Sign up for our newsletter

Lizzie Deignan’s long road to Roubaix

In-depth
20 Apr 2021
Advertisement

One minute Lizzie Deignan is considering retirement, the next she’s world number one. Now she’s gunning for Paris-Roubaix – which will now be held in October after being forced to miss its April date for the second year in a row

Words: James Witts Photography: Rebecca Marshall

‘If you’d told me at the start of last year that I’d finish the season number one, I wouldn’t have believed it. And now I’m prepping for our “Hell of the North”. I seriously thought I’d be retired by now. Thank God I didn’t make that decision.’

Lizzie Deignan is in philosophical mood when Cyclist catches up with her on a Zoom chat. At the time of the interview she is in Tenerife, where in 2019 she and her husband – coach and former Sky rider Philip Deignan – went to ride out their ‘post-baby slog’ and realised that life was good. Deignan decided she wasn’t ready to hang up her bibshorts after all.

‘Before that I was thinking of retiring after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,’ she says. ‘Then I realised how lucky I was. Women’s cycling is such an exciting place to be right now.’

Deignan’s epiphany, in the shadows of the 3,715m Mount Teide, was the catalyst for one of the strongest seasons of her illustrious career in 2020, which included four wins and led to her signing an extended two-year contract with Trek-Segafredo. The turnaround means she was in a good position to win the maiden women’s Paris-Roubaix, which was originally scheduled for April.

‘It’s a massive opportunity for me,’ Deignan says. ‘Winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège last year gave me confidence that I can transfer that form to the cobbles. It’s why I’m staying on in Belgium after Het Nieuwsblad to recce the course whereas I’d normally fly in and out of Het. Beyond identifying key areas of the course it’s a chance to get used to the specific equipment needed for Roubaix. That includes the Trek Domane, which I’ve never used at a race before.’

The Domane is Trek’s Classics race bike, which features the company’s special IsoSpeed decoupler, a form of suspension designed to deal with the cobbles of Roubaix. As well as getting used to the new bike Deignan has also adapted her preparation for the race, doing what she calls her ‘sparkly leg training’ in Tenerife – high-intensity sessions that avoid the big climbs on Teide in favour of lower-altitude hard efforts for more speed.

‘I’ve watched Paris-Roubaix since I was young, and it symbolises why I love cycling in that it’s not always the strongest rider who wins. You need the right weather, a bit of luck… there are so many different variables that add up to make the eventual winner. It’s an exciting prospect to be a part of that big game.’

Cancel culture

The ‘big game’ has been a long time coming. The first women’s Paris-Roubaix was supposed to take place in April last year, but was initially postponed until October before being cancelled altogether. This year’s race was set to take place – Covid allowing – on Sunday 11th April, just before the 118th edition of the men’s race.

However, a resurgence in the virus has now seen the race pushed back to October once again.

To put that in perspective, the men’s debut of Paris-Roubaix happened in the 19th century in 1896, just nine years after John Dunlop created the first pneumatic tyre for his son’s bicycle. Look back nine years from the women’s debut and the then Lizzie Armitstead was winning silver at the 2012 London Olympic road race behind Marianne Vos aboard a lightweight carbon bike. It has taken 125 years for the invitation to one of the world’s greatest races to be extended to women.

Even then the race is not really the same as the men’s.The women’s edition of Paris-Roubaix is significantly shorter than the men’s at 116km compared to more than 250km, though Deignan hopes this difference in length will become less pronounced in years to come as the women’s field grows in strength.

She and her fellow racers will face 25.9km of cobbles over 17 sectors of brutal pavé, joining the men’s parcours at Hornaing. The men, by comparison, battle 54.5km of cobbles over 30 sectors. Both events finish in the iconic velodrome of Roubaix.

Despite the differences between the men’s and women’s races, Paris-Roubaix is still a major statement for professional women’s cycling, organised as it is by ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation), the all-powerful corporation behind the Tour de France.

ASO has often been criticised for treating women’s racing as an afterthought, the one-day La Course panned for being no more than a token footnote to the men’s 21-stage media-attracting parade around France.

The vibrations of the cobbles will be felt around the world, securing sponsorship and raising the profile of women’s cycling – a profile that’s set to shift gears again come 2022 with a reported eight-stage Tour de France starting on the final day of the men’s race. There’s also talk of a women’s Vuelta next year that, added to the 10-stage Giro d’Italia Femminile, would make it the full suite of Grand Tours.

Throw in the introduction this season of Jumbo-Visma’s women’s team, led by Marianne Vos, and you can see why Deignan banished thoughts of retirement.

‘It’s an amazingly progressive sport now and we’re gaining momentum. I didn’t want to miss out on what the previous generation of riders has worked so hard for and a race like the Tour is such an amazing opportunity.’

Show me the money

Deignan’s team is arguably the most progressive team in that progressive sport, having made a strong statement by being the first team to increase the women’s base salary to match that of their male counterparts. Men’s WorldTour teams are obliged to pay their riders a base wage of €40,045 (employed) or €65,673 (self-employed), while the base wages for women are currently set at €20,000 (employed) or €32,800 (self-employed). Many teams hire their riders and staff as outside contractors, hence the ‘employed’ and ‘self-employed’ difference.

‘When I was thinking of retiring, being with Trek was the only option I’d have pursued,’ Deignan says. ‘They signed me during my maternity leave to act in an ambassadorial role. They didn’t need to do that. They also negotiated with me as a rider who’d enjoyed success, not as a rider starting from scratch again, which was the approach of many teams. I felt there was a respect there for the career I’ve had and who I am.’

Trek-Segafredo’s stance is not just a moral one – it also makes sound business sense given that women’s cycling across the board is on the rise. Just look at Strava: in 2020, of its nine million users in the UK, the number of activities for women aged between 18 and 29 rose by 108% year on year. Globally, of 1.1 billion uploaded activities, those for the same age group for women was up 45%, compared to around 10% for men.

This multifaceted motivation and Deignan’s high profile has seen the Otley-born rider projected as a figurehead. In a recent roundtable with journalist Orla Chennaoui, former Ineos Grenadiers CEO Fran Millar and Santini CEO Monica Santini, Deignan said discussing the state of women’s cycling for her was akin to male riders talking doping – inevitable because of its recent past but a necessary step.

‘It’s an important topic so I’m happy to answer questions. What I struggle with is the need to come up with perfect soundbites; to get across exactly what’s in my head about equality, which is hard as I’m not a trained politician. It adds pressure but I’d rather try than not.’

Year of activism

Ironically, lockdown provided the backdrop for sports to start unlocking the manacles of history. The Black Lives Matter movement has seen professional footballers continue to take the knee, while Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford has pressurised the Government to provide free school meals for schoolchildren. The argument that sport and politics don’t mix is as outdated as the sexist comments of the outgoing president of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics organising committee, 83-year-old Yoshiro Mori.

Equally outdated are some of the views within sport on pregnancy. Just look at Nike, which was forced to remove contract reductions for pregnant athletes as recently as 2019 after track-and-field star Allyson Felix went public about her dispute with the American company after becoming a mother. Deignan, who had daughter Orla in September 2018, reflects on her own experiences.

‘There were many who asked if I’d told my team I was having a baby! I thought these people have obviously never tried to have a baby. You can’t just decide to have your baby in the off-season and neatly carry on the next season.

‘It was really interesting to see people’s perspectives on it, even from fellow riders. They thought it was a betrayal of my contract. But if I want to start a family, that’s my right as a human being and shouldn’t be dictated by a contract.’

There’s no anger in the Yorkshire rider’s tone. In the years since she started racing on the road professionally with Team Halfords Bikehut in 2008, Deignan has honed the art of discussion over condemnation.

‘If you get the chance to sit around a table with people and unravel their opinions and stereotypes, sometimes people reflect and think, “Yeah, I might be wrong here.” It’s not always beneficial to judge people on the first thing they say because sometimes we don’t think deeply enough and make mistakes. Ultimately I’ve always seen cycling as my profession. I love it but have always treated it like that.’

The Yorkshire rider, who spent lockdown with her family in God’s Own Country, instead of her other home of Monaco – ‘our apartment had no garden so it would have been a nightmare’ – dug deep into that professionalism to return to racing after having Orla. Where recovery once consisted of feet up and sleep, it now revolved around cleaning up flying food.

The slog, as Deignan puts it, was worth it, not only for their ‘beautiful, crazily active’ daughter, but for leading to her best year since winning four races including the Tour of Flanders in 2016.

In the condensed season that was 2020, Deignan won the GP de Plouay-Bretagne followed by La Course, before claiming the Giro’s opening team time-trial. She finished fourth at Flanders and then took victory in Liège. It left Deignan as world number one, ahead of teammate Elisa Longo Borghini.

‘It was a weird, weird year, full of contradictions and craziness. I didn’t believe the 2020 season would go ahead. Even when it did I felt like each race I competed in would be the last. I’d endured a fair few crashes before those victories in France. La Course was particularly special because, being in Nice, it was like a home race. We drove 20km back to our apartment afterwards and, come the afternoon, I was taking Orla to the park.

‘I felt tired after the Giro [where she finished 30th] and that fatigue carried over to the World Championships [sixth], but the following week came the Ardennes and that’s where I found my legs. I used to be somebody who trained a lot and raced a small amount, but since the time off with Orla I’ve needed more races to get into the rhythm – though that might be an age thing!

One eye on Tokyo

A lack of race rhythm saw Deignan finish down the field in late February’s 2021 season opener Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but despite the early season rust she remains confident of a strong showing in Roubaix before directing her focus to the Tokyo Olympics – if it goes ahead.

‘Will it happen? It depends on which news site you’re watching and which nationality you are. I have teammates who haven’t had much of a lockdown and say of course it’s going to happen. Then I speak to my sister, who’s been home-schooling her kids for nine months and thinks it’s not going to happen.

click to subscribe

‘I hope it does, especially as I like the course. I went to see it in 2019 and it’s similar to Liège with some hard climbs and a similar finishing circuit. The Olympics comes down to who can handle the pressure, which I usually can.’

What about the heat and humidity of Japan? ‘I’m better off if it’s snowing! But it’s something you can prepare for. I’ll do some humidity training, which reads as turbo training in my bathroom with a hot shower on.’

More certain is Deignan’s final target for the season: September’s World Championships. ‘They’re in Flanders, where I’ve won before. I’m really excited about that event – it’s my favourite race on the calendar. In that first UK lockdown, where I’d thought 2020 would be written off, it was something tangible for my mind to hold onto.’

From there, Deignan will enter the final season of her Trek contract. Will she finally retire then? Ever pragmatic, she says now isn’t the time to ponder such thoughts. Instead she intends to simply enjoy the moment. ‘It’s been a tough year for everyone but I’ve always remembered that I’m a professional cyclist. As careers go, it’s not a bad job.’

Busy Lizzie

The highlights from Deignan’s long career at the forefront of women’s pro cycling

2005: Wins silver medal in the scratch race at the Junior World Track Championships  
2007: Wins the first of two straight scratch races at the Under-23 European Championships and takes silver in the points race  
2009: Wins gold for Great Britain in the team pursuit at the Track World Championships, as well as silver in the scratch race and bronze in the points race  
2011: After two straight second places, wins the British National Road Race Championships for the first time  
2012: Takes silver for Team GB in the road race at the London Olympics behind Marianne Vos  
2015: Wins a third British title, retains her World Cup crown and caps the season off by winning the World Championships Road Race in Richmond, USA  
2016: Takes a Classics treble with wins at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianchi and the Tour of Flanders, followed by GC success in the Women’s Tour  
2017: Breaks a string of second place finishes by winning the Tour de Yorkshire, then takes a fourth national road race title after a late solo break  
2019: Returns to racing with Trek-Segafredo after the birth of her first child, dominating the Women’s Tour in June with a stage win and GC success  
2020: Four victories, including a first La Course success, sees her end the year as the top-ranked rider in the world  

Deignan on…

The Olympics

‘The 2012 Olympics was a pivotal moment for the growth of our sport in this country. It was such a massive event and there were a lot of British female successes. In Britain I’ve never felt the media attention has been that bad. Europe has had a bit of catching up to do, but it’s getting there.’

Off-the-bike training

‘I do a fair bit of core stability but I don’t do gym training. I used to when I was a track rider but felt like it was working against my physiology. I’m not somebody who builds muscle easily so it takes a fair bit out of me, which I find is detrimental to hours on the bike.’

Motherhood

‘I feel psychologically stronger since having Orla. It’s not that I don’t care about my cycling but I’m not scared of failing. Not everything is riding on it anymore, which provides a certain freedom when it comes to racing and training. If I’ve had a bad day on the bike, there’s no time to dwell on it.’