How Ellen van Dijk learned to live in the moment of her success
Success can be misleading. Before Ellen van Dijk won a world championship in 2013, she had dreamed of wearing the rainbow stripes. In her words, “I always thought if I ever became a world champion, then my life is complete.”
Instead, winning a world championship created a new void she couldn’t fill. A curse of expectation that she cast on herself.
“[Winning] is nice, but life goes on and nothing really changes,” Van Dijk says. “I thought, ‘Now I have to show every time I’m the best, and I have to keep doing this.’ With this whole thing I lost a little bit of the joy in cycling. I made it harder for myself, and I couldn’t enjoy it so much afterwards, and that was a real shame.”
For eight years, Van Dijk came close but never quite succeeded in re-summiting the mountain. She took third at Worlds in 2020, third in 2018 and second in 2016. She suffered a broken pelvis in 2019 that forced her to rework her position on the bike. Winning a world championship at 26 convinced her that winning again would be a formality. That wasn’t the case.
I got some medals at the World Championships, which was really great, but once you’ve won it, there’s only one thing you want, and it’s to win it again.
“I just never really got that feeling again of being the best time trialist,” Van Dijk says. “I got some medals at the World Championships, which was really great, but once you’ve won it, there’s only one thing you want, and it’s to win it again.”
Van Dijk describes the intervening years as a lot of frustration and disappointment. Last year was almost a low point. She was supposed to be a healthy scratch for the individual time trial at the World Championships in Imola, and only earned a spot on the Dutch roster after Annemiek van Vleuten pulled out of the event due to a broken wrist. She took bronze in the event, but felt disappointed afterwards, as if she had so much more to give.
Van Dijk is meticulous. She takes notes after every race she rides to keep track of her performance and how she needs to improve going forward. After Imola, at the end of a long document, she wrote one last sentence: “Next year, Worlds is completely flat, and that rainbow is going to be mine.”
Ellen Van Dijk riding all out in Brugge.
Van Dijk entered the 2021 season focused on performing well in Brugge. She had the help of a group of people she calls “Team Ellen,” which included a dedicated and encouraging boyfriend, and a team of Trek-Segafredo technical staff who helped fit her to the new time trial bike.
Trek-Segafredo head of performance Josu Larrazabal was particularly important to her mission. Together, they created a training plan that would put her in peak condition for September.
Van Dijk and Larrazabal have been working together for three years, since the formation of the Trek-Segafredo women’s team. She describes him as highly passionate and analytical, but also a supportive confidant. At times, he acts as a counterweight to her perfectionism and self-criticism.
“I’m never ever satisfied, and this is sometimes a big weakness because then there’s always something to complain about: ‘That’s not good enough, or it has to be better,’” Van Dijk says. She laughs: “He’s always a positive guy who gives me positive feedback and says, ‘No, this is really good Ellen. Don’t be like this.’”
I’m never ever satisfied, and this is sometimes a big weakness because then there’s always something to complain about.
Emotional support goes a long way for athletes like Van Dijk, who has spent nearly half her life in pro cycling.
“Athletes like Ellen are, by nature, perfectionists,” Larrazabal says. “She’s not someone who needed to change things, because she’s already been a professional for many years. She has had a long career, and she was always successful. Let’s say [her world championships] was a result of many years of work.”
Larrazabal has a habit of working late in the night, leaving her voice messages on WhatsApp with training analysis and suggestions for the next day’s workout as she’s getting into bed. Van Dijk appreciates the dedication: “After every fail, straightaway he analyzes it, and he never stops looking for things to be better.”
Van Dijk and Larrazabal discussed her goals at team camp, and devised a program that would get her ready for a busy spring classics season, then reduce her load in order to build back up to her current peak. Her early season was a smash success. A tenth place finish on a hilly Strade Bianche course in early March hinted that she might be in for a special year. Then she won the general classification and individual time trial at the Healthy Ageing Tour and announced herself as a rider to be reckoned with.
Ellen Van Dijk back on top of the World Championship medal stand at last.
In late March she contracted Covid-19, which luckily did not interfere with her biggest race targets. On the contrary, her time spent recovering from the illness made her redouble her focus on Worlds.
“I lost a lot of my fitness because of it, and it took me months to really build it back up,” Van Dijk says. “From that moment on — the whole year already, but especially since getting the coronavirus — everything I did was for these World Championships.”
Van Dijk recovered in full, and eventually found a new performance level that culminated in a European road race championship earlier this month and, nine days later, an unforgettable rainbow performance.
On race day in Brugge, Van Dijk and Larrazabal had the rare pleasure of being in the same place at the same time. Larrazabal tries to tend to as many athletes as he can in person, but with men’s and women’s Trek-Segafredo riders often spread across multiple races simultaneously throughout the year, he primarily interacts with athletes virtually.
I just thought, ‘OK, every time I push my pedal down, it has to be everything I have.’
For Worlds, Van Dijk made sure Larrazabal was in her corner. She asked him to be her coach in the team car during her race, and Larrazabal quickly accepted.
According to Van Dijk, Larrazabal played an important role in the final seven-kilometer straightaway of the course, encouraging her to mentally break up the painful section into 100-meter segments, and ride for the people who have supported her throughout her career, from her boyfriend, to her teammates, to team staff.
“From that moment on I just thought, ‘OK, every time I push my pedal down, it has to be everything I have,’” Van Dijk says. “And in the end, I sped up a lot in that part, and that’s where I made the difference. That’s where the mental part really played a big role, when you want it so bad you can definitely do more and go deeper.”
Van Dijk went to the hot seat after her race, completely drained. She was the new time trial leader by 1:52 over Germany’s Lisa Klein, but her turmoil was far from over. There were still more than two dozen riders yet to finish. Two in particular concerned her: Van Vleuten, the Tokyo Olympic time trial champion, and Marlen Reusser, a fast rising time trial talent who had been a thorn in Van Dijk’s side all season.
Van Dijk was cautiously optimistic that she could beat Van Vleuten on a flat course. Reusser, however, was another matter. The 30-year-old Swiss rider is in the midst of an excellent season on her TT bike, recently besting Van Dijk for wins at European Championships and the Simac Ladies Tour, and taking second to Van Vleuten in Tokyo.
At the first time check, Reusser was 3.6 seconds up on Van Dijk, and Van Dijk worried that the gap would only widen from there. No one in Brugge was faster than Reusser through those opening kilometers. But at the second time check, Van Dijk clawed back time on Reusser, whose advantage dipped to 2.9 seconds. Van Dijk had hope — strong hope — for a win. But Van Dijk couldn’t bear to watch; the next 10 minutes were agony.
“I wanted to start calculating like, ‘Oh she’s at 1K to go and she’s at such and such a time,’ but I couldn’t because there was way too much going on in my head,” Van Dijk says. “I was like, ‘I’m just not gonna watch it until she crosses the finish line.’”
Reusser finished, and confirmed what Van Dijk had felt during her ride: Those closing kilometers were blisteringly fast. Reusser was second on the day, 10 seconds down. “And then I just went a little bit crazy,” Van Dijk says. “I started shaking and crying and I didn’t know what happened.”
I just went a little bit crazy. I started shaking and crying and I didn’t know what happened.
Van Dijk didn’t begin her celebration until Van Vleuten finished, understandably wary of what the legendary rider could do. But as soon as the clock made clear that her Dutch teammate couldn’t win (Van Vleuten took third, 24 seconds back) Van Dijk let loose. She had her family nearby. Her boyfriend, too. Josu, of course, and many of her Trek-Segafredo and national teammates.
The difference between a world championship now compared to eight years ago? Perspective. Then, she finished the race and thought about how she would set about winning it again. On Monday, she thought only of basking in the moment with the people around her.
She couldn’t take her foot entirely off the gas. The women’s elite individual time trial takes place early in road cycling’s week-long World Championships. Two days later, she raced in the mixed team relay and took silver, and she’ll embark on the elite women’s road race this Saturday. Van Dijk gives everything she has to every race she enters.
But in focusing on her next goals, Van Dijk knows now not to sacrifice joy in her accomplishments. After winning the time trial, she still made sure to drink champagne and celebrate.
The rainbow jersey still fits.
“I really learned this in my career; you cannot take it for granted,” Van Dijk says. “Then the next day you have to start training for the next event. It actually helped me a bit, because otherwise I just wanted to lay in bed the whole day [laughs]. Not because I was depressed, I was super happy, but I was just so tired and so empty.”
Immediately after the race, Van Dijk called time trialing a discipline “I love with all my heart.” She explained further:
“It’s kind of weird to say because of course I also do not look forward to putting the most ever pain on myself,” Van Dijk laughs. “I just really like the process of doing everything in your own world. I don’t have to take others into account, I don’t have to ride in a peloton, I don’t have to fight for position. I just think it’s such a pure discipline.”
Van Dijk suggests that her focused personality might be well suited to a discipline that takes so much careful calculation. According to Larrazabal, her defining trait as an athlete is a full-bore commitment to her goals.
The time trial, you ride it alone, but you are never doing it alone.
“Sometimes she’s able to not listen to her body, to her fatigue level, to her pain,” Larrazabal says. “The commitment to the work goes over the fatigue feeling, or over any personal emotion.”
Van Dijk stresses that time trialing isn’t a solo effort, however. She doesn’t feel that she’s by herself when she’s on her bike.
“The time trial, you ride it alone, but you are never doing it alone,” Van Dijk says. “It’s still a process. There are a lot of people involved, and the people that are closest to you, they really know what’s going on and what’s happening all the time, and how much is going into it. And just to really experience this together makes it even more valuable.”
At 34 years old, a veteran in the sport, Van Dijk is reminding herself to appreciate her incredible run of form in ways she wouldn’t have in the past. With time, she has learned just how special these moments truly are.
“It’s such a beautiful flow right now, that I’m really trying to enjoy it as long as possible,” Van Dijk says. “I reached my goals so everything that’s happening now is a bonus. I just try to enjoy everything to the fullest. It’s just a great feeling to be able to do that.”