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Lizzie Armitstead became only the second British rider to win the season-long UCI World Cup since the series began in 1998. She followed double winner Nicole Cooke, who clinched the crown in 2003 and 2006.
Winning the World Cup is no mean feat considering the great Dutch rider Marianne Vos has dominated the competition, taking the title in five of the previous seven seasons.
Armitstead’s victory owed everything to a blistering run of form in the spring, which
saw her finish in the top two at each of the first four rounds of the competition.
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The 2014 campaign was undoubtedly the most consistent of Armitstead’s career on the road — a year when she moved up to the shoulder of Vos and proved that she could beat her. Previously, it had been assumed that Armitstead was a sprinter, but this year her climbing ability came to the fore and she showed she is now a force to be reckoned with in any kind of race.
Armitstead had the World Cup sewn up before the end of April after winning the Ronde van Drenthe and taking second place in the Trofeo Alfredo Bindo, Tour of Flanders and Flèche Wallonne. That runner-up position to Pauline Ferrand-Prevot on the Mur de Huy made people sit up and take note. Her previous best on that incredibly steep climb had been ninth in 2013 when she was well adrift of Vos.
We didn’t know it then but Ferrand-Prevot would turn out to be one of the sensations of the season, as she went on to win the World Championship road race in Ponferrada — but we’ll come to that shortly.
With so many points in the bag, Armitstead had the luxury of skipping a couple of rounds and knowing the title was more or less safe. That enabled her to ride the inaugural Friends Life Women’s Tour, although she was below par that week and eventually pulled out through illness, with only a fourth place in Clacton-on-Sea to her name.
Her best stage race performance of the year was at the Internationale Thüringen Rundfahrt in Germany, where she won the opening stage and finished second overall to American Evelyn Stevens.
A crash in the closing kilometre of La Course, held on the Champs-Elysées on the final day of the Tour de France, could have jolted her chances of winning the Commonwealth Games road race title, a goal that defined her season, but she was in blistering, aggressive form.
Although the streets of Glasgow were not quite as steep as the Mur de Huy, it was by no means a sprinters’ race and Armitstead had to use all her climbing strength to force the right move at the right time. Afterwards she was quick to praise her England team-mates, particularly Emma Pooley, who finished second and was riding her last race before retirement.
As heavy rain fell, reviving memories of the road race at London 2012 when Armitstead was second to Vos, she had to hold her nerve as Pooley attacked to set up the finish. Armitstead waited until the perfect moment to launch a counter-attack before heading past her team-mate for the gold medal.
She described winning to the BBC as “special, surreal. This is something I have always dreamed about. It means so much to me. I am always a runner-up. That was the best cycling teamwork I have ever been a part of. It was a fantastic job from Emma and all the girls and I am really proud of them.”
Of course, once the Commonwealth Games gold medal was hers, thoughts turned to the World Championships in Spain. The course suited Armitstead perfectly and she rode another flawless race, until the spectacular final kilometre when the leading quartet’s game of bluff backfired on them.
Armitstead, Vos, Elisa Longo Borghini and Emma Johansson had got clear on the final lap and had the race to themselves, or so it seemed. Armitstead had shown herself to be the strongest on the climb and for the first time in a major race Vos looked vulnerable. It was by no means a given that the Dutch rider would win.
But no one wanted to take the initiative in case it was they who missed out entirely. With three medals up for grabs and four riders in the mix it was like a game of musical chairs no one wanted to lose. In a way, it was the worst combination. If all the riders had been guaranteed a medal the endgame might have been different.
In the end, they waited for the bunch to catch them in the finishing straight. Armitstead tried to settle onto Giorgia Bronzini’s wheel, thinking (not without sound logic) that it was as good a place as any to kick-start the sprint. But few reckoned on the finishing power of Ferrand-Prevot and a medal slipped away. Armitstead finished seventh in a race she knew she could have won.
Nevertheless, it was an impressive season, arguably the pick of the British riders in terms of finding a combination between consistency and targeting specific goals.
World Cup champion, Commonwealth Games champion and now Cycling Weekly’s
British Rider of the Year for 2014: Lizzie Armitstead.