It would be hard to top a season like the one Lizzie Armitstead had last year with the World Cup and World Championship victories but there is still one award that she covets most, and that is a gold medal at the Olympic Games.
“I would describe 2015 as my best season so far,” Armitstead told Cyclingnews. “I won 10 individual races, and I realised a dream with the world title but to win an Olympic title is my goal.”
There were a lot of first places beside Armitstead’s name last year, beginning with two stage wins, the points classification and the overall title at the Ladies Tour of Qatar. She also won three World Cups; Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Philly Cycling Classic and GP de Plouay. In between, she won the British road title, Boels Rental Hills Classic, the first stage of the Aviva Women’s Tour, and had podium finishes at Strade Bianche, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and a stage at Energiewacht Tour.
Among the successes were some low moments for Armitstead. Her win at the opening stage of the Aviva Women’s Tour was quickly downed by a crash directly after crossing the finish line in Aldeburgh. She was rushed to the hospital but was later released with no life-threatening injuries. She bounced back to win the national road title just 10 days later.
Speaking to the ups and downs that athletes face while trying to stretch for success during their careers, Armitstead said, “I’ve had to learn to deal with illness or with injuries from crashes. They are all part of the sport and I’ve learnt that you have to take your body seriously when it’s telling you that it’s not coping.
“It doesn’t matter if you have expectations from the team or media. If you're sick, there is never any point taking the start line. I am very black-and-white when it comes to my health.
“I’m another year stronger and wiser, and I have the confidence to know that I can take the knocks and still win. I think I have started to accept the responsibility of leader within my team. It can be hard to adjust from being a young worker to being a champion and it has taken some time to build the physical strength, but also confidence.”
Armitstead’s season certainly had more highs than lows, and it was ultimately capped off with a win at the World Championships in Richmond, Virginia, and an increasing rise to stardom in women’s cycling. But Armitstead told Cyclingnews that, aside from a few things, life hasn’t changed much for her in the last five months.
“It was the biggest win of my career and a dream come true but life hasn’t fundamentally changed in any way,” Armitstead said. “Apart from the extra attention – and a nice new jersey to wear and bike to ride! I love being introduced as the world champion. It is something I have worked very hard for.
“It was a busy off-season! With the world champion title came extra media expectations and invitations so I’ve had to learn to balance this with training and spending time with family and friends. I managed to have a holiday with my fiancé and spend some time off my bike before getting back in to my training.”
Armistead brings the rainbow jersey into her Boels Dolmans team for the 2016 season, something that her new teammate Karol-Ann Canuel says adds motivation to the team and pushes the riders to set higher goals and expectations for themselves and the team.
“We’re really looking forward to welcoming Karol-Ann Canuel to the team and I’m look forward to riding with her this season,” Armitstead said. “I really enjoy riding for Boels Dolmans – we’re a well balanced team, full of different characters and cultures, and I feel lucky to have an incredibly strong, inspiring and professional group of women around me, we race and train incredibly hard as a team.
“It’s not really an option to under-perform on this team, and I feel incredibly proud to be able to bring the world champion jersey to the team this year.”
Don't count Armitstead out for an Olympic gold medal and a successful world title defense
Armistead announced that she would not return to defend her title at the Ladies Tour of Qatar, where her teammate Ellen Van Dijk won stage 3 on Thursday. She will instead start her season at Omloop Het Neiuwsblad on February 27 in Belgium, and she announced at the Boels Dolmans team presentation that she would keep her race calendar similar to last year, with only a few changes.
“I planned to start the season a little slower so won’t be defending my title in Qatar, sadly,” Armistead said. “I am looking forward to starting racing and wearing my jersey with pride.”
Once her season is underway, Armitstead only has two main goals; to win the Tour of Flanders on April 3 in Belgium and the Olympic road race on August 7 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“The Tours of Flanders and the Olympic Games: they are my main targets for the season, and I enjoy a race where I feel good and with the pressure to win,” Armistead said.
“I would love to win the Tour of Flanders, it's such an iconic race and to win it in the rainbow jersey would be incredibly special. It will also be special to ride in the British National Championships in the world champion’s jersey; it will be special to race at home in it.
“The Olympics is my main goal; I would give up any results all year just to have that one. Becoming world champion because it was a dream-come-true, was special, and the silver medal in London was special, too, because it was at home, but I still couldn't call myself a champion after it.”
Armitstead’s bid for the Olympic gold medal on a challenging road race course has taken the top spot on her list of things to accomplish in her career, even if that means decreasing her odds of defending her world title on a flat, sprinter-friendly course in Doha, Qatar, in October. [The women who raced at the Ladies Tour of Qatar had an opportunity to preview the World Championship course during the opening stage won by Kirsten Wild. - Ed.]
Armitstead previewed the Olympics road course last August during the men’s road race test event and slightly changed some of her training and racing plans to match the demands of the hilly circuit.
“I am very goal orientated, so I look at the specific demands of a certain race and tailor my training towards that and it’s about being prepared mentally as much as physically,” Armitstead said. “It’s also about peaking at the right time, making sure you train through some races therefore compromising a result if it means you can get the necessary work done for the bigger picture and my main focus this year is the Olympics.
“I was lucky enough to preview the course last year, and it's brutal. It is a real climber’s course, the last climb, in particular, is eight kilometres long and an average of eight per cent, so I will be concentrating on climbing this year rather than training for a Qatar-type course.”
Still, Armitstead has proven to be one of the most versatile winners in women’s bike racing, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if she managed to win the gold medal at the Olympic Games in August and then defend her world title in Doha two months later.
“Never say never, and I do intend to be at the World Championships in October, and there is a gap between the two races - so anything can happen!”