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Now 29, Marianne Vos is regarded as the greatest cyclist of her generation. Such has been her domination in cyclo-cross, road and track cycling since 2006 that she has earned the nickname of “The Cannibal”, in tribute to Eddy Merckx, the great Belgian rider of the 1960s and 70s.
Recalling how she got into the sport in which she has made her name, Vos, who hails from ’s-Hertogenbosch, said: “Ever since I can remember I’ve had a love of sports, from ice speed skating to rollerblading to cycling, and I’ve always wanted to compete.
“I first caught the cycling bug when I was six. Following my brother Anton to races had made me eager to jump on the bike and race as well. I got my first bike aged six and was racing by the time I was eight. It was meant to be.”
After turning 15, Vos won a string of national road, cyclo-cross and mountain bike races and titles, and won the junior road race world crown in Verona in 2004. No sooner had she embarked on her professional career than she won the 2006 world road race and cyclo-cross titles in Salzburg (AUT) and Zeddam (NED) respectively.
The following year, the Dutch cyclist took the UCI World Cup title, and went on to claim another world championship gold in 2008, this time winning the points race on the track in Manchester. It was in that same event that she then won Olympic gold at Beijing 2008, dominating the race to top the podium from Cuba’s Yoanka Gonzalez and Spain’s Leire Olaberria.
Reflecting on her triumph, she later said: “In 2008 I went to my first Olympics and came away with a gold medal from the points race. The Olympics is the pinnacle of sport and to have a gold medal round my neck was simply amazing. It made up for my disappointment in the road race.”
In that road race, which came eight days before her points triumph, Vos came in sixth, 21 seconds adrift of gold medallist Nicole Cooke of Great Britain.
The winner of four straight cyclo-cross world titles between 2009 and 2012, the prolific Dutch rider also collected four consecutive world championship road race silvers between Beijing 2008 and London 2012, during which time she landed world scratch gold at the 2011 Track Cycling World Championships.
Vos went for a second Olympic gold in the road race in the British capital, which was held on a 140.3 km course that began on the Mall and took in several climbs of Box Hill in Surrey.
It was on the second of those climbs that she made a decisive break, with only Great Britain’s Lizzie Armistead and Russia’s Olga Zabelinskaia able to follow her. Vos then outpaced her two rivals in the sprint finish, stopping the clock at 3:35.29 to beat Armistead by a wheel and Zabelinskaia by two seconds.
Reacting to her victory, an ecstatic Vos said: “It’s incredible because I’ve thought about this race for a long time and this gold medal was on my mind. It is really great to win it now. I just can’t believe it.”
The Dutchwoman also lined up in the time trial in London, placing 16th in a race won by the USA’s Kristin Armstrong.
The double Olympic champion maintained her impressive momentum with back-to-back world road race titles in 2012 in Valkenburg (NED) and 2013 in Florence, coming home all alone in the second of those victories.
Vos was also crowned UCI Road World Cup champion in each of those two seasons, while further world cyclo-cross titles came her way in 2013 and again in 2014, a year in which she also came home first in La Course by Le Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia Femminile.
A tendon injury checked her triumphant progress at the start of 2015. After recovering, she succumbed to the same injury again while doing a reccy of a mountain bike route, forcing her to shelve her plans for the season and take a ten-month break.
Returning to the scene in March 2016, she gradually regained her form, featuring prominently in a number of races and earning selection for the Netherlands team for Rio 2016, where she will defend her road race title.
“Over the years I have won many titles and trophies,” she said. “But I still dream of more. Defending my Olympic title is a huge ambition and it is one of my main goals over the next few years. The journey to Rio has begun and I’m already excited.”