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Balancing two disciplines is no mean feat – something that Yara Kastelijn knows all too well.
Still only 24-years-old, the Dutch cyclocross and road rider has been professional since she was 18 when she rode for Rabobank-Liv. But, as impressive as it sounds, being teammates with the likes of Marianne Vos, Anna van der Breggen and Pauline Ferrand Prevot was not the dream ticket one might imagine it to be.
“I think, because I came from the juniors to the elite…I had to race for maybe 40km or something like that and then in the elite category I had to do 120km and that was a really big step for me,” she recalls.
“I was in the team with Anna van Der Breggen, Pauline Ferrand Prevot, all the big names were there and it was super hard for me.”
It wasn’t just the leap from junior to elite and the daunting presence of accomplished teammates that Kastelijn struggled with. The team coach, she says, was ruthlessly strict and dealt out training volumes and sessions that a young Kastelijn struggled to keep up with.
“I had to train that much…but too much, you know, and I was always super tired,” she says. “I spoke with my trainer from the team but actually they didn’t listen to me. So they told me that I was just lazy or maybe something like that and I have to train more and more.”
“I did it really a lot. And I was always so tired and then I didn’t like to ride my bike anymore because of that. They didn’t listen to me.”
Kastelijn persevered with the team for two more seasons but found that her enthusiasm for the sport was diminishing in line with her depleted energy.
“I didn’t want to go on my bike. And I really missed cyclocross, [it] was my first love because when I was junior and younger I always did cyclocross and I did less on the road,” she says. “But because I did so many road races and I came into a road team and I was so tired with cyclocross, I actually I hated riding my bike at that moment.”
Knowing that something wasn’t right Kastelijn decided to drop her road team and focus on her “first love” in an effort to regain her passion for the sport. She was not contracted to a road team for the 2019 season, instead focusing on recuperating both her energy and her desire to ride bikes.
It paid off. In November that year, she became European cyclocross champion which eventually led to her being offered a contract with the Ciclismo Mundial team (now Plantur Pura). She took the offer and, she says, “that was the best choice that I made.”
“I think I [went] from a really sad girl to a really happy girl in maybe three weeks,” she recalls.
She signed the contract mid-way through the pandemic-thwarted season of 2020. Although Kastelijn’s main focus was still cyclocross she managed to fit in a stint at the Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l’Ardèche where she picked up fourth on GC and took home the mountains classification.
That brief road programme was the precursor to a cyclocross season that saw Kastelijn barely finish outside of the top-10 at the most prestigious races – proof of the adage that with a happy head comes fast legs.
“It’s really [like a] family, you know,” she says of the team. “And on the road it was all business and really serious. And, yeah, sometimes I was scared to ask the staff something. And now it’s just yeah you are family and I really like that.”
“Our team is also really professional now and everything is a really big difference than with my old road team. Now, it’s so much more professional and everybody is really kind and everything is now perfect for me.”
So comfortable is Kastelijn with Plantur Pura that she signed a contract with the team until 2025. “I’m really happy that my contract is until 2025 because I don’t think that I want to go to another team,” she says.
“I think it’s also really good to have a longer contract because you can work together on some goals so I’m really happy with it.”
One of Kastelijn’s main goals is to achieve results in the Ardennes Classics. A talented climber, she was active in this year’s races getting 9th at La Flèche Wallonne after being in the breakaway as well as 13th at Amstel Gold.
“I think, because with the cyclocross season you have a lot of intervals, and with Spring Classics you have the uphill finish and all the climbs you have to do all the intervals too, Maybe cyclocross is also a good training for those races,” she says.
“I really like the hilly ones, because I’m a really bad sprinter, I’m a bit too light maybe for the cobbles. So yeah, the Tour of Flanders was also good. But then I’m there in the final and then we are with a group of maybe 20 or 30 riders and then I have to sprint and my sprint is really bad. It’s so sad that you are there but you can’t finish it off.”
“That’s what I really like with the uphill final because I don’t have to sprint then.”
Is sprinting something she plans to work on, then? “I think I can work really hard for it but I will never became a good sprinter,” she admits.
Luckily, within the team, she is able to pick and choose her calendar – something she says has changed her perspective of road racing. “I don’t like all of the road races because like Brugge de Panne, it’s flat and super windy and I really don’t like it when it’s windy. I only like the Classics and the hilly races,” she says. “But [with] this team I am allowed to choose what kind of races I like doing and I’m really happy with that. And now I really like to do road races.”
Now the Classics are out of the way, her main goal for the year is the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.
“I hope to get some good results in the hilly stages and maybe also for the GC,” she says, although she is also keen to help her teammates out too: “It will be really cool to be there with the team and to help other girls with their sprint finals. Because I’m not that good [of a] sprinter. So yeah, it will be really cool to be there with the team and to have some good results and to fight every day,”
“It’s super cool to be part of it. We [will] make history there and it’s super cool to see that women’s cycling is still growing and growing.”
In the five years that she has been professional Kastelijn has witnessed the growth of women’s racing firsthand.
“It’s just amazing to see that women’s cycling is still growing and growing because a few years ago it was just a bit sad maybe when I was 18 and I came into the road peloton for the first time.”
Coming from the far more equal world of cyclocross Kastelijn is aware of how far road racing has to go in terms of coverage and equality.
“I see it also with all of the races on television. I think cyclocross is a bit more [equal] because all the races are live on Belgian television but road cycling needs just to follow I think and it’s super good to see that,” she says.
“And also with the prize money because in cyclocross it’s the same for the guys and the women and yeah on road it still needs some focus and it’s good to see that also the prize money is going higher and higher for women’s cycling on the road. I think in a few years we will be on the same level.”
On the subject of her favourite discipline, Kastelijn has no intention of dropping cyclocross now that her road ambitions are getting bigger. She may not have enjoyed her time on the squad, but Kastelijn can look to her former teammate, Marianne Vos, for inspiration on combining the two disciplines.
“I think I will do some races but then I will focus again on the cyclocross season,” she says of her post-Tour de France plans. “But I don’t know if I will do a full cyclocross season like last year or I’ll do some races because…I think it’s hard to do a full cyclocross season and a road season and maybe in the coming years I will ride maybe the road more also, but I really like to do cyclocross so yeah, I will do that.”
Her ideal balance would be racing a reduced cyclocross season followed by a run at the Spring Classics.
“I will do it next year again,” she says. “And next year I [will] know also the races because this year everything was really new for me, the finals, and everything like that and then the next year I will make it a really big goal.”
If her first real shot at the Ardennes is anything to go by then Kastelijn will be a serious contender next spring.