Her brother and father streaked by. She took note, and decided that she'd like to race bikes, too. Marianne Vos was 5.
Her father went and bought the smallest bike he could find. It was still too big, but the pint-sized Vos could manage, and she began riding at the local club. "Immediately," she said, "I liked the speed." On Tuesday and Thursday evenings after school, Vos trained, if that's even possible for a 6-year-old. Cycling was her first love, she would later say. At age 7, Vos was allowed to race, and she used the same bike for road and cyclocross.
A 7-year-old Marianne Vos, running through a field with the smallest bike her father could find. Looking back, it makes perfect sense.
Her Dutch family summered at the Tour de France, and Vos' best memories are from l'Alpe d'Huez, where she'd watch the climbers slither past, gleaming under a July sun. "To be there, to be part of that big event, and wait for the riders, to hear the helicopters coming and feel the thrill when the riders come up ... " she told Velo, her usually calm voice ringing.
Vos would stake out team hotels for autographs. It's charming to think about it now -- riders signing autographs for a little girl who would go on to achieve as much or more than most professionals could ever dream of.
When she was just 19, Vos won the UCI world road championship, and the world cyclocross title. She was a shocking talent then, and remains so now, a rider so gifted that she is virtually unrivaled in the women's peloton -- and perhaps in the sport of cycling as a whole.
True, Eddy Merckx is the standard to which all pro bike racers will forever be held; on the road he won grand tours and classics, field sprints and summit finishes, and on the track he won 17 six-day races and held the hour record. But a look at the 2012 women's road season reveals a startling display of Vos' dominance, and a Merckxian ability to win races on any terrain.
In 2012 alone, Vos won the world cyclocross championship, five stages and the overall at the Giro Donne, the Olympic road race, the World Cup overall title, and the world road championship. She won the nine-event women's road World Cup series, her fourth title, even though she skipped three events; she won three of the six races she started, and finished second at another. Of the six World Cup races she entered, she never finished worse than third.
All told, the 25-year-old has collected nine world championship titles across cyclocross, road and track. (She also holds the dubious distinction of finishing second in the world road championship for five straight years, from 2007 to 2011.) Flatly, there is no one like her, man or woman, who has ever pinned on a number; Merckx was not this accomplished at 25. Vos plans on racing mountain bikes again next season, and there is no reason to think she cannot win those races as well.
She's the sort of talent -- so brilliant and pulsing -- that can take something she uses for training and parlay it into a world championship. Like track riding. Vos has good speed and power, and she likes to compete in the winter to stay sharp. It turns out she's one of the best track riders in the world. After just 10 months, she was the 2008 Olympic champion in the points race. That's how gifted, and how driven, she really is: 10 months, Olympic champion.
"I just love the competition too much. I'm not tired of racing all the disciplines," she said. "You need the bike handling skills from cyclocross and track, and the speed of the road. Of course, you have to set goals and make a proper plan. And it didn't always work fantastic, but most of the time you can have a proper plan."
Proper dominance is the plan. Vos doesn't have a favorite discipline. It's probably easier to like them all when you can win across the spectrum.
"It's the combination of the different disciplines that's so much fun," she said. "I like the speed and the tactics of the points race, and I like the explosiveness and the honesty of a cyclocross race, but I also like the suffering and the team tactics in a road race."
Upon being informed she was Velo's choice as the 2012 International Cyclist of the Year, Vos reflected on the unique experience of being the greatest female cyclist in The Netherlands, one of the most cycling-passionate nations in Europe.
"I like the life as an athlete," she said, "but it's more important to be a good person, that people know me as a nice human, not only as a machine on the bike. That's what I try to think of constantly and to keep myself thinking about and caring for other people. I'm quite boring actually. I like to read books when I'm traveling. I like to listen to music. I don't like really to go out and party. I like to go out and drink something at a cafe -- but no discos. I'm actually quite boring. I just like to go and ride my bike."
She doesn't drink -- much. "But every now and then I get a glass of champagne," she said, adding a slight giggle. Turns out there's lots of bubbly atop the podium.
On a standard non-race day, Vos gets up (not too early), eats breakfast, and goes for a ride. She makes time for a rest, and for interviews, of which there are many. Her home is in a flat, open section of Holland, "with a lot of wind and rain, so people really don't understand [why] I like it here. But it's my home -- it feels [like] home," she said. "It rains a lot. But the wind is no problem. That's how I simulate my mountains a little."
Her results make a bit more sense now. She rides by herself in the wind and rain, imagining the headwind as a long climb. But is that enough to make Vos such a dynamo?
"Naturally, I'm not really a climber. I was more of a one-day racer. But I didn't like it that I didn't do that well on the climbs. As a cyclist, I wanted to win a stage race. And you have to climb well and work on your time trial."
In 2011, Vos was able to drop some mass and improve her climbing. This year, she actually lost too much weight. "That's a balance I'm searching for all the time," she said. "As a good climber, I want to win the races uphill, but I also want to win sprints. Most of the time I can manage to do it all quite well."
With athletes like Vos, those with a singular focus and stunning achievements, it's easy to assume there's a robotic element to them, a tunnel vision blocking out distractions and the noises that the rest of us hear. She doesn't have a boyfriend, and does make a point that she doesn't have enough time for some things, at least right now. "You don't have as much time to see people, to keep your social life at home. If I meet the right person, of course I will make time for them," she said.
All of this calls into question what's left for a rider like Vos, who has won just about everything she can win, short of world mountain bike titles, which may just be a matter of time.
At 25, she has at least 10 more years of dominance left in her long legs -- or something like it, if she chooses to continue. There's been talk of her lining up with the men from time to time, though that was sunk by the UCI's rulebook. "And I don't think I really need it. I can train at home, of course, with men," she said. "I still suffer a lot in the women's races. So all the women heard me and keep the pressure on.
"I have to search for new goals," she said. "When I go out on my bike now, it's without pressure. It's because I love to ride my bike."
Vos can keep winning, but like anyone else at any level of sport, she's only as good, only as big, as the arena in which she plays. The structure of women's cycling is on the short end of separate-but-equal with the men's game; interest is a sliver of what it is in the men's races. But if there is a time to move the women's side forward, it has to be now. Vos is a genuine star -- perhaps the best woman, past, present, or future -- and American Evelyn Stevens, who beat Vos on the Mur de Huy at Fleche Wallonne in April, can make a case for buoying the sport stateside.
For her part, Vos thinks it would be prudent to capitalize on the excitement that engulfs the men's races. She believes every major classic should have a women's version, something that exists at select events such as Flanders and Fleche Wallonne.
"The media is there. Spectators are already at the side of the road. Of course we go a little slower, but we still have attractive races," she said. "It's the same. We do the same amount of work for it. We work hard. And I think people have seen it this year."
The 2012 season belonged to Marianne Vos. It's likely not the last, either. The rest of the women's field will have to adapt, because she's not changing.
"I can imagine all the riders are bored of me winning," Vos said. "But I'm not bored."
Vos vs. Wiggins
This year's International Cyclist of the Year award resulted in a lively debate between Vos and Bradley Wiggins at Velo headquarters in Boulder, Colo. The merits of the Wiggins case were strong: the Briton decimated the Tour de France and won GC titles at Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine, as well as Olympic time trial gold in London. But it was ultimately Vos' dominance across the pro cycling spectrum that put her over the top.
We asked Vos her feelings about being chosen in light of Wiggins' phenomenal season.
"I think what Brad Wiggins did was amazing. And of course men's cycling is more known," she said. "But I don't know -- I can't say I did better than Bradley. Of course it's subjective -- I had an amazing season and he had an amazing season. ... I'm quite honored. I couldn't do any better than this year. I'm happy you chose me. If I didn't win 'Rider of the Year' now, I don't know what more I can do. If I didn't win now, then I couldn't win it."