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Interview: Lizzie Deignan on redemption, marriage and retiring to Yorkshire

"I always have my bike to rely on. You move on very quickly when you have a bike ride."

It’s Monday lunchtime, and Lizzie Deignan sits in an empty pub in an affluent but comparatively obscure corner of west London. This is no social gathering, however. We have met to discuss her new book, Steadfast.

To describe Deignan’s life as busy would be an understatement, but she says that the opportunity to write a book (with The Guardian’s William Fotheringham) was too good to miss. One wonders where she found the time.

Lizzie Deignan has endured a turbulent 12 months, with a doping court case in the build-up to the Rio Olympic Games offset by a successful appeal, marriage and return to the podium (Pic: SWPix.com)

Time is pertinent, of course. Deignan is known to the wider public as she of the missed whereabouts tests; three in fact, within a critical 12-month period in the run up to the Olympic Games in Rio last August. Her account of the personal impact of a hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the run-up to last year’s Olympic Games is one of the most compelling sections of her new book.

“The moment I dared to dream we were winning the case was when the hardline arbitrator chosen by UKAD (UK Anti-Doping) laughed at the evidence given by their DCO [Doping Control Officer] – ‘This should never have come to court; you are wasting everyone’s time.’ He said, ‘That’s enough, we don’t need to hear any more from your witnesses’ and stopped the proceedings.

“At that point we were told to adjourn; we came back in and they said that because it was so close to the Olympic Games they had made their decision and were telling us immediately: the Swedish strike would not stand.”

Nine months down the line and the backlash from the mainstream media seems merely par for the course. Deignan’s missed tests, and the subsequent CAS appeal, had been confidential, but a leak to the media threw her preparations for Rio into disarray. Inevitably, Deignan has her reasons for each of the missed tests, and, most critically, the first of three.

Elite athletes are required to state an address where anti-doping testers can find them for one hour each day. On August 20 2015, a UKAD officer sought Deignan at 6am at her team hotel and had asked the receptionist for her room number without stating the reason. When the receptionist refused, he called Deignan’s mobile, but it was on silent as she was asleep. The UKAD officer left without contacting any other members of Deignan’s team (including the mechanics working on bikes outside the hotel) and a missed test was recorded.

When Deignan missed two further tests, she was provisionally suspended on July 11 2016, less than a month before the Olympic road race, but the first strike was ruled out by CAS, with the court ruling in the rider’s favour. The UKAD officer had not done enough to try and locate Deignan.

Life as a professional cyclist – competing more than 50 times a year, in countries across Europe and indeed the globe – is complicated, to say the least. Does the public understand this, I wonder?

“My sport is very different to other sports,” Deignan tells RCUK. “I’m racing so many days a year and I’m travelling all the time, that it’s very different to, say, an athlete who can sometimes compete three or four times a season. I don’t always know where I’m going to be or what I’m going to be doing. I’m a very busy person.”

Lizzie Deignan targeted gold in Rio but settled for fifth place in the women’s road race (Pic: SWPix.com)

Nevertheless, Deignan accepts that empathy is a difficult thing, even admitting that she has little understanding of her sister’s life as a full-time mother. Her book does not seem an attempt to win public sympathy. Deignan says her wish was to show the “human side” of a story whose finer details are easily lost in headlines.

Was she disappointed by the lack of support from other athletes? Search online for reports of Deignan’s missed tests and the first story returned is Bradley Wiggins describing a world champion’s responsibility to set standards, and calling Deignan’s predicament ludicrous, ridiculous and unfathomable.

Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, Deignan’s predecessor as world road race champion, tweeted “Just shameful” soon after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) expunged one of the three ‘strikes’ against her British rival.

Deignan has been back on the podium in recent weeks, finishing second behind team-mate Anna van der Breggen at La Fleche Wallonne (Pic: ASO)

“I honestly didn’t read any of it,” Deignan insists. “I kept my head down and focused on my performance in Rio and after that got straight back into riding.”

The advantage to a profession that offers such little time for reflection is that it is easier to move on from disappointment and stress, especially when the profession involves riding a bike.

“I always have my bike to rely on,” she says with a half-smile, momentarily a living definition of the phrase ‘putting on a brave face’. “You move on very quickly when you have a bike ride.”

Olympian spirit

Moving on might almost have been the title for Deignan’s book. She has done little else since discovering cycling as a teenager. Success has followed success, most recently with back-to-back podium finishes at the Amstel Gold Race and La Flèche Wallonne Fémininea.

It was Deignan, (then Armitstead), who put women’s road racing on the map, in the UK at least, with an exhilarating ride to the silver medal at the London Olympic Games. The Otley girl won the home nation’s first medal of the Games, narrowly missing out on gold to Marianne Vos (Netherlands) on a rain-soaked Mall.

Deignan agrees that the race was “a changing point” – the moment when her friends finally understood her occupation and its excitement. Cycling was no longer “a weird sport”. It was cool.

Deignan broke into the limelight with silver at London 2012, Britain’s first medal of the Games (Pic: Sirotti)

Fast forward four years, and the Olympic Games in Rio could not have been more different. Quite aside from the courtroom dramas Deignan had endured merely to compete, the parcours was downright dangerous.

Annemiek van Vleuten’s sickening collision with the large and unprotected kerb that lined a high-speed descent left millions of television viewers wondering if she had been killed, though thankfully she made a full recovery. Still the race continued, and Deignan was among those compelled to ride past the stricken Dutchwoman.

“Obviously seeing Annemeik on the floor was just horrific,” she says. “From that point, my race was over anyway. You’re sort of numb when you see something like that. There’s no doubt that the kerb shouldn’t have been there, it should have been looked after. But as an athlete in the Olympic Games, you get down the hill, don’t you?”

Lizzie Deignan/Armitstead (Pic: SWPix.com)
Lizzie Deignan/Armitstead (Pic: SWPix.com)
Lizzie Deignan/Armitstead (Pic: SWPix.com)

This last statement is delivered in a downbeat tone, and it is with a similar voice that she admits to now accepting the danger inherent in bike racing. Her own frightening collision with a photographer and then the tarmac, moments after sprinting to victory on the opening stage of the 2015 Women’s Tour, encapsulates a professional cyclist’s relationship with risk and reward. It’s another event that is documented with unflinching directness in Steadfast.

“I barrelled into them and then there was absolute carnage. There was one photographer, Huw Williams, kneeling down with a camera; I hit him with my front wheel on the side of his head. His ear was black afterwards. I piled into the race organiser as well, into his shoulder, but it was Huw who took the worst impact… My first reaction on the floor was, ‘Have I killed that guy I’ve just hit?’ I was petrified. ‘How is he? How is he?’”

Talk of shock, pain and spinal boards dominates the account of events that day in Aldeburgh. If photographer Jered Gruber’s astonishing frame-by-frame capture of the collision might have caused lesser spirits than Deignan to seek alternative employment, she tells me that it was “one of those crashes that looked worse than it was.”

“The less dramatic crashes are the more painful ones,” she says. “I suppose when you have a dramatic crash like that you have a lot of support, and you have a lot of people around you. The crashes where you’re in the middle of the peloton and you hit your head and you’re questioning, should I start the race tomorrow, or should I go home. Because it’s such an elite sport, you kind of have to manage your health and the risk all the time. That’s something you gain with experience.”

Lizzie Deignan won the first stage of the 2015 Women’s Tour but crashed into a photographer fractions of a second after this image was taken (Pic: Sweetspot)

Together alone?

Deignan’s most recent visits to the podium at the Ardennes Classics came at women’s races tagged onto the men’s events, and there’s an ongoing debate about the relative merits of joining forces or striking out alone (like the Women’s Tour, arguably the most successful event on the women’s calendar).

“I think there’s space for both,” Deignan says. “Cycling fans are very passionate and very loyal and if you can have a fan base that’s already there for the men’s race and introduce them to women’s cycling at the same time, I think that’s a positive thing. Again, the Women’s Tour is such a success on it’s own, so I don’t think it’s a necessity to run next to a men’s race, but it definitely helps.”

Deignan points out that she is an athlete, first and foremost, and the opportunity to compete in races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège is compelling, purely as a result of the prestige they have gained from the men’s sport.

Deignan climbs the Mur de Huy on her way to second place at La Fleche Wallonne (Pic: ASO)

Worlds recon

Even the opportunities offered by a full week of Ardennes Classics may pale compared to the chance of a second rainbow jersey. The World Championships will be held this year in Bergen, and Deignan will recce the course in May. Her Norwegian visit will shape more than her performance at the worlds. It will dictate how she prepares.

“I’m lucky enough that I’m an all-rounder, so if it is more sprinty, or my climby, I can shape my training around that, having seen it,” she says. “I’ll do that post-Classics.”

Those with only a passing acquaintance with cycling might be surprised that elite cyclists make reconnaissance rides. A road is a road right, and pedaling is pedaling? The sheer level of preparation, tactical awareness and concentration required is often overlooked. It’s another topic Deignan deals with in Steadfast, and in the context of her first Olympic Games.

“I kept my concentration until the last corner on to the Mall, and what happened next is my only regret from that day. Just then, a thought from outside came into my mind: my friends are stood on that corner. I wish I had not thought that, because that was the first time in the race where I had been drawn out of my bubble and into the crowd.”

She accepts that cycling is a physical job, but lists a number of factors that make the mental toll almost as draining: listening to the radio for instructions from the team car, monitoring the movements of other riders in the peloton, watching out for hazards in the road, especially where the surface is poor. No wonder the slightest lapse in concentration, like that described above, can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Yorkshire calling

The degree to which Yorkshire has become a major player in world cycling seems to have delighted and amused Deignan in equal measure. The Otley girl who was once embarrassed to be seen on her bike, and who trained alone out of necessity, is now amazed by the amount of cyclists she sees on her home roads; men and women.

It will not have escaped Deignan’s notice that Yorkshire will host the World Championships in 2019. More immediately, the women’s race at this year’s Tour de Yorkshire finishes in Harrogate, where Deignan and her husband, Team Sky rider Philip, have bought a house they hope to restore when their racing days and life in Monaco is done.

“It’s a bit of a wreck that will take some years to do up,” she says, smiling. “But that’s the long term goal – to be back.”

Deignan plans to retire to her native Yorkshire (Pic: SWPix.com)

It’s hard to imagine an Irishman and Yorkshire lass living forever among the glitz of the Cote d’Azur. The couple spent Christmas in Ireland, where, as well as enjoying life among a more grounded populace, the couple could ride together. The reality of training with her husband in the mountains around Nice is that she cannot keep up.

“He’s simply too good, really,” Deignan admits, with admirable frankness. “If we’re in Ireland over Christmas it’s fine, because I can sit in his wheel, and with the terrain, I can hang on in there, but where we live, it’s just not possible.”

Deignan married Team Sky ride Philip Deignan in September 2016 (Pic: Sirotti)

Some of the most illuminating passages in Steadfast are when Deignan speaks of her husband’s support during the most challenging summer of her career.

The Irishman makes several appearances in the book, as might be expected. Indeed, it was a visit to Ireland while Philip’s father Gerry’s battle with cancer took a turn for the worse that indirectly led to one of the missed whereabouts tests.

“I will remember that summer as one of the worst periods of my life, but also as one of the best. I experienced a trauma that I never expected to land myself in the middle of, but I survived it and I married Phil. The rest will be remembered as a blip in the greater scheme of things, but the latter will keep me happy for the rest of my life.”

In a sense, Deignan is compelled to discuss some of the most difficult moments of her personal life to give the full story of the most challenging episode of her career. She does so with dignity.

“I’m happy that I was honest and very direct,” Deignan tells RCUK. “That’s how I wanted it to be. Without Phil there, I don’t know what I’d have done.”

Reading matter

Much of Deignan’s motivation for writing Steadfast, which was initially due for publication before her provisional suspension and CAS appeal, came from the chance to spread the word of cycling, and, more generally, the benefits of exercise, she says. Indeed, sport seems to be the central theme of her time at school.

“High school felt like a means to an end, but every playtime was filled with netball or hockey, and in the sports teams I found my place a little bit. I did just about every sport going – swimming, hockey, netball, cross-country, football. I was in pretty much every team and if the team in the year above us were missing a hockey player, for example, I would play for them as well.”

She concedes that her athletic talent made her “one of the lucky ones” in school PE classes. Her ability won her admiration and attention, but she seems genuinely concerned by the plight of those who “turned their backs on sport in year eight and never looked back”.

Deignan is passionate about spreading the word of cycling (Pic: SWPix.com)

“For me, sport is so much more than elite performance,” Deignan says. “It’s about all the things that it can give you, and I hope that the book inspires people.”

Deignan does not attempt to dodge bullets in Steadfast, or to swerve difficult issues; indeed she confronts the events of last summer – the missed whereabouts tests and her appearance at the Court of Arbitration for Sport – as early in the book as its introduction, having delayed publication to address the issue. Unflinching and direct, it is a book that contains many of the qualities of its author.

Steadfast by Lizzie Deignan is out now, RRP £20 (Blink Publishing)

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