Yara Kastelijn celebrates as she crosses the line solo to win stage 4 of the 2023 Tour de France Femmes.

Yara Kastelijn is ready for the next step up

The multi-talented Dutch racer wants to build on her breakthrough Tour de France Femmes stage win.

José Been
by José Been 23.12.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
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This season Yara Kastelijn took her first pro road victory. After spending a day in the breakaway and going solo with 20 km to go, the Fenix-Deceuninck rider won stage 4 of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift. That is some way to take that first road win!

And yet, “nothing has really changed since that win in the Tour,” Yara says from her home in Neerkant on the border of the provinces of Limburg and Noord-Brabant in the east of the Netherlands, as we look back at the year, the start of her career, and forward to what’s next.

“I am still the same person as before, which is important to me. More people know me now. While it was first only the people around me, now people from around the world know who I am. I get recognized in training and even in the supermarket. It makes you realize that Tour de France win was big but in essence I am still me: Yara who likes to ride her bike.”

Even before she notched that incredible breakaway win, Kastelijn’s aggressiveness at the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift netted her time in the polka-dot climbers jersey. She finished second overall in the QOM competition.

As with many female riders I have spoken with over the years, it started for Yara because her father and her brother started cycling. 

“My father was part of a group of riders going out on a Sunday. My brother Kenny joined them one day and liked it. He joined a club. Because my sister Femke and I couldn’t stay home alone when he and my mum went to the club, we tagged along. At RTC Buitenlust they had these kids’ bikes we could borrow and soon after we joined too.”

Yara admits she is not good at losing so when her team at korfball lost because not everyone gave their all, it was hard to accept. In cycling she found a sport where she excelled straight away and had only herself to blame when things didn’t go well.

“I liked cycling because I was good at it from the start; I won my second race,” she says with a smile. “I like the fact that on the bike you have a lot in your own hands. Of course, now I am a professional rider it’s more about the team but if I forget to eat or drink in time and can’t finish the team’s work off, I still have only myself to blame.” 

Yara was successful in both road and cyclocross as a child and into the U17 and U19 ranks, but her main goal was always cyclocross. She did however also win titles on the road.

“When I joined the national selection in cyclocross there was this rule that if you wanted to do the cyclocross European championships you had to do road too. So, I got myself a time trial bike and won the national title plus a bronze medal at the European junior time trial championships.”

A strong performance in the junior women’s road race at the World Championships in 2015 led to a contract with Rabobank-Liv the next year, but it was too much, too soon.

Kastelijn joined Rabobank-Liv straight from the juniors in 2016, at just 18 years old. In that year the team consisted of riders like former road world champions Marianne Vos, Anna van der Breggen and Pauline Ferrand Prévot but also Lucinda Brand, Thalita de Jong, and Kasia Niewiadoma. 

“In hindsight that step up was way too big,” she says now. “I rode a lot of races on the road and then was too tired for the cyclocross season. That was the case for a few seasons so I decided to leave [after three seasons]. I didn’t like the road anymore at all by that point. I didn’t even like cycling anymore. I then decided to call Philip Roodhooft [manager of many cyclocross teams and now Alpecin–Deceuninck and Fenix–Deceuninck]. He said to me, ‘Come do ‘cross with us for a year and let’s see if you find the fun back in it.’ That was the best tactic because a year after that I became European champion. I was a different girl by then. This team feels warm and family-like and that’s important to me. I need that homely feeling.” 

Kastelijn spent a few winters in the mud but gradually returned to road racing. She was one of the better juniors with that bronze medal at the European time trial championships and an eighth place at the World Championships in Richmond, USA, and that talent wasn’t gone. 

The 2021 Tour of Flanders was a bit of an eye opener for Kastelijn in that respect. Until a crash in the final she raced with the best riders in the world, only just missing out on the first group. 

“I saw then that I would also have my place in the elite peloton, like I did in the junior ranks. I have that big engine and that really is to my advantage in these longer races,” she recalls.

What also changed was that the spark was back. Fenix-Deceuninck fits Kastelijn very well. Sports director Michel Cornelisse plays an important role in her development, as does the entire group of riders she now calls friends.

“Michel motivates us very well. He teaches us to trust ourselves. In a men’s team he couldn’t teach the riders all that much anymore but the differences between men’s and women’s racing are so big that he can teach us a lot. As a team we make so much progress this year. It’s great to see that from the first row,” Kastelijn continues. “Look at a rider like Christina Schweinberger this year. Next year Pauliena Rooijackers joins and we will all be even stronger.”

Along with a short cyclocross season, Kastelijn’s 2024 includes a planned return to the UCI World Gravel Championships.

Kastelijn already has 2024 on her mind. She will do a bit of cyclocross, starting with races in the holiday Kerstperiode, and also returns to gravel where she finished fourth at the World Championships in Italy. But after her breakthrough win in the Tour de France Femmes, her main focus will be road racing.

“I will do some cross races in the Christmas period up until the national championships. We also have our team training camps in December and January. I hope to find those extra few per cent in the finals of the Classics next year by not doing an extensive cross program this year. 

“I started to focus on road more this season and that turned out well. It’s hard but you have to make these choices. Next year I hope to be in the top 10 of big races or maybe even on the podium. We are making a plan on how to improve because there is still improvement. I can ride echelons but want to do better. With riders like Marthe Truyen, Evy Kuijpers and Julie De Wilde I can learn a lot. That’s the power of a team.”

With trade teammates like Carina Schrempf, Kastelijn (left) thinks that 2024 will be a big year for Fenix-Deceuninck.

She thinks back with fondness on that day in July, the longest stage of the 2023 Tour. Next year she will be back in the Tour de France that starts in her home country, with three stages around Rotterdam and then a depart from Valkenburg, just 80 km south of her home.

“It’s great for family and friends to come and watch. Family is everything to me. But I would also have liked a Tour de France in France more. The sting is in the tail with these mountain stages at the end. I like climbing. That stage in the Tour this year I felt I was the strongest on those climbs from that breakaway. We have almost 3,000 meters of elevation in one of the stages next year and I am already looking forward to that.”

She also hopes to be selected for the World Championships, which in a country like the Netherlands with so many female talents is a major feat in itself. 

“My goal was to be part of the European Championships team this year and I made that. The World Championships in Zurich should really suit me as well. If I just show myself next year in my favorite races like the Ardennes Classics it all should be okay. I look forward to returning to the Tour de France too. Maybe it’s only then I fully realize what that win really meant. 

“I am young and have a few years to go. I hope to make another step up this winter and really be part of the finals of the major races next year. My ambition is to win a Monument. I don’t win a great deal but when I do it’s always a big one,” she ends with a smile. That sounds like a promise.

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