Lizzie Deignan is riding to meet Cycling Weekly’s photographer just over the French border from her Monaco home. The gradient would have most amateurs wheezing over their handlebars, but she is spinning effortlessly, as if using no effort, each pedal stroke smooth and fluid. The personification of souplesse. It’s as though she has never been away.
But despite her stylish pedalling, Deignan last turned a wheel in anger over a year ago at the 2017 World Championships. There, barely recovered from an emergency appendectomy less than a month before, she finished 42nd.
In that time a lot has changed. The 2015 world champion spent 2018 away from racing while pregnant, giving birth to baby Orla in September, and she is preparing to return to competition with a brand new team, Trek-Segafredo — the first time a team has been built around her.
Back in Monaco to take advantage of the weather and training roads, and to escape the distractions of what she calls the ‘love bubble’ that surrounds a newborn baby, it’s clear she is happy with her racing sabbatical, but ready to return to competition.
“I did say I’d like to get to six months before I stop breastfeeding and that is quite a limiting factor on training and progression. I think that’s a good thing because it’s holding me back, which I think I need. In terms of being at race weight and pushing the boundaries of my diet, there is no room for that.”
Later at a harbourside restaurant, one of the waiters admires her Trek Madone leant against the wall, its blue flashes matching the azure Mediterranean lapping a few metres away, and the smile on her face suggests Deignan is content.
However, it was not always like that. The 18 months before that last race in Bergen were not all plain sailing for the Yorkshirewoman.
Going through the motions
After winning the rainbow jersey in the USA, 2016 began spectacularly with victories at Strade Bianche, the Tour of Flanders and the OVO Energy Women’s Tour among others. It seemed she was a force of nature sweeping off the Yorkshire Dales, able to win almost at will.
However, her year was blown off course in the run up to the Olympic Games when she revealed she had successfully appealed a ban for three missed tests. (The authorities admitted to a complete failure to follow procedure in one test.)
Her results the following year fell below the high standard of before. While taking a fourth national title, the Tour de Yorkshire and a string of WorldTour podiums would have made many a rider’s career, it was clear something was missing.
“I was going through the motions,” she says. “I had got to the point where I had achieved everything I wanted apart from Olympic gold. The Olympic experience in Rio was a really traumatic time and I had become a bit disillusioned with what I was doing and why.
“The women’s calendar is still small and you’re going to the same races year after year, in the same car park, the same hotel, the same flight even. I have the perspective to know I have an amazing job with the opportunity to travel but at the time I was thinking, ‘Oh, I have to do this again.’
“I realised I was doing it for other people, and the reason I started so successfully in cycling was because it was my thing, when I was 15 years old and they came to school it was totally my project, my inspiration, my goal and that ownership of my dream was really important to it being fun.
“At the same time I knew I didn’t want to quit, so I was a bit stuck. It felt like a very long time until the Yorkshire World Championships, that was the goal I didn’t want to miss, but I couldn’t have carried on on the same path I don’t think.
“I do think a change is as good as a rest,” she laughs at the cliché. “Even if it’s as simple as having a shiny new bike and a shiny new jersey, that has helped.”
Deignan often mentions her ‘bubble’. It’s her safe haven, a private place where she escapes cycling with friends and family, but where she is also able to focus on her training and recovery.
However, as any parent knows, the arrival of a child is not only tiring, it alters priorities and disrupts routines, something her ‘bubble’ has previously allowed Deignan.
“I’m not in control of anything anymore. I was a bit of a control freak before, and I am to some extent still, but there’s no scheduling a baby, and I found that an adjustment. I thought I was prepared for it but I wasn’t and I didn’t realise quite how much it would change my life, but I love it and it feels like the best decision I have ever made.
“But I think I am able to compartmentalise it still. People would say when I was pregnant, ‘You’ve got no idea of what it’s going to be like,’ and of course I didn’t, but my fundamental discipline and focus, all the attributes that I had in my professional character are still there, and I knew they would be. It’s not like somebody flicked a switch and all I could think about was motherhood; I am capable of doing both.”
Starting at the top
In early 2018 Deignan was patiently fielding questions about her race programme, which was repeatedly postponed until, in March, she announced her pregnancy and simultaneously her intention to not return to racing until 2019.
However, as well as preparing for parenthood, she also left Boels-Dolmans, the team she had joined in 2013 and been part of developing into the best outfit in the women’s peloton.
Had she worried she wouldn’t find a team for 2019? “It crossed my mind, definitely,” she admits. “I thought that if I got a team then I would have to start at the bottom and make my way to the top again. Trek approached me while I was pregnant and I said, ‘Yes please,’ then with the infrastructure of the men’s team, they could quickly put it all together.”
“One of the biggest motivating things when I signed was that our negotiation was with me as world champion, with me as one of the best riders in the world. They didn’t negotiate with somebody who was starting at the bottom again; they respected my career.”
While her team-mates have been racing and winning in Australia, there is still no firm date for Deignan’s return to racing.
“I have a fair idea,” she says coyly. “Trek have been brilliant, they have said it is down to me. I have said June will be the latest, but potentially earlier than that. It’s a funny one: do I decide when I feel like I can just get round, when I can do a job for the team, or when I feel I can win? I’m not sure.”
Whenever Deignan next pins a number on, any immediate goals she has will be subordinate to the World Championships, which will be held in her native Yorkshire and were a major factor in her desire to return.
“It was the biggest, unrivalled motivation,” she asserts. “I was there at the start of the Tour de France, I was on the other side of the fence racing the Tour de Yorkshire on a week day and there were thousands of people lining the streets. Can you imagine the World Championships? It’s going to be phenomenal.
“The route goes past everything that means something to me, like they picked it out of my mind. It goes past the school I went to, up the road I walked to school, past the church I got married in, past my parents’ back garden wall, then it finishes in Harrogate, where we have a house.
“I already know where I want to attack if I’ve got the legs, but there are so many key places, it’s a real racer’s course.”
While the one thing missing from her palmarès is Olympic gold, surely a second world title, won at home, would be the icing on the cake? Would there still be motivation to carry on another year to Tokyo? “Yes,” Deignan smiles. “I’ve had the rainbow jersey before and it made me fly. I think it would again.”
Trek-Segafredo: Building the team
The idea behind the Trek-Segafredo women’s team came direct from the American bike manufacturer, and when the team was announced Deignan was front and centre.
She was present at the launch during last year’s Tour de France and is not only a leader on the road, but a totem for the concept behind the squad.
“Lizzie was perfect to hire, first because she has proved she has plenty of top qualities, but clearly the fact that she was not able to ride anymore because she was pregnant was a story that could be picked up to create this team,” explained Trek-Segafredo manager Luca Guercilena.
“The idea is to give exactly the same opportunities to women, always considering they are women so pregnancy could be part of their life. So that was the starting point and we would like to have her as an ambassador for the idea behind this team.”
The squad is not just about Deignan, though, they have recruited a strong line-up which has already shown well in early-season races, directed by Ina-Yoko Teutenberg. One of the sport’s most decorated sprinters, German Teutenberg retired in 2013 and will be joined by former double world champion Giorgia Bronzini, who retired last September.
That they have two female directeurs is a coincidence as they interviewed men for the role, but it does add credence to the idea this is a team who are prepared to shake up the sport with more than just victories.
Pedalling when pregnant: ‘The baby is in charge’
Though she stopped serious training the moment she discovered she was pregnant, Deignan continued riding throughout pregnancy and was even on her Wattbike three days before giving birth. However, throughout she tailored her rides to how she felt.
“There are women that continue to do intervals and have a normal and healthy pregnancy. Some people probably think riding on the road was a risk, but in terms of physiology I wasn’t going to risk going too hard,” she explains.
“There would be some days when I would do two or three hours, I would ride the Col de la Madone just because I like being outside, I needed that for my mental health, I needed the outdoor space, the idea of locking myself away was too much.
“There would be days when I would set off feeling terrible, so I would go home straight away. I just went with the flow, you have no choice, the baby is in charge.
“I was very lucky because I knew I was coming back to cycling and I had no other commitments so I stayed a professional athlete, I rested a lot and I ate really well.”
Deignan has also experienced the post-birth boost other athletes have talked about.
“I’ve been shocked, I felt better after a couple of weeks training than after some off-seasons. I’ve not done any intervals yet, but my base power at the end of a three-four-hour ride is the same as it was when I was at my best, and my resting heart rate has dropped by six beats to 32.
“There’s been quite a lot of physiological changes; the strength that you get is strange, but you’ve spent nine months carrying an extra 10 kilos around.”