Marlen Reusser is not a machine

The Swiss favourite’s DNF shows the humanity in the superhuman. 

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 11.08.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
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At 16 km remaining in the Women’s Worlds ITT, flanked by hedgerows and Windows-desktop green fields, Marlen Reusser cut a lonely figure, her perfect time trial position breaking as she sat up, shaking her head. Her pedalling slowed, and then another shake of the head, this one more adamant. Dismounting, she walked back past her support car, slowly, and then sat in the grass staring numbly ahead.

And with that, the stand-out favourite for the women’s elite time trial had finished her race. Chloe Dygert took the win, triumphing both over her rivals and the demons of a hellish crash and illness-impacted few years; Grace Brown and Christina Schweinberger rounded out the podium.

Eighty-sixth on the results sheet, the sole DNF of the race, was Reusser – an enormous surprise given her run of form. This year alone: winner of the final TT of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift; winner of the Itzulia Women stage race; winner of the Tour de Suisse; winner of Gent-Wevelgem; Swiss national road champion; winner of the mixed relay at the 2023 (and 2022) world championships. The last time she lost an individual time trial was in Wollongong last year, when she finished third, which was itself adding to two consecutive silver medals in that event.

From left to right: Marlen Reusser, Ellen van Dijk, and Grace Brown on the podium of the 2022 ITT World Championships.

So how did the world’s best female time triallist end up DNFing in one of the season’s biggest time trials? Amid a flurry of speculation about whether it was injury woes from a mixed relay crash earlier in the week (she rode the ITT with a bandaged left elbow) the answer was, according to Reusser, something far less visible, but far more debilitating.   

In comments reported after the race, Reusser explained that “I had to give up … It wasn’t a mechanical problem, it was just me.” This wasn’t a taciturn non-disclosure – no blandly rote “the legs weren’t there on the day” – but merely the beginning of an extraordinary statement, as generous in what it revealed as it was heart-rending.

Reusser ran through the accumulating physical and mental fatigue that her season had brought. “My life revolves around cycling,” she continued. “I love what I do, I love this lifestyle and I find a lot of positives in it. But it also costs me a lot of energy.”

Reusser and Demi Vollering celebrate Reusser’s dominant stage win on the final stage of Itzulia Women, which pushed Vollering down to second on GC.

Her phenomenal 2023 season, Reusser said, had been built on the foundations of a testing 2022 one. “Last year was very difficult for me,” she said. “I was ill and didn’t feel well for a long-time. I cut two weeks off during the winter break, but then it started up again very quickly.” The unstoppable hamster wheel of the season was set in motion, and Reusser felt like she had no choice but to keep running, until mid-June when the fatigue started to set in. 

“From the Tour de Suisse onwards, it just wasn’t the same,” she continued. “Even though I won the race, I immediately had to refocus on the Tour de France. I didn’t have time to catch my breath. Then I had to do the Tour and the World Championship in quick succession. I didn’t even have time to enjoy the various victories,” Reusser explained.

Any one of those victories would make the career of a lesser rider, but for Reusser, they were in the rear-view mirror as quickly as they arrived, and it’s clear that came with a sense of loss.

Reusser on her way to winning the final stage of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.

Looking back at her remarks after her Tour de France Femmes stage win in Pau, the writing was on the wall even in the moment of success. Asked by the interviewer whether the result boded well for Worlds, Reusser’s cheerful demeanour slipped, her lips pursed for a while. “That Worlds is coming means I have no holiday”, she began, before an instinctive laugh to break the tension. “I know I’m super good at time trialling and it’s nice to win, but also you have to get motivation for every time trial. I first need to enjoy this year a bit, and have a rest – and then I’ll see how I feel towards this next one.”

How she felt, according to Reusser yesterday, was “like I’m caught up in a never-ending downward spiral” that had been continuing for a month. But the support of a national federation and a trade team hunting results – ‘support’ is how Reusser referred to it, but perhaps ‘pressure’ is what that felt like – meant that Reusser “just had to keep going. That’s why I came to the Worlds, even though I knew it wasn’t going to work out. I tried to get my head back on straight, but it wasn’t going well today, just as it hasn’t been going well since the start of this World Championship.”

Sixteen kilometres from the finish of the time trial that she’d been expected to win, Reusser made a decision that was right for herself, rather than for others. “I decided to stop,” she said. “I wasn’t ready to race that time trial. I had no desire to do it. The moment I put my foot down, I told myself it probably wasn’t a good idea … but I wanted to do it.”

An emotional Reusser withdraws from the World Championships.

Cycling is a sport full of moments to revel in. Triumph over adversity. Superhuman feats that redefine what the human body is capable of. Reusser’s career has provided plenty of both. But the legacy of her time trial yesterday brings some human nuance, perhaps, beyond the whoosh of speed and celebration: a reminder that incredible athletes have human weakness, and that that is something worth celebrating too. 

“I accept this decision,” Reusser said, after acknowledging the impact of her withdrawal on her support team and “all those who have put so much energy into me”. Marlen Reusser is just human, and in withdrawing from this race, human strength won out, not weakness.

“I need a break,” she added. “I’m not a machine. Cycling has so many great things to offer, so many great races, so many Classics. But it never stops, and there, I need to say stop. For now.”

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