World champion Lizzie Armitstead has been busy training for the 2016 season with her Boels Dolmans teammates in Calpe, Spain, but arrived in Kaatsheuvel, the Netherlands for the team's presentation today. Though her main goal for this year is the Olympic Games in Rio in August, where she will aim to go one better than her silver medal from London, she is sticking to a tried and true formula for training and racing this year.
"I’m trying not to change too much. That’s a mistake I see a lot of athletes making," Armitstead said. "It’s something I was given some advice on once, by Michael Johnson the 400m runner, I met him once at a press conference and he said to me the biggest mistake he sees is athletes doing too much in an Olympic year. The formula I’ve had works, so I’m not going to change too much but I’m generally doing more climbing and after the spring I’ll change more into the mountains. But before the Spring Classics I don’t want to change too much."
Armitstead's method worked to perfection in 2015, with victories in the Ladies Tour of Qatar and the World Championships book-ending her season. Although she was not specifically targeting it, wins in the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Philly Classic, and GP Plouay de Bretagne made her the last winner of the UCI Women's World Cup, which this season morphs into the Women's WorldTour. Her first goals will look a lot like last year, with an emphasis on the one-day Classics before building toward the latter part of the season.
"I suppose I’m splitting my season into two - the Spring Classics then focusing totally on Rio. It would be nice to win [Tour of] Flanders because I don’t know if I’ll win so much in the rest of the season focusing so much on my training for Rio. Flanders has always been a dream race. If I don’t win it won't be the end of the world but I’d really like to win it."
Armitstead has always been heavily marked since a breakthrough season in 2011, but now that she wears the rainbow jersey she knows that she will be a target, and the obligations of being world champion will require careful consideration to avoid the so-called curse of the rainbow jersey.
"It's really difficult to manage being a world champion. My winter has been so busy and that’s going to have an effect on performance if you’re not careful. After 2012, it did affect my performance, being a British athlete getting a medal [she was second in the London Olympics], that winter was so busy and my next season was terrible. So I learned from that experience and I kept a good balance this winter, and learned to say no. I understand where it comes from but I don’t believe in the curse."
Part of that balance is remaining self-driven, her motivations and pressure coming from within rather than from anyone else's expectations. "I always ride for myself and to prove to myself that I’m good. I’m not really bothered about the media or expectation – I’m always doing it for me, and I’ve proved to myself that I can be the best in the world, so the pressure is actually off a little bit, I think.
Armitstead learned last year that her compatriot Emma Pooley, the time trial silver medalist in Beijing in 2008, would return from retirement for the Rio Games and is excited to have her back. "We went to recce the course as a British team in August when the men’s test event was on, and one of the first things the coach said was ‘Emma Pooley would be mad not to come out of retirement for this’. And I think he was right. The time trial course in particular really suits her and it would be nice to go into the road race with someone like Emma alongside me because I think other nations would be scared of us and it's always nice to scare people."
The course includes a long and difficult climb, but Armitstead eyed the descent as a section that truly suits her, even if the entire route does not. "Ah I wish [the course] suited me more. It’s hard, which suits me, it’s mentally hard, it’s a one-day which suits me, high pressure which suits me. It’s technical, there’s some really hard cobbled sections which will play to my strengths. The final descent plays to my strengths, because it's very technical and you can make up time if you’re dropped on the final climb. But the final climb is really brutal, you have to be there to see it to believe it, the TV won’t do it justice. It’s just going to be like bodies everywhere!"
In 2012, Armitstead gave Great Britain its first medal of the country's home Olympic Games, having been beaten to the line by a storming Marianne Vos of the Netherlands. Though many would say she lost the race, to Armitstead, she won the silver medal. "[Coming second] never frustrated me. What frustrated me was people giving me condolences for the silver medal. That’s what frustrated me because I was the proudest silver medalist from that Games. I went into it hoping for a top 10 and as a first Olympian, in that environment, that pressure, I think I raced one of the best races of my career. Marianne was faster than me and I think I rode a perfect race. I was really proud of it."
Vos has been out for more than a year with a back injury, but is expecting to come back this season, and Armistead is ready to welcome her back to the peloton. "If you’re winning a race you want to beat the best in the world, and Marianne is obviously one of the best in the world so I hope she gets back to the same level. I think balance is really important. I understand having this jersey this winter how busy I’ve become and it really takes a lot mentally out of you. She had that responsibility for a lot of years so I can see how she became tired."