Yesterday I put up my podcast interview with Classics star and cycling tactical genius Loes Gunnewijk, and I know I’m biased, but you should really head over and listen to that, because I love the way Loes talks about winning Classics, her London Olympic experience, and the sheer enjoyment in her voice when she talks about racing on tough cobbles in cold, windy, nasty weather!
But because I know you’re not all podcast people, I’ve adapted parts of it below for you to read, including her tips for racing the Classics, the problems for the Dutch at the Olympics, her descriptions of the Spring World Tour races, retiring from cycling and more.
It doesn’t have everything, so you’ll have to listen for Loes’ experiences on the UCI Directeur Sportif course, and tons more. And with the second Women’s World Tour race, the Ronde van Drenthe taking place tomorrow, we’ll start with her talking about racing – and winning – at Drenthe.
ProWomensCycling: We’re in one of the most exciting times of the year, right at the beginning of the season. I always thought of you as a Classics rider, but I look at your palmares and you were good at all kinds of races. Which did you like best?
LG: Spring Classics! I love them, especially when you have spring weather – and my spring weather is different from what a lot of people would call nice spring weather! My ideal spring racing weather is 6-8º, windy, maybe a little bit of rain. Especially for the races with cobbled sections, that’s wonderful. It has to be cold and windy – not sunny, calm and 15º, that’s for summer style.
PWC: For people who are new to the Spring Classics, can you tell us about the big races, starting with Ronde van Drenthe. It has the man-made hill, the cobbles that are like no others in the world, the mossy little paths that are slippery – what’s it like to race?
LG: It’s a fight for survival! You have to be clever, and you have to be in front, concentrating from start to finish – which of course you have to do in all races, but in that race you have to be in a good position. You have to save your energy as much as possible, but also spend energy when it’s necessary, because you have to be in front on the cobbled sections and on the climbs. Because it’s spring, it’s one of the first races, and with the weather, it’s going to be a really tough race – people will find out how fit they are. It’s the whole package.
PWC: That hill looks horrible to ride, it looks so tough
LG: It’s just a short one, it’s not really a hill, but especially in the final, it can break your legs. The ‘road’ over it is like a bicycle path, really narrow, and coming onto it from one side there’s a 90º corner, a sharp one. If you’re not in the right position you can lose the race there. If you’re too far back, someone always drops their chain, or crashes, and you’re stuck behind them and the first few will go, and you’ll never see them again.
PWC: Which makes it so much fun to watch!
LG: And fun to ride! If you know the course well, it makes it a little bit easier, but still, it’s a tough race.
LG: Binda depends on the weather, too. I was in the top ten a few times, but that was in really cold weather, 6º and rain – it was horrible, some people actually got hypothermia because it was so freezing. But when it’s like that I always have a little bit extra, so I had a few good races there – but even if it’s sunny, it’s a tough one.
I rode Gent-Wevelgem last year, and it’s got cobbled sections and a few nasty climbs, and it was really windy there, and it’s also a men’s Classic, so it’s good they’re now a World Tour for women there.
And Flanders – that’s a special one. A lot of spectators, great atmosphere, and of course all the Belgian climbs and cobbled sections – it’s King’s Day. Flanders and Flèche Wallonne are really big races, with a long history, and if you talk about Flanders to a random cyclist anywhere in the world, everyone knows what you’re talking about, that makes it really special to win those
PWC: What was your favourite Flanders memory?
LG: When I came third there [in 2006, when Flexpoint team-mate Mirjam Melchers-Van Poppel won] – that was because of really great team tactics. But I always loved that race, I had good results, though I never won there, but I was close a few times, and the podium was a really good one
PWC: For riders and teams who want to win Flanders, what do you to do, do you think?
LG: Ride it like Drenthe – be in a good position, spend your energy when it’s necessary, and save it when you can. You have to ride aggressively, but choose the moments when you have to. And that’s always hard, because you never know from year to year what will happen in Flanders – you can’t say it’ll be this climb where the action will happen, or that climb; sometimes you have to start early, and sometimes you have to wait longer. And it depends how the weather is, you have so many circumstances – and how your team is, and how the other teams are, and the other riders.
PWC: And in terms of positioning, sometimes I watch men’s cycling on TV, and the commentators are saying “It’s easy, you just have to be at the front” – but obviously everyone in the peloton wants to be at the front!
LG: Sometimes the biggest battles are before the climb or before the cobbled sections. Like in Drenthe, it’s war for the 5k before the cobbled section because you know you have to be in the first ten riders, and it’s a long sprint to the roundabout, and you turn left, then in 100m you turn right and then you’re on the cobbled section, and that’s the biggest battle, I think.
PWC: The first women’s road race I watched live, apart from Olympics, was the 2010 Ronde van Drenthe World Cup, where you and Annemiek van Vleuten attacking together. That was the first time I’d really seen a women’s race properly, and it was exhilarating. Was it as much fun to ride like that?
LG: Oh yeah, because in the final I knew everybody was attacking, and I had to wait for the moment, so I was riding more at the back in the group for the last 5kms, and I was waiting. I knew there would be a moment, it would come, but with 1,500m to go, someone attacked and it slowed down, and everybody was watching each other, and I knew this is it, and I went straight away. I knew at that moment, “this is a good one”. I saw Iris Slappendel was in my wheel, and I went full gas in the corner, and I knew I could take a few metres, and then they couldn’t pull me back. That was amazing – I knew I was really having a good day on that one.
PWC: When you look back at your cycling career, is it the wins that you remember most, or other things?
LG: Of course a few wins, for sure, and of course the Olympics. But I had so much fun with my teams and my team-mates, and a few became really good friends. Because of my bike, I travelled all over the world and I have friends everywhere. And you have so many experiences, being in countries you would never have gone to otherwise.
And I also learned a lot about myself – it’s not only about winning, it’s also about losing and how to deal with that, and use that in a positive way for the future. I think I learned the whole package, and I really enjoyed it. And I always just wanted to ride my bike, and race, and I had the opportunity to do that, so I’m really proud of that.
PWC: At the Olympics in London, you and Ellen van Dijk were just so good, dominating the race before you’d even come out of London.
LG: London was amazing, it was just such a great experience. It was the whole season, right from the start, first getting selected, and we had a good training camp in Tuscany, and a race in France leading into London. I think we had the best team there – we really liked each other and were racing well together. I remember when we did the warm-up, riding to Buckingham Palace, and on the way back, we looked at each other, and the four of us had goose bumps on our arms, and were saying “this is amazing”, because there were so many people at the start line.
In the last 2 minutes before the start they played Eminem ‘Lose Yourself’ – “you only have one shot, one opportunity” and that was our team song. We looked at each other, and we all had big smiles on our faces, and we saw the dark clouds above London, and knew this was our day. We’d been praying for bad weather – we knew that the worse the circumstances were, and the tougher it could be, the better it would be for us!
In the beginning of the race, you could not even yell to each other, because you couldn’t hear, there were so many people cheering – only on a bridge and other places where people couldn’t stand, were almost silent. It was a great race, and of course that’s also because Marianne Vos won the gold medal – we had one mission, and one goal, and that was gold – it was really awesome.
PWC: It felt like you really did at it as a team. I was laughing because there was a time when you were attacking, and as soon as you were caught, Ellen attacked, then you attacked, and she did it again, and it was perfect – exactly like when I say “this is what I love about women’s cycling” – I can point to that race and show people.
LG: Afterwards, we had a lot of compliments about that – including from riders from all over the world. They said “You were one team, you had one tactic and one mission”. So that made us extra proud.
PWC: One of the things I wanted to ask you about is who you think will go to the Olympics this year, because it’s harder for the Dutch. You have 4 spots – but if you sent your 5th-10th best riders, they’d still be a better team than most countries’ A riders.
LG: It’s going to be a hard battle for everyone to get selected. But I think that’s the luxury our national coach has, it’s not going to be an easy one. For sure, Anna van der Breggen, Marianne Vos, Annemiek van Vleuten and Ellen van Dijk will have a big chance to go. But you know, it’s still cycling, you just have to perform in the Spring, and we’ll see how everybody is going.
PWC: And the Dutch have the luxury of being able to pick the riders who are the best for the course. I look at descending and think of Lucinda Brand, for example, but if it was a flat course you have Kirsten Wild. Dutch cycling feels so strong, you’ve got everything from climbers to sprinters and everything in between
LG: We’re just a small country, and we don’t really have hills, but we still have really good climbers. We are a strong country and have a lot of good riders. But we have a lot of wind we can train in!
PWC: It must be frustrating, for a rider like Chantal Blaak, who’s wonderful, but I always wonder if someone like Chantal ever considers maybe finding a Belgian grandmother, and becoming Belgian for the Olympics.
LG: But on the the other hand, we’re also really proud Dutchies, and just want to ride in the orange jersey, and if we get selected, it’s something to be really proud of. I’ve team mates from other countries who were always jealous of the facilities the Dutch Federation has – the training camps, the gym – until it’s time to go to Worlds, and everyone else gets selected, or the Olympic selection, and then they are happy they’re not Dutch!
Learning Classics skills
PWC: Did you spend a lot of time thinking about how your rivals race, what they’re good at, or less good at, so you’d know if you attacked here, it would take them by surprise?
LG: I knew I would not attack on the climbs, because there are far more better climbers than me, so I would go almost at the top, or on the top – so you think about the places you want to attack. I also learned that if I saw a moment, I just had to go. Just half a second later, the moment is has gone and you’re too late. I learned that from one DS – he said “You have to race with your heart”, and he’s right.
So if I saw a good moment, I would attack. Sometimes you just have to attack 8 times, and the 11th time you attack get into the break. You have to always stay positive, and keep going, and it will work out – maybe it’s not in that race, but it makes you stronger, and you can take that to the next race, and it will come for sure.
PWC: How do you stop yourself thinking too much? Sometimes you see that in races, like the Ronde van Vlaanderen, when Ellen van Dijk, and Elisa Longo Borghini won – that moment when riders are worrying, and should have chased – how do you learn to trust yourself?
LG: Sometimes you don’t know. A lot of time I was caught with 1km to go or 3k to go, after a nice break of 15km, and you think afterwards, “why didn’t I wait a little bit longer?”. You don’t always have success.
But I remember my win in the Omloop het Nieuwsblad in 2012, I won that race, more or less, in 2011. In 2011 I was in the break, and it became smaller and smaller, and on the last cobbled section I didn’t attack, and then we had a tailwind, and I didn’t really have a plan for the final. And then there were just four of us in the break, and I thought “What if I come fourth?” and all that stuff – and I was fourth, and I was so grumpy with myself afterwards, and I knew I didn’t want that to happen again.
So in 2012, I knew I’d had a really good winter, and I was in good shape, and I love that race, so I knew it would be hard for someone to beat me that day. On the last cobbled section, I attacked, and I had really had a plan for the whole race, and when I went I knew it would be hard for anyone to follow me. A few kilometres later, Ellen joined me, and I knew how I wanted to ride the final – and I started my sprint really early, and she passed me, and I passed her again, and I won the race!
I learned a lot from 2011. You always have to be critical, you have to look at how you raced, and what you can do differently in next race, what went really well, and you have to keep that in your mind, and take it to the next race, and into the next season.
PWC: How did you learn race-reading skills?
LG: I don’t know! I like the tactics, and to think a few steps ahead – what’s going to happen, what other teams are going to do, and I don’t like losing, so it’s all about that! If you don’t like to lose, you have to be smarter than everyone else.
On retirement from cycling – and what she’s doing now
PWC: You retired in June last year – why did you choose to go then?
LG: I could not perform at the level I wanted, and how I was used to any more, and I didn’t want to finish totally negatively, and I had the feeling I needed to stop almost straightaway. But it’s the kind of decision you don’t make in one day, so it took me a long time to work it out, and then
You know that the moment you stop will come, and I’d already announced that it was going to be my last year, so I was more prepared for it. It’s kind of a big step, because you’ve been living this way for 15 years, and then you don’t have to do that any more. You have more time to spend at home with your friends and family, but also you don’t have to train any more – but your body still likes to do sport and exercise, and you have to find a totally new balance in your life.
It’s not an easy decision, but it’s a little bit easier when you can announce it yourself, and make that decision yourself. I always said I hoped I could make that decision, that I wouldn’t have to stop because of a bad crash or injury. Of course, my crash [in April] was the start of my decision, or made it all go faster. But it takes some time, and you have to find a new balance.
PWC: And you’ve stayed around the sport – you were commentating for the Ladies Tour of Norway livestream, and you’ve been on the UCI Directeur Sportif course – but was it strange going to races and being around your old team, ORICA-AIS?
LG: No, I loved seeing them again, they’re like my second family, and it was really nice to see the racing. In Norway it was just good to see them, and it was totally different to see the racing from the other side of the line, and see it as a spectator and an interviewer. I enjoyed that – and during the Boels Rental Ladies Tour I was a host for VIPs, and I really enjoyed that week so much. That was a little bit of a surprise for me, and I thought “I have to do something with this”.
And I’d also written the letter to the UCI about the Sport Director course, and I got the scholarship, so I was really happy with that one. Now I have my certificate as a DS, and that’s in my future plans
PWC: What are you working on at the moment?
LG: I’m doing some presentations for companies about my cycling career, and running team-building events, and running some bike clinics. I’m starting a course for people who are just starting cycling, for people who are just learning bike skills, and I’m organising a few events. It’s all sport-related, but that’s my job too, I’m also a sport manager.
PWC: So if people want to learn your skills, they can pay you to get them!
LG: For sure! It makes me happy, I like to teach people, and it’s nice to share your passion for the bike with other people, and with just a few tips and tricks, you can learn a lot, and improve your cycling.
Follow Loes – and book onto one of her cycling clinics, to learn her secrets – on her website, and her twitter. Loes won the Ronde van Drenthe in gorgeous fashion in 2010 – here’s how to follow the 2016 version.
I’m funded to do this kind of women’s cycling work thanks to my wonderful Patreon supporters – thank you so much! If you want to join them from just £1.50/$2 a month, there’s more information here.