Catherine Marsal has had an amazing life in cycling. The Frenchwoman was an Olympian at 17 in 1988, the first ever women’s Junior Road World Champion in 1987, and the Elite World Champion in her first year as an elite in 1990; struggling for a few years, then becoming World Champion in the Hour Record in 1995; winning the Giro and the Tour de l’Aude Grand Tours; working as a Directeur Sportif before retiring from cycling, and then coming back to the sport as women’s road coach for the Danish Cycling Federation.
She’s seen a lot, and I talked to her about all this, the difficulties of becoming World Champion at a young age, racing with (and against) Jeannie Longo, and of course, the amazing results of the young Danish women, especially in the last week, when 2016 Road World Champion Amalie Dideriksen won 2017 WorldTour #2, the Ronde van Drenthe, and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig won the GC at the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana, and then came third in WorldTour #3, the Trofeo Alfredo Binda.
Of course I think you should listen to my podcast with Marsal, but for those of you who prefer to read interviews, I’ve written part of it up below.
ProWomensCycling: It’s a little bit exciting for Danish cycling right now, isn’t it?
Catherine Marsal: We are on a cloud! Things have been going very well since the beginning of the season, the girls are improving so well, every race sees a new adventure, and I’m looking forward to every weekend, to see what’s going to happen next.
PWC: Did you expect that the Danes would do so well this year?
Marsal: I was expecting – and hoping – that Amalie Dideriksen could express herself, and show her rainbow jersey. Amalie is not World Champion by chance, she’s a rider who has being working so hard and getting results – maybe not always seen by the media, but she’s been progressing, and the World Champion’s title is something she had in the corner of her mind. It was very important for her to win a WorldTour race in that jersey, and confirm to the world that she is the World Champion.
PWC: She won Drenthe in such beautiful style – Boels-Dolmans rode the race so well, and she got into a break with some really clever riders, and just trusted herself.
Marsal: She has such an instinct for racing, that is unbelievable for her age. She knows how to handle a very tricky situation like that, and she has a very strong capacity to handle the pressure, and what we expect from her. That will give her so much strength for the future.
PWC: And Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig is a revelation this year.
Marsal: For sure. She has stepped up so much by moving to Cervélo-Bigla. There is so much in her that still needs to be discovered, but if you remember last year, she won the Tour Feminin in the Czech Republic, and she did great racing in Gracia-Orlová. She showed that you could trust her and give her some responsibility, and I’m very glad that at Bigla they support her fully to explore her skills, and I think Cecilie will go very far. Of course, there could be illness and injury, but if everything goes well, she has a long and very beautiful year in front of her.
PWC: When I look at Dideriksen and Uttrup Ludwig, they’ve had very different paths. Dideriksen did amazing work in her past two years as an elite, learning as a domestique in Boels-Dolmans, the biggest team in the world, while Uttrup Ludwig has taken the more classic development route, through more races for development riders.
Marsal: They are both the same age, and they’ve followed each other from a young age. Cecilie decided to focus on her education in 2015, so she paused her racing at the beginning of 2015, to focus on studying and to be free after that, while Amalie chose to do race in parallel with her education, and do her studies part-time, with one extra year. And that’s where their paths split a little bit – but now they are re-crossing inside the WorldTour, and are developing more in the same way again.
Marsal: If everything goes well, we can have an incredible team for World Championships this year. Julie Leth is such an important part of the national team – she has such experience as road captain, taking decisions on the road, for the mood of the team. I gave her the responsibility of road captain in Doha World Championships, and she took it with both hands and grabbed it, and she played a very, very important part in Amalie’s victory. She has such experience, she sees things, and she’s very talented, and very powerful as a team-mate.
We also have Christina Siggaard and Camilla Møllebro at VéloConcept, we have a lot of talent pushing and growing, like Emma Norsgaard, who is only a junior, but is the elite Danish Champion, so we have a great future ahead of us.
PWC: Can you tell us a bit about Qatar, because Dideriksen was an unexpected winner in a race that a lot of people, including me, had thought Kirsten Wild was definitely going to win!
Marsal: But you know, in my own experience, you play your cards a little bit differently when the World Championships are in the Olympic year. It was a very long season, and the one who is fresher can play their cards differently. Even though Amalie was hoping for a top 10, we knew, we knew in our hearts that she could podium.
For sure, the victory is a huge thing, and beating Kristen Wild… but she made it! She grabbed her chance, and this was the year she could do it, and it was majestic.
PWC: I said all the Scandinavians would suffer – Scandinavians riding in the desert, it doesn’t seem like it would make sense!
Marsal: You have to remember, the Danish are Vikings! So they know how to cope with things. They just put the discomfort on the side, and go for it.
PWC: What advice did you give Amalie and the team before the race? Especially as you only had three riders, and the Dutch had nine!
Marsal: We were a little bit outnumbered! What I said was to race clever, wait as much as possible, but be in the move if something goes away. And I talked to Amalie two days before the race, and I said “race with your instincts”. She knows how to race, she knows how to do these things, she just needed to ignore the expectations of other people, and race with pleasure and have fun, without thinking about the results.
I was afraid there were too many expectations were coming from the outside world, and people would expect too much, but that didn’t happen, so we let her develop on her own feelings and instincts, and it went very well.
PWC: Amalie is kind of following your path – you were the first ever Junior Road World Champion, and just three years later, you were the Elite World Champion. Were you able to give her advice based on that?
Marsal: The advice I gave her was after the race. Being World Champion puts a media wave on you, that could be difficult to handle when you’re young. But she mastered this very well. The months after Worlds have been very difficult for her, because of course the media and everyone wants a piece of you. But she has been very good, and very well-supported by her family – her parents are fully engaged behind her, and that helps a lot.
PWC: And now that she’s won Drenthe, she can relax, because she’s got that big win in her rainbow jersey.
Marsal: She can enjoy her jersey, and take every opportunity she can grab. She’s proven herself to everyone, and I was never in doubt.
PWC: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself – you were Junior World Champion, you went to the Olympics aged just 17.
Marsal: That was in Seoul, and I had to have special authorisation from the UCI, as I was under 18. But that was very young. I remember being so impressed at the Olympics, then I went again to Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney.
Every time you go to the Olympics, you learn something new. You learn how to approach the race – there’s such a different atmosphere at the Olympics and the World Championships, so it’s very important to bring riders and let them experience what the Olympics are like, and what to expect for the next time.
PWC: When you became Junior World Champion, there hadn’t been that opportunity for women before. What did it mean to you, getting those first rainbow jerseys?
Marsal: I remember being in the wheel of a Russian girl in the Junior World Championships in Bergamo, and thinking “Oh, it’s so cool, I’m going to get silver!”, I wasn’t thinking I could win. And then we arrived at the finish, and I outsprinted her, and I was World Champion!
It was such a surprise! But then everything went so fast. I was Junior World Champion on the track the year after that, and that same year I rode the Elite Road World Championships in Chambéry, I was still a junior, but they put me in the Elite World Championships, and I came second behind Jeannie Longo, and the year after that, I was World Champion, in my first year of elites.
That was amazing. Longo and I didn’t race together. Jeannie Longo was part of the National Team, but she rode her own race, and the rest of the team was racing on my side! At that time, Jeannie was doing her own thing in the National Team. She was so strong, she was unbeatable in Chambéry, so coming second behind her as a junior was unbelievable too. I was on the podium between Jeannie Longo and Maria Canins, I was the little baby!
PWC: I always get the impression that Jeannie Longo was racing as much against the other French riders as she was against her opponents.
Marsal: That was always Jeannie Longo’s story. When we were riding together in the national team, she would very rarely really engage with the team. That was Jeannie Longo. We knew her, and we knew that she had her own methods – she was working alone on the side, and that was the deal. We never found a way to work on the same lines in the national team.
PWC: I guess a rider couldn’t be like that these days – she’d lose her team, unless it was built explicitly around her.
Marsal: It would not work. And I think she would have the whole peloton against her.
PWC: And that’s a good thing. I look at her achievements, which are amazing, of course, but I don’t think she was a positive force for French cycling in general.
Marsal: It would have been difficult work for the national coach, to handle that team, when you know there is one rider on one side, and the rest of the team on the other.
PWC: Did those experiences help your roles after your own racing career?
Marsal: What helps me now is more my experience as a rider, not what I’ve seen from people coaching me in the national team. I get a lot of inspiration from what I felt as a rider, and I know how to transmit that to riders. I know what they go through, and what kinds of doubts they have in the evenings, and what kind of words they want to hear, so that’s more where my work is.
I work a lot on an individual basis, talking a lot to the riders individually, and that’s important in women’s cycling, that you listen to riders, and let them talk to you.
PWC: So let’s talk about your career. You won the Giro, and you won another Grand Tour, the Tour de l’Aude, twice. You set the Hour Record in 1995. Which are the ones that you look back on and think “I’m proud of that”.
Marsal: The World Hour Record. That was a moment in my career when I was struggling. I had been World Champion at 19 years old, and it was very demanding on the media side, and I was not equipped to handle this. I come from a family of eight kids, my parents were farmers, and they didn’t have time to understand this game of media.
I became World Champion, and I just wanted to go home to the farm and train for the next season. I didn’t understand that I had to give some time to the media. So it was difficult, and mentally I wasn’t in a very stable place at the end of my teenage years, so I really collapsed under the pressure of the World Championship jersey. I remember being almost happy to lose it in Stuttgart in 1991. I was feeling like “now this jersey is not on my shoulders any more”. And it’s sad to look back on, because in 1998, when I was so close to becoming World Champion in Benidorm, I should have wished to become World Champion when I was a little bit more mature, so I could enjoy it a little bit more.
After 1990, I had a few seasons of up and down, up and down, up and down, and 1995 was a rebirth for me in my career. People put it in my head that I could beat the World Hour Record, and at first I was like “Are you kidding?”. But we went for it, with Corima and with region, Moselle, as my main sponsors
It was a record set by Jeannie Longo that no one tried to beat for six years, and it was a monument I was attacking. With the period I’d been through, not many people believed I could beat it, myself included. Until it happens, you really have a hard time believing you can! But we did it, and that was a stepping stone in my career.
PWC: After your career, you became involved in the organisational side of cycling – how did that happen?
Marsal: I was at the Rotterdam World Cup, still as a rider, and after the race, Meredith Miller and Rochelle Gilmore, who was still a rider at Team SATS, coming to see me, and saying “Hey Cat, we want to talk to you – will you be Sports Director for Team SATS next year?” And I was like, “Hello? I’d need to quit cycling first!”. So they pushed me off the bike! After one discussion over coffee, I started my education in cycling activity, a diploma you have to have in France to be a Directeur Sportif, a two-month course over winter, and then I became DS for Team SATS, based in Copenhagen.
That’s where I started, straight from being a cyclist to Sports Director, managing the sponsorship, deal with the other side of the team, and it was a great experience. After Team SATS, I was second DS for my old Italian team, Nobili Rubinetterie in Italy, and after that I started studying in Denmark.
I did a Bachelors Degree in Nutrition and Health, about lifestyle-related diseases, like diabetes and high blood pressure. I’d had the need to step away from cycling, after those two years as DS. It was too demanding for me to have been an athlete and on the road all the time, and then being Sports Director, I was even more on the road, so I needed to settle back, do some studying, and forget about cycling for a few years.
So I did my Bachelors Degree for three and a half years, and I worked for Maersk, the big oil company, as centre leader for a big employee fitness centre.
I worked for Maersk for five years, and I’d heard that the Danish Cycling Union didn’t have any plans for women’s cycling, so in the back of my mind, I’d been thinking about proposing something to them. I was so close to getting in contact with them, when I saw in a press release that they were actually looking for a woman coach! So that was perfect timing, they’d just read my mind! So I made an application, went through the interviews, and I got the job! It was perfect timing to come back to cycling, and re-engage with what I know the best!
PWC: So what has been your key work, so far?
Marsal: They asked me to re-build the national team, and re-create an elite culture, what it means to have the national team jersey on your shoulders. Of course there is a lot of development work I need to do underneath that, creating more licenses, and more density in the Danish peloton. There are still not enough women on the startline at the Danish Championships. But my first objective was to re-build the national team, and I think we’ve done brilliantly at that, obviously! [laughs]. In three years, we’ve created more than a national team, we’ve got the World Champion – we couldn’t wish for a better start to the process.
Now we have the elites as an icon. All the elites are more or less placed in UCI teams, and getting their own UCI points for Denmark, which is important for the World Championships and Olympic quota, but they are growing on their own. So now I have more time to focus on the youth categories, U16 and Juniors, and to help them move up to the next categories.
When we get closer to the Olympics, I will re-engage the elite riders in a programme to go through the Olympic qualifications, and we will be in Tokyo.
PWC: And it looks like a flat, sprinty course…
Marsal: It’s very, very, very good course for us!
PWC: You are taking a Danish team to the Junior Healthy Ageing Tour next month – is that part of it, giving young women the opportunity to get to these races?
Marsal: For sure. For them it’s a huge thing, it’s a big event, and it’s the first step to learn how to move up to World Championships and all the bigger events. It’s always very interesting to work with the younger age groups, because they have so much to learn, and they are listening, and are like sponges – they really listen to you!
PWC: Giorgia Bronzini said she wants to coach, after she rides, but she’s said she doesn’t want to work with Juniors, because what if she gives them the wrong advice, and ruins their career forever!
Marsal: Noooo! She would be the best coach ever for the Juniors!
It’s true that you need to have a little bit of sensitivity. You don’t push Juniors like you do the Elites. You can’t be as straight-forward, you have to be a little bit more sensitive. They are still young, and still in the learning phase, and I sometimes control the way I approach them. But apart from that, the advice you give them is the same as you give to the elites. Bronzini would be such an inspirational coach.
PWC: Cycling has obviously changes since you were racing. I was looking down your palmares, and there are so many races you won that have disappeared – the Tour of Texas, the Tour de l’Aude. How would you say the sport has most changed?
Marsal: The technology has changed, tremendously. When I look at the bikes now, I laugh, because we were racing on bikes where we still changed gear on the frame! I’ve been through the first automatic pedals – a kid now is jumping on a Colnago at the age of 12 – and we went through the first Look pedals! So the equipment has changed so much, there’s no doubt.
And the structure has changed. At a young age, I was racing exclusively with the French national team. Professional teams didn’t exist. It was way less structured.
And now you have professional teams. In 1990, I was practically racing by myself – as soon as there was a climb, I went away by myself, there was no team engaging and organising behind me. It was a one-to-one fight inside the peloton, rather than teams racing alongside each other.
PWC: So, where do you think women’s cycling is going?
Marsal: I there will be more live coverage, especially for the WorldTour. It seems like we’re slowly getting towards that, with more media coverage. Of course we can dream about a world where men’s and women’s cycling are on an equal level, but I’m not sure that will happen, but at least, if we can have our own live coverage at all the WorldTour races, that will be amazing.
PWC: It’s been fantastic as a fan, seeing the increase – in the past three weeks, we’ve had three live WorldTour races. It’s not going to carry on like that throughout the season, but it’s been pretty damn good!
Marsal: Every weekend, I can follow the racing! It’s not high quality, it’s not live on television, but you can be within the race and follow it live, so it’s a first step, and we hope it will engage sponsors to want more, and build more interest in women’s cycling. Let’s keep pushing!
PWC: Looking ahead, where do you want the Danish National Team to be in five years time?
Marsal: In five years time, I would like to have…. let’s hope an Olympic medal, and the maximum number of spots at the Olympics as well. We can dream about having three spots at the Olympics in Tokyo 2020 – that will be a tough fight, but I think we will have the capacity to do it.
And having more of a density of riders – having 60-70 riders starting in the National Championships is a goal I’d like to reach. And still being in the top ten of the UCI national rankings – that would be fantastic.
PWC: And personally, what are your goals for the future?
Marsal: My goals are to keep engaging myself in this job. I love it, I think it’s my dream job, where I can express myself the best. Now I’m part-time, and I hope I could become full-time, and work more underneath, and across disciplines, like road, cyclocross, MTB and track, and work more on the bigger picture.
PWC: So if there’s a 15 year old girl out there who wants to be the next Catherine Marsal, what advice would you give her?
Marsal: I would tell her to have fun, to observe, to soak up everything she can from the Elites, to be patient, and to never give up!
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