massive media attention for his sister – Vos helps him build a career as a cycling photographer in the following years. “If you look at where he is now, 90 percent is because of Marianne,” says Blijlevens.
“She’s really no better off than anyone else,” Knetemann says. “I think it also has to do with her religion. She respects every rider in the field.” But that modesty is also a weakness of the bike, she believes. “Because Marianne didn’t really show leadership at crucial times. In the beginning, she hardly dared to put anyone before herself.”
Although Vos doesn’t like the limelight, she does pretty much anything asked of her for years. Never too bad to take a picture with a fan, promise to always give an interview. “Everything was Marianne Vos back then,” says Blijlevens. “We started saying ‘no’ to her sometimes.” Because that’s her biggest problem, he also says: she can’t say ‘no’.
She is also limitless on the bike. She hardly ever rests and wants to excel in everything. To become a better climber, not her strength, she loses weight. “She was really on the limit in terms of weight,” says Vandamme. “She kept going further, further, further. Then she physically collapsed.”
From her friend – with whom she trains almost daily near their house – Vos learned to choose her moments better on the bike, says Vandamme. “Moniek is a very good puzzler.” Vos could learn from that. “Marianne now ‘dare’ to take a place in the group on mountain days instead of struggling for tenth place.” And she also ‘dare’ to say no more often, he sees.
Taking more rest is what Vos is also working on with her trainer Louis Delahaije, whom she enlists in imitation of rider Annemiek van Vleuten. He teaches her to “stop before she hits the wall” to regain body confidence after she’s overtrained. “It’s actually quite simple.” But it is also linked to Vos’ qualities, he says. “The top is getting wider and I think it’s great that she’s still at the top.” Hair signature dish is decisive: the explosion at the end of a fight. “No one can do it like them.”
Knetemann sees that she has “taken the lead and made decisions” more on the bike lately, although she believes there is still room for improvement. “She can do better in her own team, then there is a common interest. But last year at the WC she could not get the riders on her side. Then she came second. In fact, she has to hit the table with her fist.”
Vos has come to appreciate her victories, although fewer than before, says former sports director Blijlevens. “Everything worked before, but she couldn’t enjoy it properly.”
Just outside Babyloniënbroek, brother Anton and father Henk show off a secret shed. The trophies, numbers, licenses and rainbow jerseys are piled up in a row. “Marianne doesn’t want anything of herself on the wall”, says Henk, “but since her relapse she likes what we do here. She is more aware of what she has achieved.”