Jolien Verschueren (English)

 With the cyclocross season in full swing, PaxX Global Cycling had the honour of interviewing Jolien Verschueren, one of the top female professionals. Jolien is currently 17th in the UCI world rankings and is the 3rd highest-ranked Belgian woman. She rides for the Telenet Fidea team, and although she may love riding, there’s something else which is even more important in her life: her faith in Jesus Christ.




Hi Jolien! Please introduce yourself for those who don’t know you yet.

My name is Jolien Verschueren and I live in Kruishoutem (East Flanders) with my parents, Francky and Livine, my brother, Jonathan, and my sister, Jolisa.

I’m 25 and a professional cyclocross rider. It all started as a hobby and I still enjoy it very much now that I am racing at the highest level. In addition to cyclocross, I have great fun working as a sports coach, coaching kids aged from 2 ½ to 6. I love spending time with them and seeing them enjoy sport. I also spend a lot of time in the pool, together with a colleague, teaching pre-school and infant school children to swim. Basically, I have the chance to be active all week. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I partner with Liesbeth to teach the bigger pre-school kids. I have a really interesting and varied job at ‘School met de Bijbel De Ark’ in Marke-Kortrijk (West Flanders).


How did you get into cyclocross?

I’ve always been really into sport as I really can’t sit still for very long! I started out with football but I also used to regularly go and support my dad. He took part in cyclocross and road races, including races organised by the LRC. They then started organising events for under-15s. My brother and I both caught the bug and were both given MTBs so we could participate.


When you were a child, did you have any cycling role models?

There are always going to be some riders that you cheer for more than others but I try to see the good points in everyone. I admire Lars van der Haar’s stamina, Tom Meeusen’s eagerness and Sven Nys’ technical ability and professionalism, and the list goes on.

However, my dad is the one who I have always admired the most. It’s thanks to him that I discovered cyclocross and I still learn a lot from him. While my mum takes care of me at home, my dad is my mechanic, coach and advisor. I rarely have to train alone and we often recon the course together. It’s great! I really do look up to him.


What do you like the most about cyclocross?

I think it’s the best sport because it is extremely challenging. It’s different every time, because even if you’re riding the same course for the umpteenth time, the weather conditions can change everything. I really enjoy it too! I prefer ’cross to road racing because in road cycling you can often get away with sitting in the bunch all day and then unleashing a final sprint for the line. However, in cyclocross, it’s everyone for themselves and more often than not the strongest come to the fore.


Do you have a favourite surface (sand, mud, frozen ground, etc.) and a favourite race?

I like the harder circuits in harsh conditions: lots of mud to wade through like in Hoogstraten or hilly circuits like the Koppenberg, Gavere and Ronse. Those are my favourite races but the Koppenberg is really the big one.


What are your strengths and weaknesses as a cyclocross rider?

I’m doing my best to work on my weaknesses, but it’s not easy of course. I need to improve my technique and sandy courses are really not my thing. I’m often a slow starter: I don’t like sprinting off the line and I often fall back at the start, losing several places.

My strength is my staying power. I try never to give up and to keep making progress.


You’re now riding for Telenet Fidea, the same team as Tom Meeusen amongst others. What’s it like to ride for a professional team?

Obviously it’s fantastic to ride for such a top team. I’m very happy that the team gave me a chance: I grabbed it with both hands. It’s also great to have mechanical assistance from the team, but of course it does mean that there’s more pressure on me to perform. I think that people expect a bit more from me now that I ride for Telenet Fidea.


Two years ago you joined the women’s elite ranks. Did you ever think that you would be where you are now, say, five years ago?

I really didn’t expect it. I can still vividly remember my first elite women’s race in Ruddervoorde. I’d already ridden several races in lower categories. I set myself the goal of not being lapped, i.e. eliminated from the race. That would have been worth as much as a race win to me, and yet I ended up finishing high up the standings, ahead of a number of good riders. Gradually, I progressed through the ranks and was even able to round off the season with a handful of top-10 finishes. That year, I combined elite racing with races in lower categories.

The following season, my family supported me in my decision to concentrate exclusively on the elite category and thus stop racing cyclocross at lower levels. I met the requirements to take part in World Cup races, a wonderful new experience. At the end of the season, I surprised myself by obtaining two podium finishes, in Middelkerke and Hoogstraten.

I worked hard over the summer, taking part in a limited number of lower category road races and several elite women’s races. I also participated in a few MTB races, to improve my technique. In my last race, just before the beginning of the ’cross season, I fell and suffered a broken rib and a triple collarbone break. I started the new season in a cloud of uncertainty but was amazed when I was able to score 12 podium finishes and 3 wins in elite races. In short, I think my performances surprised many people, myself included. I hope that I can develop my talent still further.


What do you think your best race has been up to now?

The ride I’m most proud of is my second place finish on the Koppenberg. I live close by and lots of people came out to cheer me on. Some of them had high expectations after my podium finish at the race in Ronse. In the days leading up to the race, and on race day itself, I heard lots of people saying “Jolien, we’ve come here specially to watch you. Make sure you finish on the podium, yeah?” It’s great that I managed it!

I’ve also got a supporters’ club now and lots of the members are part of the Koppenbergcross organising committee. That’s why that particular race is so special to me and, of course, if I can get a good result there, all the better.


In 2015, you made your World Championship debut in Tabor (Czech Republic). Was it a successful debut?

I was really happy to be selected for the World Championships and that my school gave me time off so I could go. The school director spoke to the board to find a solution and my colleagues were prepared to cover my hours.

However, the impact of the weather conditions on the course meant that it wasn’t really my cup of tea. The day before the race I felt really good on the course, but on race day the ground was frozen and there were ruts everywhere. I also had a nasty fall into the barriers, losing several places in the process. I was badly hurt and I lost a lot of confidence so I couldn’t give it 100%. I had the feeling that I hadn’t been able to fully seize the opportunity I’d been given. It was a shame that I wasn’t able to bring home a good result. 


                                                                 Jolien in her first World Championship race, Tabor 2015


In 2016, the World Championships are in Belgium (Heusden-Zolder). Are you dreaming of winning the world title?

Of course! This year is special because the World Championships are taking place in my home country, but I’m not too keen on the course. Nevertheless, if I’m selected, I’ll do my very best.

I think that everyone who participates dreams of winning. I’ll do my very best and am thankful for everything I’ve already achieved and will achieve in the future. I try to really enjoy racing and relish the opportunities cyclocross offers me.


Where do you get your drive and motivation from?

I get my drive and motivation from many different sources. I receive a lot of support from many different people. I’m very thankful to my parents, brother and sister for all the sacrifices they have made for me. In addition, many other people offer me a great deal of support: my family, work colleagues, supporters, the supporters’ club, etc. There are several people who mean a lot to me but I also draw a lot of drive and motivation from my faith.

I’m well aware that there’s more to life than sport. That’s why I see cyclocross as a hobby but I seek to do my very best because I believe that it’s important to make the most of my talents. My faith is important to me as it shapes my character. I grew up with this faith and the Bible.


What sacrifices have you made for your sporting career?

Hmm, sacrifices… I reckon that if you like doing something, it doesn’t really feel like a sacrifice. Anyone who wants to take part in high-level sport must make certain lifestyle choices and look after their body in order to perform. Naturally, this means that my social life is somewhat restricted. The evening before a race, I try to go to bed at a reasonable time, so going out for the evening is not really an option, but it’s not too much of an issue for me as I don’t really like going out. I also try to eat healthily, but that’s not much of a sacrifice for me. It’s part of the lifestyle: you need to be disciplined.


I hear that you’re a Christian. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

Yes, I am indeed a Christian, and that spurs me on not only when I’m racing but also in my everyday life. As I said earlier, I try to give 100% in everything I do. I’m quite performance-oriented and if I do something, I go all-out for it. Achieving success in sport is important, but I also want to give 100% in my teaching job too.

I do focus on goals but I try to bear in mind that it’s ephemeral. Sport is great and teaches you a lot, but it shouldn’t become my identity. In the Bible, in chapter 2 of the book of Galatians, it says that:

The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me”.


Do you regularly attend church and, if so, do you go to a Catholic church?

I do go to church regularly but it’s not a Catholic church. I’m an evangelical Christian and that means I believe what the Bible says. That is the basis of my life and Jesus Christ is my example.

The churches I attend are different to Catholic churches. We see a church as a community of Christians who live out their faith together by loving and caring for and encouraging each other in our everyday lives, each one of us harnessing the good that God has planted in us.


Do church members understand that you can’t always make it to church during the cyclocross season?

Of course! Lots of people are interested, often ask how I’m getting on and always look out for my results. Sometimes I think it’s a shame that so many races take place on a Sunday as it means I have to miss some really cool services but I also think that God has a plan for my life and that He wants me to use my talent for His glory.


Have you ever experienced the presence of God during a race or whilst training?

I can’t think of a specific experience but I know that He is always present in my life.


I don’t suppose that your faith in God makes you ride any faster, so what impact does your faith have?

Of course you’re not going to ride faster just because you believe in God, but my faith does help me as it gives my life meaning! Cyclocross is great and the sport has given me many great moments. I really love it, but there’s more to life than sport.

I’m really happy that I’ve been given this talent and, of course, it’s great when all is well and you get good results, but it shouldn’t become your identity. That’s why I sometimes find it difficult to stand on the podium after a race as I don’t think that I deserve the glory. My faith also helps me to keep everything in perspective.


Does that mean that you believe that God has given you a talent for bike racing?

Absolutely. I see my sporting career as a way of praising God. He gave me this talent and I try to use it to the best of my ability. I always try to give it my all!

I’ve been given a unique talent but I need to work really hard to obtain results. Would God appreciate it if I didn’t try to use my talent? I reckon that if you have a talent, you should fully pursue it. Sometimes I think that top-level sport and faith aren’t compatible, but I’m beginning to see it more and more as a way of glorifying God. I’m certain that God has a plan for everyone and I hope that I can be a witness to others.


Do you pray or read the Bible before a race?

Yes, of course! I usually have a short time of quiet before the start of a race. I ask God primarily to protect me but I also express my gratitude to Him for the fact that I can race.

Reading the Bible is a regular part of my schedule but I haven’t really got into the habit of doing it at a specific time. However, when I have a free moment, it’s easy to read the Bible or use a Bible study app on my smartphone. I also try to read the testimonies of other Christians on a regular basis.

Also, someone recently gave me a ‘sports Bible’ as a gift and I read it every evening before going to sleep. I can strongly recommend it to everyone as there are many passages which are encouraging and help clarify things.


Is there a Bible verse or a song that really speaks to you?

There is indeed a song which really speaks to me and it is the one I chose for my baptism. It reflects how I see life. I want to be a blessing to others in everything I do. My aim is to see the good in everything, or at least try to. I’m not trying to say that I’m an angel as I know all too well that I mess up every day. But every day I’m given a fresh start and I try to make use of it.

Opwekking 710 zegen mij (Benediction Prayer)

(Text, music, arrangement: Gerrit Dekker, Hans Maat. English translation: Belinda van de Loo. Copyright: Unisong Music Publishers, HGJB Music (Hilversum, Holland))

Bless me, Lord where You lead me by Your hand
Bless me, Lord in the place where I must stand
Bless me, Lord in all that You desire of me
O God, lay Your hand of blessing upon me

Father, let me be a blessing
Do not pass me by
Pour out the rain of Your Spirit
Jesus come, abide
As the living water welling up within me
Send Your streams of blessing
Revealing Your pure radiance to me

Bless us, Lord in assurance of salvation
Bless us, Lord when we offer consolation
Bless us so that we can give blessings to all
O God, lay Your hand of blessing upon us

Father let us be a blessing
In the desert place
Waiting for showers from heaven
To show the world Your grace
Fill our hearts with glory to reflect Your blessings, Lord
As we share Your mercy
We bless Your name, Lord, for eternity

Father, let me be a blessing
Do not pass me by
Pour out the rain of Your Spirit
Jesus come, abide
As the living water welling up within me
Send Your streams of blessing
Revealing Your pure radiance through me

Fill our hearts with glory to reflect Your blessings, Lord
As we share Your mercy
We bless Your name, Lord, for eternity


Injuries are part and parcel of an athlete’s career. You’ve had a couple of bad crashes. How do you bounce back?

Yes, I have had a few injuries but I’m grateful and blessed not to have had that many crashes and that the consequences haven’t been serious.

As I said earlier, I broke a rib and my collarbone in 3 places in August 2014 but, thanks to a high pain threshold, I was back on the bike some 3 days later. I also crashed heavily this season during training, splitting open my helmet. Thankfully, I was able to get back on the bike very quickly. I’m well aware of the risks of top-level sport, especially in certain sports, but I must say that I’ve been well protected. You could say that it’s all down to luck but I see it differently: I really do feel protected and blessed! If something bad does happen, I will be given the strength I need to recover and get back on the bike as quickly as possible. Setbacks are never nice but sometimes you learn from them.


Are you ever angry or frustrated with God because of a turn of events or can you just deal with it and move on?

I try never to get angry with God but I can sometimes be self-critical and get angry with myself. For example, if I’m struggling in my preparations for a race, I often think that that’s just the way it’s got to be. Sometimes you can actually make use of those experiences later on. This way of thinking gives me peace. Some people are frustrated by setbacks but I can deal with them and quickly turn my thoughts to the future. Faith helps you keep things in perspective.


Isn’t it sometimes difficult to be the only Christian in the world of cyclocross?

I don’t know if I’m the only Christian in the world of cyclocross as it’s not so easy to be open about such things. Even I don’t find it straightforward. Also, it’s not the kind of thing that comes up during a quick chat just before the start of a race. However, I do aim to inspire others by the way I live. Whilst I don’t want to be a pushover, I do make an effort not to swear. Whenever I’m wronged, I try to let my pedals do the talking as it’s a better use of energy than slagging other people off. After all, I’m only human and can make mistakes and when I do, I feel bad about it afterwards.

A colleague recently gave me an article about Anna van der Breggen in which she says that God gave her her talent. I also hear that Marianne Vos is a Christian. It would be great if we could all have a chat about professional sport and faith… I think that would be very rewarding!

For me, God’s love, and our efforts to live this out and share it with others, is the most important thing in life. With this in mind, professional sport might not seem like the most logical choice of career as it can be very tough. But I see trying to strike a good balance as a challenge, and the fact that my close family are Christians is, of course, a big plus.

Professional sport is all about results but I think that sportsmanship is also important. You can’t fully enjoy a victory if you haven’t earned it honestly. Your state of mind and how you treat others are even more important.


Could you imagine life without Jesus?

No. I wouldn’t even want to imagine such a life. I can’t imagine it because I grew up in a Christian family and am enormously grateful for that!