“Lizzie you need to go to the podium!” crackled Trek-Segafredo’s race radio after the women’s Tour of Flanders.
At the top of the Women’s WorldTour rider classification, Lizzie Deignan was due to be awarded the leader’s jersey, but at Flanders this was more of a problem than normal.
Having been in the second group after the Kruisberg, the 2016 race winner felt unwell and abandoned, deciding to make her way to the finish by the quickest possible route.
“I found a bike path that went to Oudenaarde, but the bike path ended on the wrong side of the river and a bridge started to go up in front of me,” Deignan laughs. “So I was stood in my race kit, freezing cold with a load of commuters laughing at me and waiting for the bridge to go back down so I could get to the podium.
“I shouldn’t have started really. I got quite sick after Ghent-Wevelgem, but I thought I’d give it one last push to help Elisa after all the help she’s given me, but I was fairly useless.”
It was an anticlimactic end to an excellent season for Deignan. After a few false starts with illness and crashes, for more than five weeks between the end of August and the start of October Deignan was – once again – the best one day racer in the world.
Her record third win at GP Plouay saw the Yorkshirewoman break Annemiek van Vleuten’s (Mitchelton-Scott) six-race winning streak, and in Nice the following week she pipped Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) on the line to win La Course.
Then, after Anna van der Breggen’s (Boels-Dolmans) prodigious run of victories, from the Giro Rosa through road and time trial world titles and a sixth consecutive Flèche Wallonne, Deignan broke another Dutch stranglehold, winning at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
With the peloton wearily dispersed at the close of the abridged season, 31 year-old Deignan can look back at more than those three top level victories. There was also victory at the Giro Rosa team time trial, six top 10 finishes, including sixth place at the World Championships, and that WorldTour classification. All from 21 race days. Not a bad return.
“I was delighted with it,” Deignan says of her year. “It was a very mixed bag, I felt like I was crashing or I was ill or I was winning, so it was a strange season for lots of different reasons, but I was happy with it.
“I’m definitely better than I’ve ever been physically, but it’s a different ball game since I was dominating in 2016. I can look at my power files between now and 2016 and I’m as strong if not stronger than I was then, but I’m not winning every race I enter, which I think is a good thing, women’s cycling is really developing year on year.”
The season’s standout squad, Trek-Segafredo, have incredible strength in depth and were key to the Brit’s success, though it wasn’t all about her.
They began in January, US road champion Ruth Winder winning a stage and the GC at the Santos Women’s Tour Down Under. Later there were national titles for Elisa Longo-Borghini, Anna Plichta and Audrey Cordon-Ragot, who also took a stage at the Tour de l’Ardeche. The team’s five WorldTour victories were the most of any other squad.
“It was very clear from our manager, Luca Guercilena, at our first get together in December that it was about winning. I remember on the bus before Strade Bianche he said, ‘I have no interest in any of you coming second or third, or top 10, we need to win’.
“It’s quite an interesting situation for your manager to say they’re not interested in podiums, they’re only interested in winning, it kind of makes your tactics very aggressive and very fearless and as soon as that started to work the ball was rolling, and I think once you’ve won one race it’s easier to win more.”
Longo Borghini bagged the team’s other WorldTour road victory, was instrumental in each of Deignan’s successes, and the pair have built a productive partnership since joining forces when the team was created at the beginning of 2019. Their relationship first paid off when the Brit won stage five at last year’s Ovo Energy Women’s Tour, and has blossomed since.
“She is a fearless competitor and an incredibly interesting person, on and off the bike,” Deignan says of the Italian. “We get on very well and I’m just inspired by her passion for cycling, she’s phenomenal.”
“When I first got pregnant she was one one of the first professionals who contacted me, she said ‘my mum [Olympic cross country skier, Guidana Dal Sasso] made a comeback and I know you can do it’. She reached out to me as a stranger, then on another team. We have a very good relationship and mutual respect, it works as well.”
It was Longo Borghini’s repeated counter attacking in the closing kilometres of La Course that set up Deignan’s favourite win. Though she appeared beaten, the Italian battled back, forcing Vos to open her sprint too early, allowing Deignan to take the win.
“It was the epitome of team work,” enthuses Deignan. “Often when you’re trying to express to family or friends that cycling is a team sport it’s quite difficult to explain, but there was no explanation needed if you watched La Course.
“It was obviously very important for our team and our sponsors, so we had a lot of pressure and we performed.”
There is an argument to say Deignan has usurped Vos as the peloton’s most complete all-round rider. Though the Dutchwoman remains prolific, Deignan now out-climbs her rival, but remains quick enough to mix it in the bunch sprints, and, as we saw at La Course, from a small group she is devastating.
Having committed her future to Trek-Segafredo until the end of 2022, there’s also plenty more to come.