“It was a bit easier than I expected,” Denise Betsema said about her meteoric rise to the top of women’s international cyclocross.
Then she hastily corrected herself, “Not easier, it came faster than I expected.”
English not being Betsema’s first language, we can forgive her momentary lack of humbleness. Yet, the slip captures Betsema’s seeming struggle to internalize her sudden, surprising success. When trying to explain her breakout performances, Betsema smiles shyly, shrugs and turns her hands palms up on the table. It appears that even in Dutch, Betsema might be at a loss to explain.
After her win at GP Hasselt, I sat down to talk with Betsema in her newly acquired Marlux – Bingoal team RV immediately. During the interview, Betsema sipped a post-race Coke while her young son sat beside her playing on an iPad.
The moment was fitting. Betsema is both a World Championship contender and a mother.
Describing her home, family, and history, Bestema spoke expressively and with confidence. She made her son part of the interview process, asking him if there was anything else she should add.
While parenting, Betsema is clearly at ease. She has been a parent for a long time, but she is entirely new to being a professional rider and one of the world’s best. If her results this season are any indication, she is adapting to her new role quite well.
This Season’s Revelation
Denise Betsema stamped her name in cycling history when she won the iconic World Cup Koksijde in November, and that’s likely when she came onto most North American fans’ radar. Koksijde is the pinnacle of Betsema’s season thus far, yet that win came on the heels of a weekend-by-weekend steady progression up the ranks.
Betsema skipped the American World Cups due to distance and cost, so her newfound abilities were not apparent to the cyclocross world back in September. If you were watching carefully, you may have noticed the first hint that Betsema might be a revelation the weekend after America’s World Cups.
On October 6, Betsema won a C2 in Lutterbach, France over Helen Wyman. The next day, Betsema followed that up with a win over Pavla Havlikova and Wyman in the second EKZ Tour race of the season in Aigle. The following weekend, Betsema made her improved form known in Holland with a sixth place at the Superprestige Gieten.
Betsema’s major breakthrough occurred at the end of October when she won Soudal Classics Neerpelt, her first win on Belgian soil with many major contenders present. From there, she took bronze for the Netherlands at the European Championships before starting a winning streak that ended with Koksijde. Betsema won EKZ Hittnau, Ambiancecross in Belgium and then Koksijde.
Three wins in three starts, with a third against Europe’s best on one side of her impressive results.
Since Koksijde, Betsema has wrapped up the overall win for the EKZ series and earned six more podiums, including the win at Scheldecross and second in Zonhoven. While some have suggested that Betsema’s form is on the downturn, her podium record in the ultra-competitive women’s field belies this criticism.
If you are surprised by Betsema’s results this season, know that she is too.
Betsema’s goal at the start of this season was to move into the top-50 in the UCI rankings to earn an automatic spot to compete in World Cups. Betsema was 83rd at the start of the season, but currently sits in 10th and is assured no worse than a second-row start position at Worlds.
“It was a really quick move up for me,” Betsema said in an understated fashion.
A Junior Talent in Holland
While to Americans, it may seem that Betsema came out of nowhere, in Holland she was known for her results as a Junior in mountain biking.
Betsema’s mother, “a hobby cyclist,” was also Betsema’s first cycling influence. Already a motocross racer by age 10, Betsema began cycling following her mother’s suggestion that it would improve Betsema’s motocross.
She explained, “I needed some more power in the legs. My mom said maybe you can go cycling and become better at motocross. I was better in cycling, so I stopped motocross. After a year on the bike, I started racing.”
Betsema became involved in the thriving Junior cycling scene in Holland and emerged as Dutch champion on the mountain bike at age 12. Her dominance as a Junior is all the more meaningful because Holland has arguably the largest and most competitive girls’ cycling scene in the world. Some amount of raw talent is needed to rise to the top of that scene.
Betsema’s promising cycling career took an unexpected turn at age 18 when she became pregnant. Betsema recalls, “It was a little bit a surprise because I was 18-years-old and still at high school. So it was a surprise, but it was a very good surprise. When my son Jukka was born, we found it was really nice to be young parents. We decided to go for another baby and so we had my daughter Wolf.”
Betsema was born and raised on the island of Texel in Northern Holland, and she and her husband have chosen to raise their children there. Betsema’s parents own a bike shop in Texel, where the cycling star worked until she signed a professional contract after Koksijde.
For Betsema, the island of Texel is an essential part of her cycling story.
On her blog and social media, Betsema refers to herself as “Denise Overseas.” This is because she must go overseas for all her competitions. You can find Texel on a map by looking north of Amsterdam. It is the largest and most populated island of the West Frisian Islands in the Wadden Sea with over 13,000 inhabitants within nearly 180 square miles. It is accessible only by a ferry which runs hourly.
Dutch cyclocrossers competing at the UCI level are disadvantaged by having to travel to Belgium for most races, yet Betsema faces further challenges.
“On race weekends, I travel off the island on Friday,” she said. “It is 30 minutes driving to the ferry, 30 minutes on the ferry and usually 3 more hours of driving on the mainland. I am used to the travel because I was born on the island and lived there my whole life. However, the last ferry is at 9:30 p.m. on Sundays, so if we miss the ferry, we must spend the night on the mainland.”
Betsema’s home is part of the reason that she chose not to make her comeback in mountain biking. “I was at a level in mountain biking that I would have to go to other countries to live and to train,” she said. “With the family, this wasn’t possible. With cyclocross, I can train at home on the island. We have sand, we have the woods, we have everything you need.”
Betsema’s cyclocross career began midway through fall 2016 at Superprestige Gieten. In her first cyclocross race, she was 21st, more than 4 minutes behind winner Sanne Cant. She would race seven more times that season and improve dramatically in results and skill.
Still a cyclocross newbie, she took seventh at the highly competitive Dutch National Championships. Then at the end of the season at Leuven, she finished top-10, just 2:21 behind winner Katie Compton. Putting this in context, between mid-October and mid-February, she halved her time back from the winner.
In 2017-2018, Betsema did her first full cyclocross season, earning numerous top-10s, including 9 at European Championships and her first World Cup start in Bogense, where she was 25th.
While 2017-2018 certainly put Betsema on the radar of those in Belgium and the Netherlands, Betsema feels her results were not what they could be. “Before the cyclocross season, I did a whole mountain bike season so I was a little bit tired. When you look at the season, it starts really good, and then it was not so good.”
A Comeback, a New Coach and a New Team
As if working and being a mother were not enough, Betsema has also been working on her undergraduate degree in applied psychology. Until recently, all her obligations have kept her from racing competitively.
However, once both children were old enough to be enrolled in school, her life opened up a bit and a comeback seemed possible. Betsema recalled, “When Wolf was three years old, I start racing again, but mountain biking. Now both children are in school, so I have more time for training. When they went to school, that is when I started cyclocross for real.”
While 2017-2018 was a relatively successful season, Betsema felt it was time to focus on cyclocross exclusively. In winter 2018, Betsema looked for a cyclocross-oriented coach. She had worked with a coach on Texel, but this individual did not coach cyclocross.
Betsema reached out to a friend and mentor on the island for advice. This friend, Leo, was the man who first suggested Betsema try cyclocross. “He was the only one I knew who knew cyclocross,” said Betsema.
Leo suggested his son-in-law, Tom De Kort. As luck would have it, De Kort is an experienced coach who coached Marlux-Bingoal’s Laura Verdonschot during her development.
Betsema started working with De Kort in February of 2018. “I think it was a good decision,” Betsema said with a smile. “I am very happy with him. He knew the world of cyclocross and I really didn’t know anything about it.”
Betsema’s big result at Koksijde was made doubly sweet when Marlux – Bingoal announced it had signed the young Dutch star to a multi-year contract. De Kort provided her initial connection to the team and was an integral part of her getting a shot with a professional cyclocross team.
“Tom knew the team, and he also brought Laura to the team,” Betsema said about the connection. “I first met the team last year. They had interest in me when I was not so good and that was nice. This year, there were other teams who were interested in me, and I had some conversations with them, but my feeling was best for this team. It helped that Tom knew the team. I am really happy here.”
Betsema started the season on her own one-woman team made up of sponsors from Texel. After her initial successes this season, Betsema was offered a semi-pro contract. After her double-winning weekend at Ambiancecross and Koksijde, Marlux-Bingoal quickly upped Betsema’s contract to full professional through 2021.
For Betsema, a pro contract means some life changes. “Now I can do only cyclocross and just train and not work anymore. I was working in the bike shop for my parents. I can just focus on cyclocross and that is really a good thing I think. I was only working two days a week, which was not very much, but still, now I have two more days to train, to relax, to do everything to be a professional cyclist.”
Although she is now a cyclocross pro, some things have not changed for Betsema. “In some ways, it is not a difference from before because I do not do more training now. I am still a mom and it is very nice to be a mom. It is a good balance. When I come home and I have not raced well, they are not less happy. They are still smiling.”
One More Big Change
Betsema’s mountain biking palmares as a Junior suggest her talent, especially when you consider the size and depth of the Junior Women’s field in Holland. Yet, how does a rider go UCI from top-10s in 2017 to winning Koksijde in 2018?
Betsema described the process. “We did everything differently than before. We did more technical training, cyclocross training, which I never did before. We did not do more hours but we made a good base. Last year, the base was not good because I did too many races.”
No doubt, a key to this transition was losing 8 kilograms (about 18 pounds), which must have caused a monumental shift in her watts per kilogram. Betsema lost the weight via both diet and training, a process she claimed was relatively easy for her.
“I lost weight on purpose, but when you train a bit more, it also gets easier. My husband has worked in fitness for eight years, so he always checks his diet, and he helped me to lose the weight. It was a bit easy. We eat healthy but the food we eat is very good, so it is a bit easy. It worked out well.”
Worked well, indeed. The results Betsema has had this season speak for themselves.
What the Future Holds
The hard work that Betsema did this season under the tutelage of Tom De Kort was part of the three-year plan she defined for herself when she started working with him. The three-year plan was to become a professional.
“I said to Tom, I want to train cyclocross for three years really professionally, and then after three years, I hope I can become a pro,” Betsema said. “But it was a bit faster than I expected.”
Given her meteoric rise, every statement Betsema makes regarding her progression is an understatement.
Being well inside the top-50, Betsema has had to reset her season goals. “Now I am looking for good results in the World Cups and also the World Championships in Denmark.”
It’s fortuitous that Bogense, the site of this year’s World Championships was the only World Cup for which Betsema made the 2017 Dutch roster. About the course, Betsema said, “I am really excited to go there in February. Finishing 25th last year was good for me at that time, so I like the course.”
Likewise, the Bogense course with its seaside sprays, suits Betsema’s very nature.
“It is also near to the sea, which I like,” says Betsema with an earnest grin.