Denise Betsema is the most consistent cyclocross rider of this season. In 28 races since the start of the season in early September, she has finished lower than fifth just once. The Dutch rider has won four races so far and has ambitions of adding a national champion’s or even rainbow jersey to her wardrobe this year.
“We are deliberately working on this consistency with my trainer,” Betsema says of her results this year. “My trainer Tom de Kort tries to train me in a way that I am good the entire season. Also, I am not a road racer next to cyclocross so I can live for these four or five months of cyclocross fully. I don’t need to miss races or have a rest period like the others who also do road during the spring and summer.
“Also, I am lucky so far without any injuries or major accidents, apart from one shoe change mid-race in Boom,” she says with a smile.
Denise Betsema lives on an island called Texel. It’s the biggest of the so-called Wadden Islands north of the mainland of the Netherlands. Texel is 24 kilometres long and 9 kilometres wide but still Betsema finds enough bike paths for her summer endurance training rides.
“We do a lot of endurance in summer to lay a good foundation for the winter,” she explains. “Although our cyclocross races are short you need that solid foundation otherwise you won’t make it to the end of a race. I love riding my bike so these longer rides are never a burden. On the island we have so many bike paths and not many cars so it’s great to ride. I can do up to three hours without doing a single road twice.
“But sometimes we go overseas, that’s how we call the mainland, and I do some other roads. Or we go on family holidays abroad for a change of scenery.”
Family life is the reason Betsema started relatively late in the sport, but her childhood was filled with bikes and trophies already.
“I started when I was eight years old, I think,” she says. “There were some races on the island and as a kid you notice you have some talent. When I was 10 years old, I started racing more regional races overseas on the mountain bike. It was always in the boys’ category because they didn’t have separate girls’ categories. I was on the podium often and even won against the boys.
“When I was 16, I joined a junior team and even won a national mountain bike title but when I was 18, I got pregnant quite unexpectedly and the cycling ended for a while.”
Betsema gave birth to her son Jukka in December 2011 and her daughter Wolf followed two years later.
“We have a teenager in the house – it’s crazy,” she smiles. “After having Jukka we decided to go for another child while we were still young. I left racing for four years but was still riding my bike. I deliberately chose motherhood when I was 19. I loved that straight from the get-go but already thought that I could try that cycling career later. We were super-young parents and would have all the freedom later on.”
When Betsema’s daughter was two years old, she tried a cyclocross race but the fact she eventually ended up in professional cyclocross instead of a mountain bike career was due to a coincidental meeting in a bike shop.
“I knew that mountain biking would be difficult with a family,” she says. “The races are literally everywhere around the world. I saw how cyclocross for women grew very fast and that the attention from media and broadcasters was getting bigger. I saw what the Dutch women did and started thinking about it as well. Then a Belgian tourist visited the bike shop my parents have on the island and he said ‘Why don’t you try cyclocross?’
“It kind of clicked from then. It was a funny coincidence, because that guy, Leo de Busser, is now the father-in-law of my trainer. My first race ever was the Superprestige in Gieten [in October 2016] and I thought to myself: ‘How am I ever going to be able to do this?’ Everyone was passing me left and right but I knew from that moment I wanted to be on a podium one day.”
From that moment on, her career followed a steady upward slope. A seventh place at the national championships in 2017 was her first top 10. Her first podium place came during the first race of the 2018-2019 season in Baden, Switzerland and her first win was 10 days later in the Slovakian town of Poprad. Her first Belgian victory came in Neerpelt in October and her first World Cup win was in November of 2018 where she displayed a dominant performance in the sand of Koksijde. It was her breakthrough.
That breakthrough win was overshadowed by a positive test in January of 2019 for anabolic steroids. She was suspended from April to October and returned to cyclocross races in October of that same year. Betsema has proclaimed her innocence from the start and successfully managed to prove that the steroids she tested positive for were in a batch of contaminated supplements from a Belgian pharmacy.
“It was a terrible time,” she recalls. “The UCI called me and said that they would announce the news 30 minutes later. In a matter of seconds, the world turned upside down. I was home alone. The kids were at school and my boyfriend at work. It was bizarre. The UCI said ‘you can confess now or deny it.’ Of course, I didn’t confess because I was innocent. At first, I thought it was a prank call. Just 30 minutes later everyone starts calling you. It was a horrible experience.”
A lot of people were talking about Denise Betsema and some riders like Nikki Brammeier and Katie Compton were vocal about the Dutch rider’s positive test.
“When I was not riding people said a lot about me,” she says. “I never went online to read those reactions. Sometimes I heard some of the things that were being said but no one said something to me directly. It’s always easy to do it over the internet but hard to say into someone’s face.
“My thought was always: ‘If you have something to say, say it to me so I can defend myself’ but no one ever did.”
Being a mother helped her through that tough time, Betsema says. She also kept riding because her love for the bike hadn’t disappeared.
“I think being a mother and having that normalcy of daily family life is what pulled me through,” she says. “You just want to disappear into a hole in the ground after news like this but your children rely on you. You are their mother first and foremost. I also wanted to clear my name as soon as possible.
“It all took a long time and it came with a lot of uncertainty but the people around me always believed it would be OK in the end. I believed it would be OK. I was lucky with the support of my family and friends. Back at the cyclocross races I also experienced the support. The fans didn’t leave me. They returned when I returned and they supported me.”
Betsema hopes her career as a working mum inspires others. To her a professional cyclocross career and motherhood fit together in a perfect puzzle.
“My kids are 10 and almost eight so throughout the week I am there for them,” she explains. “My work week is my training week. I wake up and make sandwiches for the kids. I take them to school and then I train. My training hours are their school hours. In the weekends I leave on Saturday morning with the second ferry to the mainland at 7am. We always stay at the same hotel between the races so that’s feels homey. After the race we drive back to the island and I am home at 9pm on a Sunday night. And then the school week starts again.
“Unfortunately, Jukka and Wolf can’t join me as much as they would want to. The COVID rules are strict. But on the other hand, my daughter has football on the weekends too. We sometimes ride together and my daughter is particularly fearless. She is a great bike rider and it’s so much fun to see.”
The Betsema household does not just follow Denise’s career. Her son Jukka is a big fan of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert, and her daughter is a bit starstruck by Annemarie Worst.
“After my daughter was in a shuttle bus with Annemarie Worst earlier this year at a race she couldn’t stop talking about being on the bus with Annemarie,” Betsema says. “Annemarie was also a great bike rider, she explained to me. In the end I am just their mum. They aren’t watching all the races from start to finish either.”
Betsema is 28 years old but feels like a rookie in the professional cycling world. She missed the U23 years and came into the sport late. She hasn’t won a European, national, or rainbow jersey yet so that is a short term and long-term goal for the Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal rider.
“Mostly, I hope to have a long career,” she says about her ambitions. “In women’s sport some athletes have to interrupt their career to become a mother. In my life that’s not the case anymore. I can go and eventually support my own kids before I have my own race,” she says with a smile.
“Also, you see female riders who are in their mid-30s still be at the top. The peak age in women is higher too. I will try everything to have a long career. I started late, I was offside for a while with the suspension so I just want to get the most out of it, including some of those beautiful jerseys we have in cyclocross.”