Marianne Vos: “The Olympic Road Race will be hard and spectacular”

The announcement of the Tokyo 2020 women’s road race course, back in August, sparked a lot of debate about differences between men’s and women’s race routes. Road riders’ representative on the UCI Athletes’ Commission Marianne Vos is positive about the Olympic route but also has ideas about how to further improve women’s cycling.

Marianne, Anna van der Breggen finally won the Women Elite Road Race at the UCI Road World Championships in Innsbruck at the end of September. The rainbow jersey had proven elusive to her for so many years. What are your thoughts on the race and the result?

I was in the USA and I had just got up when I turned on the TV and saw Anna’s attack. The Dutch team was the strongest, they’ve proved themselves over recent years. When Anna went, the Dutch team was in total control of the bunch and I was sure she was going to make it. She was very strong in the World Championships time trials earlier in the week and she was very determined for the road race. She helped me to two of my world titles in 2012 and 2013, and after so many years of being so close I think it is a much-deserved win for her. It will be great to see her in the rainbow jersey. I think it’s good to have Anna as a major contender in races as the World Champion. Her win was definitely not lucky, she had nearly four minutes’ advantage at the line.

Looking ahead to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic road race route, when the course was announced, your immediate reaction was sceptical. Why?

Sceptical, yes, and I'm still behind that initial thought. But my reaction was not as blunt as you might take it, there is a lot of nuance in it. At first, I thought it would be a city circuit, which of course is not ideal for an Olympic road race: you want a scenic, challenging course that is interesting for both the riders and the spectators and the TV audience. So, it was a good move by the UCI to take the race out of the city, because you have spectacular images outside Tokyo which is great not only for the UCI and cycling but for the country itself. Looking at the maps, it will be a more challenging course but it’s also obvious that the women’s course has different characteristics to the men’s route, with Mount Fuji and Mikuni climbs out of the women’s race. I don’t think you need an identical course but it’s good to have the same features, so the spectators and viewers understand the key points of the race. The characteristics were different and that accounts for my initial response when the course was announced.

A key factor of a race is the distance. What effect have the different race distances for men and women had on the course design?

I asked questions about the courses and the UCI explained the desire to go outside Tokyo. With the start in Tokyo and the finish at the Fuji Speedway, I think the current course design looks good if you take into account the UCI Regulations on race distances 1. The women’s race is 137km whereas the men cover 234km, but the women’s course is still very tough with nearly 2,700 metres of climbing – that’s over 1,000 metres more than in Rio 2016! There was a poll of the women riders and something like 90% were happy with the Olympic course. The course is challenging and hard enough to make a selective race.

The course has more climbing than many races in the UCI Women’s WorldTour and more than the 2016 Olympic course in Rio. Are you expecting the elevation gain to be the key factor in the race?

The long climb lasts for about 40 kilometres and that will certainly affect the legs. It’s not steep but it does ramp up at the end, so the better climbers will have their opportunity to attack. But then there’s still a long way to go. So, I expect a selective race. Some riders will get into difficulty in the first part with the longer climbs, but the action will be frantic on the final lap on the Fuji Speedway circuit. I expect the favourites to try to save their legs until then and go for a massive attack on the stinging hills of the circuit: those climbs will be a lot harder than they look.

Field sizes at the Olympic Games are smaller than in the UCI Women’s WorldTour or the UCI World Championships. Does this affect the shape of the course?

There will be 67 riders in the women’s bunch for the Olympic road race, with only a few riders in each team, so 137km is certainly a reasonable distance for a field of riders that will count for half the participants of our WorldTour races or World Championships 2. I definitely think the course is hard enough – any harder and many riders wouldn’t finish.

The weather is expected to be hot and humid at the time of the Olympic Games. Will this have an impact on the race?

The heat and humidity will make it very challenging. Most of the riders will travel early to Tokyo to adapt to the weather, the heat and humidity. It’s a very important factor. The conditions will make it very difficult for a lot of riders.

Do you plan any special preparations over the next two years so that you can cope with the conditions?

We expected the weather in Beijing 2008 to be similar, so we did a lot of testing in the lab, with heat and humidity, how the body reacts, how much you need to drink. We went to the venue really early to acclimatise. You can’t just fly in three days before the race, you need to prepare in advance. The Olympic road race will have a big impact on the whole season.

We expect the stands to be packed at the finish on the Fuji Speedway motor racing circuit. The atmosphere should be special. Are you excited about this prospect?

I haven't been there, but I can imagine it will give some spectacular views with the backdrop of Mount Fuji. I hope it will give a great race for both riders and spectators. After we enter the circuit we still have one lap to go, so the spectators can watch us on the big screens, and there will be a lot of excitement in the final lap. The circuit is hilly and selective and I’m sure there will be some interesting moves.

Do you have any experience of finishes at this kind of venue, a motor racing circuit?

It’s fascinating to finish on a motor racing circuit. The road is wide, but the climbs are often much harder than they appear. I’ve ridden finishes like this in Europe, in Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. You can see quite far ahead, there’s nowhere to hide. Timing will be crucial.

How do you think the race will finish – a select group, a bigger bunch or something different?

You can’t say what’s going to happen, but I don’t expect a bunch sprint after so much climbing. If you look at the route, a small group could very well stay away until the last kilometre. So probably a sprint from a small breakaway. But if one rider is very strong, a solo break is also possible. The small field means there is not much control. In effect, the top contenders will be battling it out one to one.

How do you view the future for women’s road racing in general and the Olympic road race in particular?

The UCI has extended the maximum distance for women’s races to 160 km, and that’s great. Talking specifically about the Olympics, you don’t have to have exactly the same course and if you look at the Olympic road races in Rio the men did twice as many laps as the women, but nobody questioned that because the route had the same characteristics. It was not possible to have identical courses for Tokyo but looking at what they have done and the possibilities, this is a great course.

Looking ahead, I think that the quota is a big issue. Women’s cycling is in development and I think it would be good for equality and the racing itself to have the same quotas for women and men. I am pleased that the UCI is looking into changing participation for Paris 2024 in terms of the quota. I hope the numbers will change in the future.

1 As per UCI Regulations race distances at Olympic Games and UCI World Championships are from 250 to 280km for men and 130 to 160km for women.

2 Field sizes at the Olympics are smaller than at the UCI Road World Championships (130 v 200 for men; women 67 v 140 for women).