“It will be heavy.”
Leontien van Moorsel can barely hide her glee at the demanding route in store for the returning Amstel Gold Ladies Edition. The former multiple world and Olympic champion is race director of the recent addition to the UCI Women’s WorldTour.
“Four times the Cauberg, and the Bemelerberg? Ahh, it will be so heavy!” she laughs. “One-hundred-and-twenty kilometres, that is not so long, but in the final it will be tough. There will be nothing for the sprinters.” She was, of course, absolutely correct, as her compatriot, the reigning Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen, won solo.
Van Moorsel is speaking in English, so I know she means it. For more complex issues – and there are many – Bert Hulleman, founding editor of Wieler Revue, is on hand to provide translation. It’s taken a little while to arrange this meeting with her. I had a feeling it may not be straightforward, and so it proved.
“She’s Dutch. She’ll speak better English than me,” assured the editor.
The response from her PA came back:
“Is it possible to sent the questions by mail? It is for Leontien not possible to do an interview in English…”
“Jesus, the only woman in Holland then…”
Better invite her to guest edit an issue of Rouleur then? I wisely stop short of making further quips questioning the editor’s command of English.
We’ve met at Leontienhuis, a clinic she set up to help people with eating disorders recover from the types of illness that had such a dramatic impact on her life and cycling career.
The building itself is an immaculately restored former farmhouse and cattle barn on the edge of Zevenhuizen, a small village just north of Rotterdam. The feeling is of a spa resort, but where the mind is massaged instead of the body. As such, there are no tables in the treatment rooms, and the reception isn’t a garish apothecary of hair ‘doping’ products and potions.
Instead, it’s a relaxed environment where patients can talk openly about their problems with the staff and volunteers, Van Moorsel included, and where their families are also provided with support. During our interview, a prior appointment Leontien has with a patient naturally needs to be kept.
One can only wonder what mental anguish the new patient must be going through, and it lends perspective to chatting about old bike races, but with no strict time limit in place for consultations, I’m glad I didn’t opt for a flight home that night.
Thankfully, the wait isn’t as long as the 14 years hiatus that the Amstel Gold women’s race took between 2003 and 2017.
Winning Races, Losing Weight
In a seemingly distant time, in a land not so far away, there was also a women’s Tour de France.
The Tour Cycliste Féminin started in 1984. It ran concurrently with the men’s race along much of the same route, generally starting a few hours ahead of the men’s peloton and using the same finish. Albeit sometimes billed as just a curtain raiser for Fignon and company, it made a certain logistical sense. The crowds and atmosphere certainly seduced Van Moorsel.
She first competed in 1989 aged 19, a race she describes as one of her nicest memories. Previously she had been racing with the carefree spirit of a nieuwlinge.
“It was only for fun, I was not thinking about talent, money, whatever. And I eat everything. Potatoes, Snickers, Twixies…
“I was healthy.”
But that race was a turning point. She realised she had the talent and mental strength to reach the top. She finished 31st, 46’48” down on winner Jeannie Longo. The French rider had just taken her third title in a row and Van Moorsel wanted to emulate her success, initially seeing her as a positive inspiration.
The 1989 Tour Cycliste Féminin was the last to be run in that format by La Société du Tour. It returned as a separate event to the men’s, taking place in August over a completely different course. By that point, Van Moorsel was a different rider.
The 1992 edition saw a fiercely close battle between her and Longo. The French rider won the 3.3km prologue time trial in Paris, with Van Moorsel winning the 123.3km stage 2 from Tours to Chauvigny. She then beat Longo by two seconds the following day to win stage 3 at Luz-Ardiden. Despite this, Longo took the race lead and won the mid-race Toulouse 10km time-trial by two seconds from Van Moorsel.
The Dutch rider took the race lead the following day and built a nine-second advantage. She thinks Longo was physically stronger that year, but she had the edge mentally.
“Leontien was so tired she thought ‘I can’t win this Tour de France,’” says Bert. “Her directeur sportif, Pete Hoekstra, told her never to lose the wheel of Longo, ‘Stay behind, stay behind.’”
“Nine seconds is nothing,” she adds.
“So she did what she was told. But her mind was so strong, she thought, ‘I want to win the Tour, even if I…”
The race built to a classic encounter between the pair on the final stage climb up l’Alpe d’Huez. Following Hoekstra’s advice to the letter, she came to a standstill, almost riding backwards into the following car to force Longo into leading out.
Van Moorsel just edged the sprint to win the final stage and race overall, alongside the mountains and points classifications. But if she was prepared to trackstand Longo into submission on a summit finish, she took Hoekstra’s advice to lose weight even further.
She returned to dominate the following year’s 1,160-kilometre race. With Longo crashing out early on, Van Moorsel went largely unchallenged. She won five stages, including the final one solo on Alpe d’Huez, the Dutch mountain. Her overall winning margin was 8’29” from Marion Clignet.
It’s amazing van Moorsel even had the strength to get out of bed, let alone race a bike, as by now anorexia was taking a hold of her. Gone was the simple pleasure of competition and the carefree eating to refuel, as she struggled to deal with the pressure of reaching the top of the sport so quickly. In her mind, as she was winning, there was no problem.
“But there was a problem, a big problem. I was eating nothing in the evenings, only beans.”
She feels the team doctor could, or should, have seen her health was declining and stopped her racing. Her weight dropped as low as 42 kilos and she ultimately had to drop out of the sport altogether in 1994 to recover.
She recognises the same traits in the people that seek help at Leontienhius. “Most girls that are here have a strong personality. But just for the moment that they are sick, they put away their strong effort to survive.”
Patients are encouraged to discover and pursue skills they may be good at, such as yoga, drawing, painting – the idea being that they become absorbed and gradually break the destructive thought patterns that have manifested into an eating disorder.
I put it to her that they’re safe pastimes to become absorbed in. To come back to cycling, where borderline obsessive diet and weight control are intrinsic to the sport, seems fraught with complexity. Why take that risk?
“Before, I was like a machine. And afterwards, it was pleasure. Winning the Tour de France was not me – it was a different person. When I came back on the top, it’s me, it’s smiling, it’s Leontien, it’s fun, it’s much nicer and healthier.”
Whereas before she devised her own training regime, this time she handed complete control to her parents-in-law, and husband Michael Zijlaard. Her initial goals weren’t to reach the top of the sport but to enjoy racing, ensure proper recovery. And do it healthily.
“I wanted to show younger riders that it was not good what I did to win the Tour de France,” she says.
Leontien had burst onto the scene as an 18-year-old and ruffled feathers. “She was world champion three times. So she was not only good at cycling, but also had a good performance,” says Bert, slightly confusingly.
At which point I realise things are perhaps getting lost in translation.
Leontien has just passionately spoken at length in Dutch on this matter, and yet the response back in English is very much shorter. I think Bert is being chivalrous about Longo and Monique Knol’s fashion sense.
“She looked more feminine, instead of the other girls,” steps in Kim, our photographer. “They made fun of her because she was wearing nail polish and lipstick. Back then, it was really strange to be feminine and sporty at the same time.”
I get Leontien’s drift later when I follow her advice and Google Daniëlle Overgaag, whom she describes as “really, really nice!” The pair were young riders together, and felt they got much less slack from the peloton due to their appearance. She felt they had to try far harder to make a breakaway stick than their peers. Locker room stuff.
“Vrouw!” (Women!) she exclaims. “In my second life I will be a man, it’s much easier,” she says, switching back to English. “And then I beat Lance Armstrong, Froome, or whoever!”
I remind her she went faster than Mario Cipollini in a time-trial (the Souvenir Magali Pasche in Switzerland). “He was good looking, Cipollini. But I beat him.”
September 12 2001 initially lacks significance, cycling or otherwise. It is a day to forget.
Manchester Velodrome has been open for seven years and the embers are just starting to glow in what is to become recognised as the crucible of British cycling. It had also developed a reputation as a fast track. Just not quite fast enough for Van Moorsel, who has just climbed off after a failed Hour record attempt.
She admits she went in under-prepared, thinking it would be relatively easy, and relying on her evident form.
The previous summer, she had more than underlined she was back at the top. In a stunning performance at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, she won gold in the road race, time-trial and 3km pursuit, and silver in the points race.
9/11 also had a practical and emotional impact on her first Hour record attempt. Her parents could not fly in to offer their vital support. She also admits a world record suddenly seemed irrelevant compared to the suffering of those caught up in the New York terrorist attacks. She was not completely focused.
Skip forward two years to her second Hour Record attempt, this time at altitude in Mexico City, October 2003. This time the words of her great rival Longo would provide the correct sort of motivation. She’d said Van Moorsel was slower than before she was ill, as she was 20 kilos heavier.
Longo held the record at 45.094km. The plan had been for Van Moorsel to break her record by just 200 metres or so. But she went 1km ahead of schedule in the first half hour and then managed to hold the advantage, gaining inspiration from Longo’s words.
The final numbers were 46.065km. Until they weren’t. The Hour record she set on a ‘Merckx-style’ bike (with drop bars and open wheels) was reclassified as the unified hour record in 2014. Now it could be attempted on a modern track bike, with tri-bars and disc wheels. Low hanging fruit, seemingly.
But Sarah Storey failed in the first attempt on her record and the USA’s Molly Shaffer Van Houweling managed to add only just over 200 metres to the distance. She doesn’t really regard that her record was beaten anyway. “It was really stupid from the UCI,” Van Moorsel says. She even entertained thoughts of going for it again, but only for one day.
“On the new bike, it’s easy. It’s with two fingers in my nose, and we go hard, only one hour pain in my legs, come on, do it!”
Back to the Future
Leontien van Moorsel was third in the first Amstel Gold women’s race held in 2001. She soloed to victory in 2002. It lasted for just three editions. Nicole Cooke won the last one on the Cauberg, which finished on the climb for the first time that year.
Van Moorsel had been pushing for a return of the race, but it was her fellow Dutchwomen’s success at the London and Rio Olympics – most notably, road race gold for Marianne Vos and Anna van der Breggen – that convinced Amstel to back it.
She is unequivocal that success lies with the race taking place on the same day and course as the men’s race, with live TV coverage of the last half hour crucial to attract sponsors wanting to invest in women’s cycling.
In the 2003 Amstel Gold, the women’s and men’s pelotons came perilously close to meeting. Leo Van Vliet understandably described it as the “worst hour” of his race-directing career. So, are ASO at least partially correct when they claim such logistical challenges are the reason they cannot hold another women’s Tour de France on the same roads as the men?
“Ah, bullshit! It’s all bullshit, you understand that, bullshit?” she laughs.
At ease, Bert. I think I got this one.
“It is now also possible in Holland in the Amstel Gold Race. When they find the sponsor, they will do it. It’s all with money.” Our interview concludes and she says maybe we’ll talk in another ten years’ time.
We rather hope that, if indeed we do sit down again a decade from now, Van Moorsel will have met with ASO in the interim and given them some forthright opinions. She’s rather good at cutting through the crap and getting things done. Race director for the women’s Tour de France? Now there’s a thought.
Originally published in issue 17.6 of Rouleur