I steer and manoeuvre, and… BANG!

IMG_6294If I replay a race in my head, I only see little bits and pieces. Tens of kilometres vanish from my memory as soon as the race is over. Some moments stick; they are on repeat in my mind, delayed, detailed, clear as glass.

On Saturday I raced the Ronde van Drenthe, a World Cup for women. It’s one of the biggest races for us. A race that’s broadcast on television for hours, every year. TV Drenthe loves to show how the best female cyclists in the world ride the ugly VAM-berg and the horribly beautiful cobbled tracks through the forests.

I am nervous. Not just because this is a hectic race at the highest level, but also because this is the only race which passes the little village where I grew up. Today the spotlights are on me, since I’m ‘the pride of the region’. Today I want a knife between my teeth and luck on my side. Today I want to be extra strong.

Clinkers underneath my wheels. Oosterhesselen. The white church sticks out against the leaden sky over the Hondsrug. Clapping and cheering from the corners – and then we ride towards Sleen. I move to the front of the bunch. On the left, the farm of the Heeling family, from the church I used to go to. I recognise Karin in the barnyard, I almost ride over her toes, a ‘moi!’ escapes my lips and her surprised yell fades away in the ratcheting peloton.

The town shield of Sleen and I am at the front. To my left: the Slener Bazar, where I used to buy marbles and where I begged my mum for a loloball while she was looking for hoover bags and – hey! The shop owner Lammers at the right! I greet him with one finger. Moi. I don’t care what the other think of me.

A big crowd on the corner. My dad’s face, a grey crown of wild hair around his head and his mouth wide open. My mum’s voice, she yells my name. We rush past the old police station, where my little brother reported his missing slippers when he was four years old. On the way home from school his slippers all of a sudden disappeared into the absolutely fascinating world around him. My mum had told him not to come home without them – because boy, this surely wasn’t the first time – and he could only think of one solution.

We charge towards the first cobbled section. Swaying, braking with shrieking tires, pushing, yelling, faster and faster, fighting to get to the front, just avoiding terrible crashes, sprinting until the corner on the right and there we jounce and jolt. The cobbles are deafening. Horses in the meadow next to us freak out. The world shakes and trembles untill we’re back on smooth asphalt again. All of a sudden I hear the helicopter above our heads.

Do I see Marijn de Vries? Yes, it’s Marijn de Vries, she’s taking off her jacket, says commentator Hebert Dijkstra on tv while I feel the hot breath of the cameraman on my neck. She’s right to do so, says Herbert, because the final is about to start. I am happy the cameramoto disappears and I am even happier I’m still here, between the big names, with legs that feel amazingly good.

I move to the front because the VAM-berg might be a rubbish hill, it is a filthy steep bastard as well, so on that climb the race is going to explode for sure. I steer and manoeuvre, I’m almost at the front and… BANG! I bounce on my knee and crash on the road. My foot is stuck. Foot! It lasts ages before I manage to free that damn foot. As I get back on my bike, my brake rubs. I try to release it while riding as I see the big names disappear in the distance.

Published in newspaper Trouw, 16th of March 2015
Photo: screenshot RTV Drenthe

Living like a pro

IMG_5191All these pictures of cyclists training in sunny places during the winter season. Pictures everywhere, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. It must make you crazy if you are sitting behind your office desk, with the rain slashing against the windows and the wind howling around the office building.

I am one of those cyclists. I am spending seven weeks in Girona, Spain this winter. I also am guilty of spamming those pictures. I admit it. I like to share my beautiful life. But more often I get negative reactions. Things like yes, yeah, sure. We work and you just ride your bike out there. Or: it is not fair that you can go out and ride in the sun whenever you feel like it, and I can’t. With your luxurious lifestyle…..

I do understand these reactions in itself. If you like riding your bike you are not happy when the weather is always bad. Then you are jealous of the sunny pictures of hilly landscapes.

I would love to wake these guys up – it’s always guys reacting like this, women usually have more sympathic comments – and tell them that if they want this, just do it!! When you really want to, you can also spend the winter riding in beautiful locations. No shit. I’ll tell you how.

But first. The luxurious lifestyle I presumably have is a big misunderstanding. Of course there are cyclists earning bucket loads of money. Those are the men. Only some women do get rich in cycling, or can even get by in a normal, decent way. The large majority of the women’s peloton earns very little. If I say very little, I really mean very little.

I call myself a procyclist but financially I am not. I only live as a pro. I would like to tell you how much I earn a month to give you an idea. But out of respect for my sponsors I won’t do that. But I’ll tell you this: there are no more than three digits on my monthly paycheck. It pays for the fuel to drive to races and it pays for my trainer, and maybe even an occasional massage. But that’s it.

That means that I have to work. This column is not a nice extra, like I sometimes get told, no it’s a necessity. Because I don’t want to make concessions to my life as a pro, I do have limited time to work. That is not a bad thing. It just means I haven’t got expensive stuff. That I don’t buy new clothes often and that I don’t live in a mansion.

I cherish my sponsors, for example Autoservice Van Bruchem from Zwolle. If they didn’t let me drive a beautiful Suzuki Swift, I would be in trouble.

With my university education, background as a journalist and the relatively unique experience as a pro athlete, I could easily get a job that pays so much more. But I don’t want to. Because cycling is my passion and my life as a cyclist is fantastic.

I made it happen that I can do the work I do alongside the cycling at any time or place I want. Long live the internet. If it weren’t for the internet I could not have spent weeks in Spain. And long live the cheaper way of living in Spain, because yes, I have to organize and pay for my stay in sunny places myself.

You are such a lucky bastard, I often hear. Yes I do feel a lucky bastard. Because I am blessed with a body capable of doing cycling at a high level. Furthermore I worked hard to be able to live like I do, and I still work hard for it.

I challenge every man who reacts negatively to take your life in your own hands. Create the life you want to live. It takes times, it’s not always easy and it’s hard work. Sometimes it’s hard to get by, it’s putting up with less at times. But it’s possible. Because if I can, you can too.

What is important in the end? Lots of money in your bank account? Expensive stuff around you or driving a big car and then complain about bike riders who ride in the sun? Or waking up every day, happily remembering that you are the main character in your own children’s book and then go out and ride in the sun? I mean. I don’t dream about my life. I live my dream.

Published in cycling.be, February 2015

Since Anna became an ironman, everything is easy

10461630_10152115535442142_6489943080907839476_nShe’s got long blond hair and a pretty face. Her nails are always polished, you’ll never see her without make-up and her favorite shoes are pumps. In her Ryanair-outfit she’s the classic image of an airhostess. A very cheerful airhostess, because she always smiles. And she never keeps her mouth shut. This is my Finnish friend Anna.

I had to think of her when I read about the Australian Mirinda Carfrae, who won the triathlon world championships, the ironman of Hawaii, last weekend. Carfrae swam 3,8k, rode 180k and ran a bit more than 42k in nine hours and fifty five seconds.

I can hardly express how much I admire that result. I am an athlete myself, but I can’t imagine pushing my body to the limit for nine hours straight. I can’t imagine swimming for one hour, let alone running a marathon, after riding my bike.

My friend Anna did it. She competed in the ironman in Nice, this summer. The talkative blondie, who doesn’t look like an athlete at all.

When she told me she would take part, I was speechless. I rode my bike with her a couple of times and I know that, well, she doesn’t ride very fast. She doesn’t have the talent nor the body for that. But Anna thought she was ready, after competing in a quarter and a half triathlon.

I was not the only one with doubts. Once Anna was in the line to pick up her start number, she just got ignored – because the other competitors and the organisation didn’t believe she was really going to take part.

Anna completed the swimming in 1,5 hours. After riding her bike for 120k, it started to pour with rain. The parcours was going downhill by then, mainly over narrow winding roads. Anna constantly saw other competitors giving up. And crashing. At a hilltop, volunteers put foil under her suit to make sure she got a bit of isolation. Shaking of cold, Anna kept repeating to herself the cheers of friends she carried with her on a note: “If you can dream, you can also do this.”

After seven hours and twenty minutes Anna finished the bike ride. In the meantime she got such a stomach ache she could only lie in the fetal position. Once the pain finally lessened, she decided to start the marathon. I felt like Forrest Gump, she said afterwards, I ran to the finish in one straight line. In five hours and twenty minutes.

And so Anna passed the line in fourteen and a half hours. The moment I heard she made it, my heart filled with admiration. Anna didn’t suffer less than Mirinda Carfrae. Actually she suffered five and a half hour more.

I didn’t want to stop when it hurt, I didn’t want to stop when I was tired, I wanted to stop when I was done, Anna decided before the race. Why? Because she would try to do the impossible.

Since Anna became an ironman, she radiates joy even more than ever. Everything is easy now, she says. Every difficulty seems tiny compared to what she did in Nice. Anna did something no one – not even herself – thought she would ever be capable of doing.

And this is what I think so much more admirable than seeing a talented professional winning the world title: Anna didn’t compete to win. She competed to beat herself.

Published in Dutch, in newspaper Trouw, 13th of October 2014
Photo: Facebook

My mum

Berghuijzen 1I am visiting my parents as my mum asks me: “That Tyler Hamilton book, about his doping confessions, you havent’t read that yet, did you?”

She walks to the book shelf and scours the titles, looking for The Secret Race. After a while she pulls the book off the shelf and hands it over to me. “There you are. Very good book, you know.”

By now, I’ve sort of got used to my mum being a cycling fan, but if she says things like these, I’m still flabbergasted. Till five years ago, about cycling she would only state things like: “All those men riding a bike through France, what’s that good for?!” And: “Races are so boring! Hours and hours on a bike. Stupid waste of time.”

Nowadays, it’s getting more and more common the tv is tuned in to the Tour de France, even if my mum is home alone. When I was a kid, my dad used to follow the important races; in my memory the radio played Radio Tour de France the whole summer, the house filled with the scent of freshly baked pancakes and me washing my sandy feet before joining the family at the dinner table.

When I started cycling at 30 years old, my mum really didn’t like it. Why would I want to do that at my age, she asked. Racing, suffering, crashing, breaking bones… And especially: that stupid act of just riding a bike all the time. She didn’t understand. She wished I would stop immediately, so she didn’t need to worry about me crashing all the time.

But soon she had to admit I was fully captivated by bikeracing. She decided to stop resisting and she started to show some interest. Suddenly I found her at the side of the road at the Ronde van Drenthe, with a camera.

She was so nervous about seeing me race that all her photos turned out to be totally blurred, because she was shaking all over. Next time I passed with the peloton, she had put her camera on a big stone to make sure the photos would be good.

Just after the first year I started racing, my brother was diagnosed with cancer. Testicular cancer, the same type of cancer Lance Armstrong suffered from. The doctors found it out in an early stage, there was no reason to think my brother wouldn’t be cured, but he had to be treated with chemotherapy and they operated on him twice. My mum read Armstrong’s It’s not about the bike, and the book gave her hope. She started to wear the yellow wrist band.

Not long after, my mother bought herself A race bike. One with straight handlebars, to be a bit more comfortable and to make sure braking was easy. She was 62 already and she had never before in her life been on a race bike. She started to train. And she signed up to the Alpe d’Huzes – a challenge to ride up Alpe d’Huez up to six times in one day – to raise money for fighting cancer. She climbed Alpe d’Huez. Easy. My mum! She could even have done the climb several times, I am sure of that because she was in a great shape, but she didn’t dare to ride down. So it was just one time.

My brother is healthy again. My mum doesn’t have a goal to ride her bike for anymore. She doesn’t need a goal. Riding a bike is the goal now. She rides to relax, to enjoy nature. Just like it happened to me, she’s totally captivated by riding a bike. Tomorrow, she’s going on holiday, together with my dad – who also bought a race bike. They are going to ride in the hills in Germany.

Meanwhile, she will surf the internet, looking at all cycling pages she can find, to make sure she’ll see the results of my races as soon as they’re published. She knows exactly where and when I race, even if I don’t tell her. She cheers for me and my teammates on Facebook. And she texts me a good luck wish every single time.

You’re never too old to become a cycling fan. You’re also never too old to start riding a bike. And you’re absolutely never too old to be proud of your tough mother.

Go mum!

Photo: sportfoto.nl

Stage 9: Climbing to the chapel

10500284_725714607474125_1257629835464876470_nMountains to the left. Lake Como on the right. We race at 50k/h on the apparently picturesque road along the water. No time to have a look. Full concentration is needed for the hectic situation on this winding

It’s a sunlit day. That’s so often totally different in October, when our male colleagues ride the Giro di Lombardia on these same roads, towards the climb to the chapel of the Madonna del Ghisallo. The asphalt covered in autumn leaves. Sun shining low through the haze over the lake. Or it rains. The riders transform into grey creatures, only lit by the headlights of the cars.

Today it’s a splash of colour. Everything is blooming, our kits a whirl of hues. We all take the turn in a couple of kilometres, at the roundabout in Bellagio. From there it goes up. The men continue once they’ve reached the top. For us, the finishline is next to the chapel. That’s where the last stage of the women’s Giro ends. With the Madonna, the patron of cyclists, we find redemption of the pain and the fatigue after ten days of racing.

But first we have to hold on for a bit longer. Persevere. We want to make sure our climber starts the Ghisallo in the best possible position, so we ride in formation at the head of the bunch. We go full gas – and hope the climbers from other teams will have a hard time moving to the front, so they have to spend a lot of energy in the first part of the climb already. We speed up. A lot of yelling behind us. You can literally hear the panic. We launch our climber. The finish line for us domestiques is at the roundabout in Bellagio.

The roundabout where Johnny Hoogerland attacked in 2009. It was a week after the death of Frank Vandenbroucke, in a hotel in Senegal. Hoogerland was the first one to reach the chapel. He pulled his jersey open. Underneath he wore an undershirt with the text: Per te VDB. For you, VDB. Hoogerland used to be a big fan of Frank. This was his homage. A homage at the chapel, where an eternal flame burns for all deceased cyclists.

There’s the roundabout. The race explodes. I get passed by a lot of riders, and so do some of my teammates. Our job is done. We are allowed an easy pedal up now. Catch our breath. Take a look around. Beautiful views over Lake Como, just as we have heard in all the stories. Moreover, this seems to be an ordinary road. Ordinary asphalt. Ordinary gradient. But if you know what has happened here, you just see it differently.

In the last 1,5k we suddenly hear bells ringing. The bells of the chapel. They give me goosebumps. They ring for us too! Just like they do in the Tour of Lombardia. Just like in 2006, when Paolo Bettini transformed his grief and despair into extraordinary power. One month before, Bettini became world champion. His brother Sauro wanted to give a party for him, but he died suddenly in a car crash. Paolo wanted to throw his bike away, never race again. But he decided to ride the last classic of the season in honour of his brother. He won, solo, crying, his face towards the sky and his hands pointing to heaven. Under the flamme rouge, the ringing of the bells filling my ears, I think of those images. And I get a lump in my throat.

Emma Pooley wins the stage. Our climber finishes seventh. Marianne Vos gets the last pink jersey of 2014, she takes the cup home. In 1962 Jo de Roo was the first Dutch cyclist to win the Giro di Lombardia. Nowadays, his trophey stands next to his front door – it’s an umbrella stand. After all, cycling isn’t as sacred as it sometimes seems. In fifty years, someone should visit Vos I guess. To find out where she put this Giro trophey.

Click here for the Strava-file of this stage
Published in Dutch newspaper Trouw, 14 July 2014