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Lizzie Armitstead interview

Lizzie Armitstead
Mark Bailey
1 May 2015

Following on from her success at Flanders, Lizzie Armitstead is targeting the Worlds and Rio 2016.

You can take the girl out of Yorkshire but you can’t take Yorkshire out of the girl. Hours before we speak to Lizzie Armitstead, the Otley-born cyclist took a spin along the sun-drenched coast of her adopted home, Monaco, where on training rides she has been known to leave bike-mad F1 driver and fellow resident Jenson Button eating dust. But while most inhabitants of this gleaming metropolis crave luxury and indulgence, Armitstead spent her ride dreaming of the mud, rain and jaw-rattling cobbles of the Tour of Flanders – a brutal one-day race that carries irresistible echoes of her native Yorkshire.

‘The Tour of Flanders is one of the most iconic races in cycling and it’s a major goal for me this year [2015],’ says Armitstead. ‘If you tell someone you have won the Tour of Flanders, it means you’re a tough, gritty cyclist. It’s notorious for bad weather and hard cobbles.’ A bit like Yorkshire then? ‘Yes! It’s very similar terrain so I love it for that reason too.’

Lizzie Armitstead Olympics

The 26-year-old, who rides for the Dutch team Boels-Dolmans, moved to Monaco for the year-round training weather and challenging climbs but her heart remains in picturesque Wharfedale with its windswept moors. ‘My home will always be Otley, but Monaco is a valuable place for me to be right now,’ she says. ‘Waking up every day to blue skies has a massive influence on my training and the hills help my cycling abilities.’ Elizabeth Mary Armitstead will forever be remembered by the British public as the first home medallist of London 2012. The image of her dashing through a biblical downpour to claim a silver medal in the road race was one of the most warming of the Games.

It was an achievement built on talent and tenacity; while other riders wilt in the cold and rain, Armitstead blossoms. As Sir Dave Brailsford once declared, ‘She’s got courage – she’s very, very fearless.’ Just minutes after her Olympic euphoria, she was already thinking about upgrading her medal to gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

Gearing up

Over the last year, Armitstead has shown signs of moving from the role of princess in waiting to the new queen of women’s cycling. Her progress is obvious from her recent success, which included gold in the road race at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and overall victory in the 2014 UCI Women’s Road World Cup (a series of nine races, of which Armitstead won the Ronde van Drenthe and came second three times).

But her world-beating potential was even clearer in the manner of her defeat at the 2014 UCI Road World Championships in Ponferrada, Spain, last September. Despite opening up a 14-second advantage in a breakaway alongside exalted talents Marianne Vos, Emma Johansson and Elisa Longo Borghini, her opponents, fearful of Armitstead’s flying form, refused to collaborate, allowing the peloton to catch up and set up a sprint finish that left the Brit seventh. Armitstead’s card had been marked. 

Lizzie Armitstead sprint

‘I was gutted, but now my aims are just the same as last year because I didn’t achieve two of them,’ she says. ‘I want to win Flanders and the World Championships [in Richmond, USA, on 26 September]. I also want the National Championships [in Lincolnshire on 28 June] but as that is mid season I won’t push for it, I’ll just hope my form will take me there. I’d love to get gold in Rio; over the winter my focus will switch to that.’ 

Armitstead says she has worked on her sprint and strength over the winter and feels she will be tactically smarter after the experiences of the last few years. ‘I remember seeing some of the attacks Marianne [Vos, the Dutch cyclist who beat Armitstead in the road race at London 2012] made over the top of climbs and after working on that I know I can follow those moves – and make them myself.’

Her 2015 season began well when she won the points race at the Revolution track meeting in Glasgow in January. ‘Glasgow seems to be my lucky charm,’ she says, referring also to her second National Road Race title in 2013 and her Commonwealth gold last year. ‘I just did Revolution for a bit of fun so my family could see me race in a nice environment.’

Lizzie Armitstead revolution

She followed it up in February’s Tour of Qatar by winning two of the four stages to take overall victory and the points classification. ‘It was a shock,’ she says. ‘I didn’t expect to win the whole tour, I just went there to mix up the training. Strength work over the winter has obviously helped my sprints, even though I’ve not yet put the finishing touches to it. But it’s a good start to the year and I’m very happy.’

Bringing it home

Armitstead first sat down with BikesEtc a few months earlier in London, having arrived at a Marylebone café with a suitcase, in between a holiday in Barcelona and a busy winter training block. She revealed that on trips home she likes to train with her older brother Nick, an amateur racer, and other local riders. ‘Tuesday and Thursday-night chain gangs in Leeds are hard, and the Saturday race to the café is always brutal.’

On these rare visits to the UK, Armitstead is equally spellbound by the effects of the national cycling revolution. ‘It’s surreal,’ she says. ‘When I started out, Otley Cycle Club was full of old blokes. I was too nervous to go, so I trained on my own. The other week when I was home, one of the young Otley Flyers told me she is one of a huge group of juniors at the club. Things have really changed.’

Lizzie Armitstead portrait

With her naturally athletic physique, quiet confidence and playful competitiveness, Armitstead reminds you of that popular, ponytailed girl at school who kicked everybody’s backside in PE. The one the boys were happy to race and the girls all wanted to be friends with. And that’s very close to the real story of how Armitstead discovered cycling in the first place – or, more accurately, how cycling discovered her.

A natural runner, Armitstead was already beating teenagers in the Otley fun run at the age of five and finishing 10k races aged 13. She competed in the 800m and 1500m athletics events at regional competitions and even played in goal for Prince Henry’s Grammar School football team. Her first bike was purple with a white basket but she hadn’t pedalled for years when, aged 15, she saw scouts from the British Cycling talent team show up at her school and offer everyone the opportunity to take part in a fun trial ride.

Motivated more by the chance to dodge maths and beat a boy who had challenged her to a race than by any ardent love of cycling, she started dashing around the makeshift cycle track marked out with plastic cones. It proved to be a life-changing moment. ‘She smashed the endurance tests and the sprint trials,’ her PE teacher Pete Latham later recalled. ‘She only came out because she had been teased by one of the lads in her year that this guy was going to beat her.’ Of course, she beat him.

More in-depth tests followed, including power assessments and psychological reports, and Armitstead was soon fast-tracked to the Olympic talent team. ‘I can recall that day perfectly,’ she says. ‘Above all, I remember my coach, Phil West, who spotted my potential. He’s been a mentor ever since.’

On track to success

Track cycling is traditionally the key focus during any British Cycling apprenticeship, given the importance of National Lottery funding and the multiple Olympic medal opportunities available. Within a year of taking up the sport Armitstead had won a silver medal in the scratch race (a mass-start event in which the aim is simply to be first over the line after a certain number of laps) at the 2005 Junior Track World Championships. She went on to take the Under-23 European scratch race title in both 2007 and 2008. In 2009, aged 20, she won gold in the team pursuit at the senior Track World Championships. Symbolic of her tough spirit, she crashed in the scratch race but hopped back on her bike to claim a silver medal. ‘To have a young rider who’s disappointed with a silver medal after a crash tells me she’s exactly the sort of rider we want,’ declared one of her coaches, Dan Hunt. Armitstead also took bronze in the points race, even though she could hardly move her fingers after the crash.

Lizzie Armitstead winning

Despite her track success and the allure of Olympic medal opportunities in the velodrome, Armitstead’s real passion lay on the road, and this better suited her endurance and independent personality. But there was no clear pathway for female cyclists on the road, so she moved to Europe in 2009 to try to make it as a pro. From 2009 to 2012 she raced for Lotto-Belisol, Cervélo Test Team and AA Drink-leontien.nl before joining Boels-Dolmans in 2013. Looking back, she is convinced this tough journey has given her additional strengths. ‘Independence is a huge factor and that is what many at the pinnacle of their sport are missing,’ she says. ‘A lot of people are spoon-fed success and not having that has given me a better understanding about the needs of the job and about myself as a cyclist.’

Strength and stamina made Armitstead a natural on the road. She won the National Road Race in 2011 and 2013, and took Gent-Wevelgem and Omloop van het Hageland in 2012, before claiming silver at London 2012. Suffering a hiatus hernia in 2013, she endured sickness and pain throughout the season but fought back to have her most successful season yet in 2014.

Gender agenda

Crafting a career as a professional female cyclist is not simple. The disparity in pay and status between male and female cyclists is well documented and, on paper, can seem callously unfair. As one of the higher-profile female cyclists, Armitstead fares better than most, but she isn’t too proud to sell old bits of bike kit online when she no longer needs them. The lifestyle demands of a pro cyclist can be taxing, too: she was devastated to miss her niece’s christening and gets routinely told off by friends for skipping birthday parties.

Armitstead is refreshingly honest. Ask her a question and she will give you a straight answer – an admirable but rare quality in modern sport. After the Olympics in 2012 she declared, ‘The sexism I have encountered in my career can be overwhelming.’ She has spoken articulately about the problems faced by female riders, and has become a spokesperson for any issue involving women’s cycling. She seems a little weary of the gender inequality issue, perhaps aware that any seismic shifts will take a long time to arrive. ‘We have good and competitive races but it’s media coverage and sponsorship that we’re lacking,’ she explains. ‘That takes time and investment, and it won’t happen overnight.’

Lizzie Armitstead interview

Armitstead faces challenges with stoical Yorkshire grit. ‘One of the silver linings of not having a women’s Tour de France was that I could watch last year’s event in my hometown of Leeds, so I got to be a real fan,’ she says. ‘It was just incredible and it reminded me how lucky I am to do this as a job.’

Buoyed by her enhanced strength and speed, her impressive early-season form and her growing medal count, Armitstead is hoping 2015 will be a year to savour. Not that she makes a habit of wallowing in glory: ‘I have kept all my medals and one jersey from each team I have raced for, but I gave away almost all of my kit from London 2012,’ she says. ‘My future kids won’t be very happy about that.’

If her career continues on the same trajectory, such a regret is unlikely to form more than a minute footnote in her life story. Armitstead has a Tour of Flanders title, a World Road Race rainbow jersey and an Olympic gold medal to hunt down. And, as the boy who challenged her to a bike race at Prince Henry’s Grammar School on that fateful day back in 2004 quickly discovered, it would be a bad idea to underestimate her.

Lizzie is exclusively managed by MTC (UK) Ltd. Visit mtc-uk.com.

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