Lizzie Armitstead (Boels Dolmans) is in a very different place heading towards this year's Olympic Games in Rio compared to her debut in London in 2012. Back then, a nervous 23-year-old had spent just one full season on the road as she prepared for London, where she surpassed expectations by winning the silver medal. In stark contrast, as she finalises her preparation for Rio, she is the reigning world champion with an impressive seven victories from 14 race days in 2016 – including her recent overall win at the Aviva Women's Tour.
With four years of success and experience since London, Armitstead has upgraded her ambitions to the top step of the podium but tells Cyclingnews that she isn't betting everything on gold.
"I was just a totally different rider back then," she says. "Going into London, I was looking for a top 10 but going into Rio I want gold, and I'd be disappointed with anything else. That's not to say that I'm pinning my career on that result because anything can happen and that's cycling, and I don't think that it is a healthy way to look at a goal. Those are my ambitions, and they're very different to London."
Like many British riders, Armitstead began her career on the track and notched up her first world title in the team pursuit in 2009. While she signed for the Lotto-Soudal Ladies team in 2009, she continued to compete on the track until the end of 2011. Her last competitive outing on the boards reaped a national title in the scratch race.
It was only then that Armitstead put all of her efforts into the road, and she had modest expectations heading into London, where there was a little less pressure on her with the focus on Mark Cavendish in the men's road race. Despite her relative inexperience, Armistead surprised everybody to take Britain’s first medal of the home Games. The young rider had made it away in a late break in the torrid conditions in the English capital to claim second behind Marianne Vos.
"I felt elated, completely totally happy, but it was surreal, it felt like I was dreaming," Armitstead recalls. "It was probably the biggest sporting moment of my entire career and just a massive event for our country. I feel very lucky that I was a British athlete experiencing a home Games.
"I was very nervous, I was young, and I was inexperienced. It was my first Olympic Games, and it was a home Games. It was high pressure but really for myself, I didn't have that much expectation going into it. I was hoping for a top 10. I think I would have been happy with a top 10 so to come away with a medal was beyond my expectation."
'I learned a lot from London'
Life has changed drastically for Armitstead since that breakthrough success at the Olympic Games.
Now 27, she has spent the past four years living in the sunny climes of Monaco, which allows her almost uninterrupted training throughout the season. Crucially, she has also been part of the same set-up at Boels Dolmans since the start of the 2013 season. This has given her stability and security that means her full focus is on racing and not on getting to know new people and new equipment. She has recently added another two years to her contract with the Dutch squad.
"[It] has been incredible in terms of enabling me to trust the environment that I'm in, which makes a big difference. I've been working with the same equipment for that amount of time," Armitstead tells Cyclingnews, before adding: "I'm also older and wiser."
After the successes of her recent seasons, there is plenty of expectation ahead of the Olympic Games, but Armitstead has handled it well. Speaking to the press she is calm and collected, and she refuses to give into other people's expectations of what she should be doing.
Her results speak for themselves this season, with WorldTour victories at Strade Bianche, the Tour of Flanders, Trofeo Alfredo Binda and the Women's Tour. In fact, her Boels Dolmans team has dominated this season, winning all but two races at the highest level. She now sits just behind her teammate Megan Guarnier in the WorldTour rankings. While some riders struggle to shake off the pressure and extra attention that comes with wearing the rainbow jersey, Armistead has embraced it.
"I really like it. I feel pride every time I wear it, and it's a reminder at every race that you've beaten everybody in the world so it's a good confidence boost," she says. "I suppose, for me, London was a great experience because I was under huge pressure to say yes to lots of different things and lots of different media attention after the games and that had a knock-on effect for the 2013 season.
"I've learned from that experience. I said no to a lot of things this winter, and I focussed on what I needed to, which was myself and my cycling. I think sometimes, world champions are thrust into this new whole environment, and they don't know what to do about it, and it had a knock-on effect for the whole season. Also, managing expectations; I don't really care about other people's expectations. It's more about what I want to do. Some people let that pressure from other people get to them, but I don't."
Armistead's road to Rio is almost complete. Hot off her success at her home race, she will ride the British national championships before traveling to Italy for the Giro Rosa before building towards the Olympic Games in August.