Keetie van Oosten-Hage won the first of her two UCI World Championship road race titles in 1968 at Imola on a course that will be largely retraced at the upcoming 2020 edition. It was just ten days after her 19th birthday. That victory marked the beginning of an extremely bright career for the Dutch rider who became one of the strongest cycling champions of all time, capable of winning on any terrain, on the road or the track, and who dominated the national and continental stages for over a decade.
Keetie van Oosten-Hage, whose real name is Cornelia, was born in Sint-Maartensdijk in Zeeland and grew up in a cycling family with her sisters Bella, Heleen and Ciska, all riders as well. Imola was her second UCI World Championship after 1966 in Nürburgring, Germany, when she won the silver medal aged just 17. But the approach to her first rainbow jersey was not a smooth one.
First rainbow jersey
After celebrating her 19th birthday on 21 August, the young rider won her first individual pursuit bronze medal in the UCI Track Cycling World Championship in Rome. But just two days later she was involved in an accident training on the road, hitting a van and tearing a ligament in her pinky finger. By fortunate coincidence, the soigneur of the Italian rider Gianni Motta happened to be driving by, and brought her back to the hotel where she was treated and the finger stitched up. On the eve of the big event on 31 August, the future UCI World Champion didn’t have the relaxing night she'd hoped for due to some noisy room-mates, but was able to rest in the morning as her race was being held in the afternoon.
Ten years after the women's road race joined the UCI Road World Championship - in Reims (France) in 1958 -, Imola hosted the rainbow race with a course that finished in what is now known as the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari after 55.19km. Keetie raced at the 1968 UCI Road World Championships as Cornelia Hage, since she was not yet married.
At first sight, she thought the course was way too easy for her taste: “I would've preferred it hillier,” Van Oosten-Hage told us. “I used to attack a lot but because it was such a flat course and because I was still looking up to the more experienced rivals, I didn't attack during the race as much as I normally did.”
This more conservative strategy, contrasting with her brave youthful temperament, was important in helping the Dutch hopeful save precious energy for the finale.
Heading to the finish line in the Autodrome, 15 riders were all together: “I didn't have anyone special to look out for. I didn't really know the others, some girls I’d never ridden against. So I didn't look for a particular side of the road or anything. I was just sprinting. When I got into the lead there was still a long way to go, it was really tough.”
The spectators were watching a very uncertain first part of the sprint, with at least seven riders on the same line. Then, in the final metres the lead group came down to five – and one of them took her opportunity, head down. Keetie van Oosten-Hage won with an advantage of more than half a bike length. “My legs were hurting and I was thinking maybe someone will pass me, but no one did.”
After becoming the first Dutch woman to step onto the podium of the UCI Road World Championships in 1966 with the silver medal, she gave her country its first gold in the women’s race. The rainbow jersey was the start of a brilliant career.
A decade of dominance on the road and track
Until 1971 Keetie van Oosten-Hage was attending college and training in the evenings only – but that didn't hold her back from becoming Dutch national pursuit champion 12 times consecutively from 1966 to 1977. She also won the national road championship eight times consecutively from 1969 to 1976 and then again in 1978 for the ninth time.
Van Oosten-Hage was individual pursuit UCI World Champion four times: 1975-76 and 1978-79, and became UCI Road World Champion for the second time in 1976, again in Italy. This time the race was in Ostuni, in a larger bunch sprint than in Imola, where she won by a couple of bike lengths.
There are more than 200 races on her palmares, including wins at the first two stages and final classification of Driedaagse van Zeeland in 1973, two victories at the Omloop van het Westerkwartier (1976 and 1978), another double at the Omloop van de Krimpenerwaard (1977 and 1979), and the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic in the USA in 1978 – all this in a period with very few international races and no women’s event at the Olympic Games. She also set the new UCI Hour Record of 43.082km at Munich (Germany) on 16 September 1978. In the same ride she also improved the world records for 5km, 10km and 20km.
Reflecting the impact Van Oosten-Hage had on sports history in the Netherlands, after she won the Dutch Sportswoman of the Year award in 1976 and 1978, the organisation decided that the trophy it presents each year to the best female cyclist would be named after her.
Following the family business, Keetie van Oosten Hage’s nephew Jan van Velzen was a professional rider, competing in the 2004 Giro d'Italia.