Philippa York: Lizzie Deignan defines her own identity

Catching up with the former world champion

Catching up with Lizzie Deignan the evening before the first stage of the Women’s Tour de Yorkshire and I was struck by just how relaxed and level headed she is. She’s three races into her return from giving birth last September, so I was thinking that maybe there would have been some lingering apprehension at being back in the thick of things, but not at all. Any doubts she had over nerves or if her ability to deal with the stresses of racing in a peloton were, she says, gone after the first 100 metres of Amstel Gold Race.

In a way, I’m glad the race hasn’t started yet as it’s a chance to talk about some of the more interesting aspects of bike racing, namely the weird and wonderful stuff that goes on before and after the event that can’t be seen by the public.

Like rooming with a coffee aficionado. It’s one of those little things that keeps a rider sane, and for Tayler Wiles – aka the ‘Cookie Monster’ – there’s a whole procedure to go through each morning that involves grinding beans and measuring water content before consumption happens.

Deignan might be team leader but when someone’s home comforts are involved it’s best to not interfere. And what can she admit to as her own little reminder of domestic life? Socks, soft fluffy socks. Not cotton or bamboo or anything special – they just have to allow walking on hotel carpet to be pleasant.

Surely she has something special, some quirk of character that needs to be satisfied each day on the road but no, there’s not the usual fussiness over bike setup that accompanies most top level bike riders. She knows her saddle height, and can feel if something isn’t right in her setup. I enquire if she ever starts with an Allen key in her pocket to adjust one of the contact points and there’s another shake of the head. What about one of the hot topics of the sport, weight management?

Nope, no problems there either, but it’s one of her dislikes; the constant strain on riders to lose, maintain or, in some cases – like track events – to gain weight. She admits she’s lucky – staying at her race weight isn’t a chore and there’s no dieting, as it happens. There was some calorific restriction before the Rio Olympics but her lack of performance there, she says, didn’t come from the brief diversion from keeping normality in her nutrition. Instead she says, “No, I just wasn’t good enough on that course.”

Which brings us to Tokyo 2020. A recce of the circuit in July will establish what the requirements are to be competitive but already she’s tailoring her training and racing with that in mind. At last, some hint of the focus that took her to be a World Champion and Olympic medallist.

I’m almost reluctant to ask her about being a new mum as it can be intrusive so I inquire as to how she’s adapted her training, what information she’s had to take in from the internet because let’s face it, every type of information on every experience is available on the web.

And it turns out there isn’t any advice or info on what to do in her position, no training plans, no useful knowledge, no data, and she finds that astonishing. Maybe in sport women are just meant to stay at home and provide the childcare, but for the Deignans that’s not going to happen as husband Philip has that role.

Retiring from Team Sky to be the parent at home would have been unthinkable not that long ago, however the couple had a discussion about what they both wanted, and the reversal of the expected situation is the result. Any questions from those who doubt it’s the right thing to do are met with a thoroughly modern rebuttal of ‘It’s the right thing for our family situation.’

Perceptions might not matter, but being an icon is an area that Lizzie Deignan hasn’t quite assimilated to yet. Now, I find that surprising but as she explains what she is a bike rider and her ambition and results and all the things that success bring haven’t changed that.

Exhilaration, being competitive, winning, and the general excitement are what motivates her and the role of inspiring other women into cycling is developing but at first it was a strange situation to be confronted with. It’s something we hear from the male riders too, and everyone copes with it in their own way.

Some have media training and trot out the standard answers when replying to questions. Sometimes that’s done with all the passion of a political broadcast but Lizzie isn’t going down that route, and her return to women’s cycling is as much about enjoying the growing interest in female sport, inspiring young riders and keeping her own identity and values.

An ordinary Yorkshire lass would have been an apt if lazy description if she wasn’t so damned good at the art of road racing. If there’s one thing that is sure for her future, it’s that she’s going to enjoy the coming years even more than we as spectators are going to enjoy her return to the top.

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