‘I didn’t dare to lose’ - Demi Vollering on dealing with disappointment, shouldering pressure and the 2023 Tour de France Femmes route
Despite her second place at the Tour de France, the Dutchwoman isn’t yet satisfied and is hungry for more
Demi Vollering’s 2022 season didn’t end well. The series of unfortunate events began with those dreaded two lines showing up on a lateral Covid-19 flow test a few days before the World Championships road race in Australia. Vollering was one of the favourites to win on that punchy, attritional course in Wollongong, but rather than ripping it up on the hot Aussie tarmac, she was left watching the race on her laptop in a lonely hotel room. It was there that she spent a week in isolation, left only to ponder over what could have been.
“When I saw the course I knew it would have been a race I really liked. I was watching it split up on the climbs and saw the group with Liane [Lippert] and Cecilie [Uttrup Ludwig] and then I needed to cry a little bit because I knew I’d normally belong in that group and I would have had a chance that day,” Vollering tells me.
“Also, I realised how much I love racing. I saw them attacking and I was like, I want to be doing that, making the race spectacular, I belong there. I also got so many messages from people saying the race would have been different if I was there, so that was a compliment.”
A testament to her fighting spirit, Vollering would not be off the bike for longer than she had to. The 25-year-old returned to racing just over two weeks after her disastrous World Championships at the Tour de Romandie, aiming to put the bad memories of Down Under behind her.
“I was not good in Romandie,” she explains “I think I came back too fast. After a few days, I started with my efforts again and one day was very good but the next day, I did not recover at all and it was the same in the race. I was really just surviving there.”
Demi Vollering at Rouleur Live (Image by James Startt)
The drab, disappointing end to 2022 doesn’t do justice to the SD Worx rider’s season, though. In fact, her racing style throughout this year was almost the opposite to the lacklustre, tired Demi Vollering that we saw battling illness in Romandie. All the way from the opening weekend to the Tour de France Femmes in July, Vollering was racing aggressively. Attacking, fighting and giving her all for the win.
“I’m like a different person in the race, like an animal or something, I just go and forget about being scared or anything, it’s strange, that adrenaline rush,” Vollering says. Despite her almost ruthless desire to win, the Dutchwoman came up short often during the spring and Ardennes Classics this year, often finding herself on the podium, but rarely the top step.
“In the spring, I really missed that big win. I had to get used to Anna [van der Breggen] not being there anymore,” Vollering says. “They were now all looking at me. I wanted to win so much that I did not dare to lose, I think that was my biggest mistake, looking back now.”
The heavy pressure that Vollering puts on her own shoulders to perform on the highest level is something that she attributes her success in recent seasons to, but she admits that it can sometimes be hard to cope with. Before the Tour de France Femmes, she explains that she didn’t look at her phone before or during the race, aiming to avoid news stories that might have distracted her from the task in hand.
“I was really focused on the race and I didn't check the newspapers, I barely went on my phone at all. There’s a lot of gossip because it's so big, they want to talk about something. Doing that was good for me,” she says.
Vollering’s dedication to performing in the event paid off in the end, as she secured second place on the general classification and won the polka dot jersey, something that she admits is one of the proudest moments of her career so far. Still, though, Vollering was almost four minutes down on Annemiek van Vleuten who won the yellow jersey eventually, a time gap that was mostly created in the two mountain stages at the end of the race.
“I think there were some days earlier in the race we could have taken more time on her,” Vollering says when I ask if she has any regrets looking back at the Tour. “I think I did a good Tour though, I did the best I could do and I was really just trying to focus on my own race, rather than what Annemiek was doing.”
Looking ahead to 2023, the recently announced eight-day Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift route includes a mountainous stage up to the summit of the iconic Tourmalet and a time trial on the final stage. Vollering admits that this will only play further into Van Vleuten’s strengths as a rider who performs in the high mountains and is also the Olympic time trial champion.
“I need to do some time to work again on my time trial because last year I did not do anything as I didn’t have any big goals in the time trial,” Vollering says. “I'm happy that it's back. It's a new goal for me to become better at it and I also think it belongs in the stage race. First when I saw the course I was a bit disappointed but then I looked at it better, I think it's still really hard.”
Vollering and Team SD Worx plan to recon the course in the coming weeks and the Dutch rider believes that this will give her a firmer understanding of what she will face next July. Despite Van Vleuten’s dominance in 2022, Vollering believes that her more experienced rival is beatable.
“I’ll admit, I think some of the other races before the Tour are better suited to me,” Vollering says. “The differences between me and Annemiek on those courses are not as big, it’s more that she’s so good at the mountains. I hope I can put some extra work in my training and improve my form so I can keep up with her there.”
“I think Annemiek also lifts the level of the women’s peloton because we want to beat her, so we’ll try to train as hard as she does. I think I’m too young to do the type of hours she does now, I won't recover, but every year I will increase it a little bit.”
Next season is bigger than the Tour for Vollering, as she also has her sights set on the World Championships in Glasgow, a possible attempt at the Giro d’Italia Donne and a big win in the spring Classics. She also notes that the addition of the fastest sprinter in the world to Team SD Worx, Lorena Wiebes, means that she’ll likely get involved in scrappy bunch kicks to help lead out her compatriot next season.
“My team would say you don't need to get involved in the lead out but I’ll end up there because I like it.” Vollering says.
The thing is, Demi Vollering is a racer. She wants to be at the front, in the fight for victory, even if it’s just to help her teammates. This has been a key to her success so far, and this fierce drive makes her a danger to her rivals.
“I want to do everything,” she says. “I only just finished my off season and I’m ready to start racing again already. Next year, I’ll take another shot at winning the yellow jersey.”