I always have to do that one photo by Fem van Empel thinking, the first of the new year. On January 1, she won the Grand Prix Sven Nys with playful ease. She had so much time ahead of the rest that she parked her new cross bike on the finish line and posed. The blue and white of the European champion fits beautifully around her shoulders, the yellow letters of her new team Jumbo-Visma on the pants give the stars on her chest some more color.

It is now fourteen days later, I look at the photo again and only now realize what has subconsciously fascinated me all along: Fem has the monkey factor, I think. With the tape measure I measure her arms in the photo, and then her entire body. I immediately admit that this is a questionable method, but I still dare to conclude that my assumption is correct. Fem’s wingspan from fingertips to fingertips appears to be greater than her height from heel to crown. Then you are not the perfect human being, of Leonardo da Vinci in that circle – then you are a monkey.

People with the monkey factor are often good at exercising with their arms; mountain climbing, discus throwing, swimming or competitive rowing. Imagine if Fem van Empel were to do that. Or, I shudder to think: who knows, she may already be doing that, secretly. In addition to cyclocross, mountain biking and road cycling, which she will also start this season. Just as, in addition to being a football player, she was also secretly a cyclist before.

Fem was on her way to becoming a professional footballer. Playing for Bayern Munich was her dream. She played football for RKSV Nuenen in the main league, as a right winger or as a striker. She was fast: sprint, speed, goal. She trained hard and seriously, did extra exercises in the gym, watched videos about how to improve your insight, and was scouted as a regional talent. She cycled in between, just for fun. What bothered her a bit: as a football player you are only as good as your team is. You only really excel when you stand among other excellers.

The nice thing about cycling is that you do it alone. The switch from football to cycling after she came third without preparation just over three years ago at the National Mountain Bike Championships for juniors was perhaps only logical. Since then, Fem ‘the cyclist’ has developed rapidly. She is 20, European champion on the cross bike, leader in the World Cup, and also an absolute title candidate for the National Cyclo-Cross Championships this weekend.

And yet I think: imagine that Fem gets to work with her real talent – or perhaps already does so. With her monkey factor. Then she must go like a hurricane. Within a year she became world rowing champion. She then throws in the discus. And arm squeeze. After a victory, she dives from the rowing boat into the pool, as she should, and yes: Fem will of course become the Olympic champion in open water swimming.

I look at the photo again, and now I really know that it is not just those long arms. It doesn’t exist, but she does have it, even more than the monkey factor perhaps: the foal factor. Legs up to the sky. You don’t need a tape measure to see that.

Every now and then such a specimen is born, a specimen that can do everything. A superwoman who flies without a cape. A wonder-Fem.

Marijn de Vries is a former professional cyclist and journalist.


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