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Lizzie Deignan: Walking nature’s tricky tightrope

Lizzie Armitstead interview
Hannah Troop
1 May 2018

The challenge of being at the top of your game and taking time out to have a baby is a tough decision to make

According to UNICEF around 353,000 babies are born each day on planet Earth. Yet if it’s happening so often, how come when a sportswoman, one at the top of her game, announces she’s pregnant it causes such a stir?

Back in March, Lizzie Deignan (Boels-Dolmans) announced that she and husband, Team Sky rider Phil Deignan, were expecting their first child.

For a natural course of nature that happens thousands of times a day why does this life choice still seem to be one of the trickiest paths to negotiate with a career.

Lizzie talks to us about what it’s been like navigating this physical and social tightrope so far.

Cyclist: Nature really screws you over doesn’t it – with morning sickness and not being able to tell anyone you’re pregnant?

Lizzie Deignan: Yeah and pretending to be a bike rider at the same time.

Cyc: It must have been really tough, how did you find that for a start?

LD: I found it a struggle actually, particularly at the beginning because everyone was asking about my goals for the season and you’re essentially lying to people, which is really difficult it doesn’t come naturally to kind of lie to someone’s face when they’re asking you a question.

But the rest of the women in my family kept reassuring me that in their pregnancies they had to do the same thing and it’s just part of the process.

Cyc: How early did you tell Boels-Dolmans? Because surely they have to start planning their season early don’t they?

LD: Yeah I told them as soon as I had a six week scan, so as soon as I’d heard the baby’s heartbeat I told them. So it was actually really early.

Cyc: How did you feel telling them? Nervous?

LD: Yeah, I did definitely, just because it’s so impactful for my job but I had to, I couldn’t keep it a secret forever <she laughs>

Cyc: How did you feel telling people in the peloton? What’s the mindset towards women taking time out to have children?

LD: Er, it’s been quite interesting actually, I think it depends on the culture and the way you were brought up. I’ve been quite surprised by some people’s reactions and particularly my comeback as well.

Different people are very vocal about the fact that they think I’m mad and others say 'wow', 'cool' what an adventure. So there has been very opposite opinions, I think it’s split down the middle really.

Cyc: There are quite a few who have done it, for example Marta Bastianelli, she’s a mother isn’t she? And she seems to be getting on well this season so far?

LD: Yeah she has, she’s had a couple of wins. There’s plenty of examples of sportswomen who have come back to the top level. Not that many in road cycling, it is a different kettle of fish just because of the amount of races we do and time on the road etc.

Cyc: I guess with the women’s wages being quite low, sometimes it’s just not economically viable to do it either?

LD: Oh completely, yeah. It’s about being in a financial position where you can take a year off earning essentially and it’s not that possible for many people in cycling. So I feel fortunate that I am in that situation.

Cyc: You see in the world of triathlon so many top level athletes in the last year who have taken time off to have babies. It’s crazy, it’s like they all had a meeting and said let’s all have babies this year...

LD: Yeah it’s funny, I follow quite a few of them on social media now. I think it’s about having an example really. You know, I can look at people like Laura Kenny and Sarah Storey and other high profile people like Jess Ennis-Hill who’ve done it.

I never thought I’d be someone who would do it. But I suppose age and the changes in my own life have led me to make this decision but it’s definitely helpful that there are people who have done this before me.

Cyc: As there aren’t that many people who have taken time out do you think they will see you and that will have an effect on people in the peloton going forward?

LD: I hope so, I hope people don’t see it as a limitation. You know that was always how I envisaged my career ending because of wanting to start a family.

I’ve always wanted a big family and obviously you need to start at an early enough age if you want as many as I do.

Cyc: How many children do you want, Lizzie?

LD: I’ve always wanted five but I’m thinking that’s maybe too many.

Cyc: FIVE???

LD: Yeah, I’ve always wanted to be a mum so, well, 20 weeks in I’m thinking I might bring that number down a little bit <she laughs>

Cyc: And I imagine probably once you have the baby as well?

LD: Yeah exactly. But I hope that people can see me do it and not necessarily that they’ll do it but just see that they have a choice. I think that’s the main thing. That it is a choice and you can make it.

Cyc: That’s the thing, it has to happen on both sides though, it’s not just about the woman taking time out, the men have to stand up for being able to take time out too

LD: Yeah I feel very lucky that Phil and I see it as a team. That it’s both of us parenting, it’s not just me. It’s been quite funny that I have had loads of questions about how being a mum will affect my career and yet he hasn’t had one.

Which is quite funny because obviously physically I go through the change which will obviously have a huge impact on my cycling. But bringing up a child will inevitably affect us both.

Cyc: That’s reflective of how bad society is in that we don’t ask him how he’s going to deal with it all. How have Team Sky been with it? Have they said they will try and help you manage both of your schedules once the baby comes along?

LD: No, no definitely not. I think that would be a luxury, but no it’s not happened.

Cyc: Yeah because it’s intense trying to bring up a child, it doesn’t look easy...

LD: I’m hoping that there is this different energy pathway for your own child. I think our life will be a lot fuller and a lot busier and we are both expecting that, but I know I’ll be so much happier, so for me that’s more important really and all I can do is try really hard and if I fail at least I’ve tried.

Cyc: All trial and error, because each baby is so different

LD: I’m hoping for a baby like Phil, nice and relaxed. Very calm and doesn’t make a lot of noise.

Cyc: What is it that really excites you about motherhood the most?

LD: I suppose all of it, I’ve always been so family orientated and for the last 15 years my life has only been focused on cycling and I’ve always put what makes me happy to the back foot I suppose.

The journey to Olympic medals and World Championships is hard work and if you don’t have people to celebrate it with and a full life it kind of leaves you a bit empty at the end of it.

I suppose I’ve just made a decision that’s going to make me happy ultimately.

Cyc: I’ve heard some pro riders talking about it bringing a balance to their life, they have another focus. When it comes to training they just get on their bike, go out and do it so they can get back to spend time with the family.

Do you think you’ll have the same?

LD: Yeah I hope so, I really do. I think I wasn’t happy probably for the last two years of my career, I was just going through the motions and I wasn’t motivated to win.

I was conscientious and I was doing my training properly because it was my job and that meant I could compete with the best, but I finished races and I didn’t care if I won or not.

I already feel more motivated to come back with a fresh approach and different outlook on life in general.

Cyc: The plan is to come back in 2019 and compete at the World Championships in Yorkshire, right?

LD: Yeah definitely. I’m very lucky that the World Championships in Yorkshire will literally go past my house where I grew up, so I have that motivation at the end of it. My goals next season are all about where I grew up and about my family.

Cyc: Is there anything you miss about not racing at the moment?

LD: I miss suffering which is a strange thing to say. Because now I’m riding my bike and training but I’m not ever pushing myself so it’s a bit boring that I can’t make myself suffer or be in pain a little bit, so it’s mundane in a way.

I miss the tactics and I miss the finals of races, I don’t miss the travel and the repetitive nature of some of the races. I miss it on days like Flanders, where I think, 'Oh I would have attacked there or I would have done this there.'

Cyc: Who’s your money on for World Champs this year? The course looks ridiculously tough.

LD: Yeah it’s really hard. I think that Anna van der Breggen has a really strong chance.

Cyc: Are you secretly pleased to be missing such a hard race?

LD: Yeah I’m not that bothered. I’m not going to miss the long mountain intervals that I would have had to have done that’s for sure.

But I think that Anna has a really great chance, I think Annemiek van Vleuten has a really good chance. So the Dutch in general will have a strong team like always and then you have people like Megan Guarnier who I think has a really good chance on that course definitely.

Elisa Longo Borghini, the usual suspects but with a few extra climbers in there.

Cyc: I have read but I don’t know how true it is, you’ve said that if you come back you would look to go with another team? Do you think that being on such a strong team as Boels is a curse?

LD: No I definitely don’t see it as a curse I think the stronger the team you’re in the better your chances are of winning. Whether I stay with Boels long-term I’m not sure about at the moment. Just because I think there are going to be quite a few opportunities within women’s cycling.

I would quite like to leave behind a stronger sport and I think that we are in need of new teams and there is potential of that happening with 2019 just around the corner. British sponsors are interested so I think it’s kind of watch this space really.

Cyc: Has Brian Cookson been in touch with you about the team he’s creating?

LD: Erm, he has yeah, and I think it is going ahead, I don’t think he’s got everything totally confirmed yet, but from what I’ve heard I think it’s going ahead, so that’s a good thing.

Cyc: As an ambassador for the sport, do you think your motivation to do more for the sport will be even greater when you’re a mum?

LD: It does give me a different feeling towards it. I feel more capable of shouldering the responsibility of talking about equality now that I’m going to be a mum, I don’t know why.

But I do, it’s such a huge issue at the moment, not just in cycling, and yeah it takes people to break the boundaries and I'm happy that I get to be one of those people.

Cyc: You’re now the ambassador for the Cycle Expo Yorkshire, what does that involve?

LD: They approached me a couple of months ago and obviously being in Yorkshire for the World Championships it was kind of a win win to take the opportunity to be an ambassador for them.

It’s at the Yorkshire Showground which is about 200m from our house that we’ve bought in Harrogate. Loads of people from the area and my old club Otley CC love it.

It’s just a massive community and if they can make the show into the biggest cycling show in the UK, which is what they’re trying to do, it’ll definitely be an exciting thing to be a part of.

Cyc: What does it promote? Just Yorkshire cycling as a whole as a go-to location?

LD: It’s all sorts of things, it’s basically going to be a festival of cycling. So they’ve got a showcase for products. Then they have races and coaching.

Cyc: It's incredible how much Yorkshire has become a cycling destination

LD: Yeah it is compared to when I first started 15 years ago I had no one to ride with and now everytime I go home the roads are busy with cyclists.

Obviously that annoys some people but it pleases me. It means that when we eventually go back to live in the UK there’ll be plenty of people to train with.

Cyc: How excited are you about the thought of becoming even stronger after having a baby? Because apparently this is a thing, right?

LD: Apparently it is. Both my mum and sister said that. But yeah I can’t imagine it right now. I’m excited about it definitely, and I’m so intrigued by what’s happening to my body already.

I coach myself and I find it fascinating the physical adaptations that my body is already going through. I’m reassured by people saying that you bounce back quicker.

I’m daunted by it as well. I know what I’ve done to be the best before and that I’ll have to do that again coming from a totally different body.

I’m just excited about the change and the difference and doing it all again differently.

Cyc: What are you thoughts about La Course this year? It’s a bit rubbish that it’s gone back to one day again isn’t it?

LD: Well I didn’t think that Marseille worked last year at all. I’d prefer them to do one stage and do it properly. It would be better if it developed further.

But if they’re going to do it, it needs to be a properly organised stage and if they can only get their heads around doing one then that’s fine.

Cyc: Who are you looking at from the younger generation that are surprising you?

LD: I think Kasia Niewiadoma, people forget how young she is. I think she is definitely going to be a World Champion within her career for sure. And I think Danish cycling in general, they’ve got a couple of young girls that are coming through, like Amalie Dideriksen, people forget how young she is, she’s got a great future and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, she’s really impressed me as well.

I think there are plenty of young girls coming through. The performance each year is still growing.

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