Lizzie Armitstead interview: "Rio is the biggest goal of my season and career" - Road Cycling UK

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Lizzie Armitstead interview: “Rio is the biggest goal of my season and career”

World champion in bullish mood as she returns to home county for Tour de Yorkshire

“Rio is the biggest goal of my season and of my career. I accept that. I can pretend that I’m not too bothered and it’s not that big a deal but it is and it’s what I want, so I have to put all my eggs in one basket and go for it.”

Lizzie Armitstead is in a bullish mood but she has every reason to be. The Yorkshire-born rider has firmly established herself as the leading female cyclist in the world and, having won the World Championships in 2015, she now wants an Olympic gold medal.

Armitstead won Great Britain’s first medal of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, securing silver behind Marianne Vos on the first day of competition. This time out, Armitstead only has eyes for gold. “I didn’t really know what she was doing in 2012,” Armitstead says. Now, undoubtedly, she does.

Lizzie Armitstead, pictured winning the women’s Strade Bianche in March, has dominated women’s cycling in 2016, having won the World Championships in 2015 (Pic: RCS Sport)

Curse of the rainbow jersey? What curse?

Armitstead made winning a habit in 2015. Victories came consistently throughout the season, from the Ladies Tour of Qatar in February to the World Championships in September. But if winning was a habit last year, it’s become standard fare in 2016 – Armitstead has been dominant since pulling on the rainbow jersey in Richmond. That was a race which Armitstead left with not only a gold medal hanging around her neck, but the confidence to dictate a race.

“Getting it right on that one day and delivering what I said I wanted to, everything coming together under huge pressure and being able to perform was huge,” Armitstead tells RoadCyclingUK. At the time, she’d barely believed she’d done it, crossing the finish line agasp, hand across her mouth after winning the sprint from a nine-rider breakaway group.

“I just felt so dominant in that race,” she says. “I felt like I was dictating it. Rather than following other people and reacting, I was dictating the race and I’ve been able to do that this season as well.

“I’ve come close a lot of times in my career at different events. I’ve got a lot of silver medals but I was favourite going into Richmond and I delivered.”

Armitstead subsequently came into 2016 with two goals: to win the women’s Tour of Flanders in April and the Olympic road race in August. First came victories in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche (for the second successive year) and Trofeo Alfredo Binda, before she arrived in Flanders. In Belgium the 27-year-old followed Emma Johansson’s acceleration on the Oude Kwaremont and outsprinted the Swiss rider in Oudenaarde.

There’s gold in them hills

Armitstead’s sprint has become the key weapon in her arsenal. Climbing is not her forte and if Armitstead is to win in Rio she must survive a hilly 130.3km course which includes three climbs, and most notably the 8.9km ascent of the Vista Chinesa, which tops out less than 25km from the finish in Parc Flamengo. The challenge for Armitstead now is to improve her climbing while preserving her sprint. If Armitstead is to win in Rio, she envisages hanging in with the leaders in the hills and winning a sprint from a small group.

“I’m spending a lot of time in the mountains,” says Armitstead, who is based in Monaco. “My training is very climbing-orientated now, so I’m spending more time in the mountains and less time on my sprint.”

Armitstead will have a powerful ally beside her when the road rises in Rio, in the form of climbing ace Emma Pooley, who has come out of retirement from professional cycling to target the Olympic Games. Armitstead and Pooley combined to devastating effect at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, claiming a one-two for England in what was then Pooley’s final race.

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“I’m excited to see Emma again and work together,” says Armitstead, who is an ambassador for Wattbike. “If we both get selected for Rio we’ll be quite an intimidating team.” While Armitstead will be Great Britain’s team leader for road race, Pooley will be among of the favourites for the hilly time trial, a discipline in which she won Olympic silver in 2008 and the world title in 2010.

“Emma would have been mad not to come out of retirement for this [time trial] course, it suits her perfectly,” Armitstead says. “And because we’re quite different athletes, our strategy going into the road race will mean we’d have two cards to play. We have every base covered between us, which is quite exciting.”

Home turf

Armitstead will first be reunited with Pooley at this weekend’s Tour de Yorkshire as part of a Great Britain team, but, while it may be the Otley-born rider’s home race, she is keen to temper the expectations of friends, family and fans in Yorkshire.

“It’s really difficult [to manage expectations] but I can’t compromise Rio for the Tour de Yorkshire,” says Armitstead, who has used this week to rest and fulfil sponsorship obligations having raced consistently through the first four months of the year.

“If it’d been a really challenging race then perhaps I would have continued to train through this week and make it a goal. But because it’s going to effectively be a bunch sprint, I didn’t want to compromise having this recovery week for it.”

Armitstead will be reunited with Emma Pooley (left) at the Tour de Yorkshire ahead of this summer’s Olympic Games. Last time the duo raced together, Armitstead won Commonwealth Games road race gold and Pooley took silver (Pic: Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com)

Saturday’s women’s race follows the same 135km course as stage two of the men’s event, which will take place later in the day. With a prize fund of £50,000 for the race, and a record pot of more than £75,000 on offer for the first RideLondon Classique in August, Armitstead is proud British events are providing a “blueprint” of how to run women’s races, but has challenged organisers to up the ante in 2017. What’s the next step for the women’s Tour de Yorkshire?

“A hard stage,” she says. “Either stage one or stage three of the men’s race this year – they’re pretty brutal.”

Women’s cycling is getting “stronger and stronger”, Armitstead says, and she believes the depth of talent is only going to grow as the sport gets more professional. “A harder parcours will allow the women’s peloton to showcase what we can do,” she says.

“It’s great that we have TV coverage but on a sprint stage I’m worried that it could look like women’s cycling is boring, because everyone’s waiting for a sprint finish. That’s inevitable, as it will be on the men’s stage, so it’d be great if it was on a more challenging course.”

Next stop: Rio

After the Tour de Yorkshire Armitstead will return to Monaco and re-focus for Rio with a “massive block of training working in the mountains” through May, which will also allow her to lose a couple of kilos to prepare for the particular challenge of the Olympic road race. She will then race the Women’s Tour, National Championships, Giro d’Italia Femminile and La Course. Each race is a stepping stone to Rio and Armitstead admits it’s difficult for Saturday August 6 not to dominate her thoughts.

“For me it makes sense that it’s so overwhelming,” she says. “It has to be.” But while Armitstead is determined to win gold in Rio, neither is she getting carried away with the idea standing on the top step of the podium.

“It’s huge,” she says. “To be Olympic champion is massive, but because it’s such a big challenge, and because the course isn’t ideally suited to me, I don’t want to hang my whole career on that one day.”

2016 will be a significant year off the bike, too, with Armitstead set to marry her fiancé, Team Sky rider Philip Deignan. It’s when the two are together that Armitstead can take her mind away from cycling.

“It’s nice when me and Phil are at home at the same time but that doesn’t happen very often,” she says. “When we are it’s good to go out for a nice meal and not have to think about what I’m eating. But because our jobs are so all-consuming, everything you do [during the season] has a consequence, so it’s only really in the off season that I switch off.”

Armitstead won Great Britain’s first medal of London 2012 – but now she only has eyes for gold (Pic: Sirotti)

Armitstead has some time until she can escape from cycling. This year is a particularly hard season, she says, due to the campaign extending into October with a late World Championships. In truth, however, Armitstead has had little opportunity to think about her season after Rio.

“I should, shouldn’t I?” she says with a wry smile. Just as she ended 2015 having achieved her goal of becoming world champion, Armitstead is now focussed solely on closing 2016 as Olympic champion.

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