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Elinor Barker: Empowered and supported in journey to motherhood

Elinor Barker (Great Britain) celebrates after winning Women's Points Race at 2020 UCI Track Cycling World Championships
Elinor Barker (Great Britain) celebrates after winning Women's Points Race at 2020 UCI Track Cycling World Championships (Image credit: Getty Images)

Elinor Barker learned of her pregnancy while competing at the Tokyo Olympic Games, where she secured the silver medal in the Team Pursuit, and amid contract negotiations with the soon-to-be-launched new women's team Uno-X in 2022. 

The former Olympic gold medallist and five-time World Champion said her pregnancy has been a life-changing experience, full of new emotions and unknowns, but one thing she can be confident of is that her career as a professional cyclist is not in jeopardy.  

"I called Uno-X, and they were among the first people that I spoke to outside of my family, and they were fantastically supportive," Barker told Cyclingnews, referring to her discussion with the General Manager and CEO of the Norwegian team, Jens Haugland.

"The message that Jens sent me was fantastic. He said it was something they had prepared for, being a women's team, and they understood that these things do happen. He's a dad himself, and he spoke about how it changed his life, and he was happy. He said that there was no reason it would hold me back from my career. If anything, it might even help it.

"It was so nice. I felt that they would respond well, but I sort of had accepted that my contract might be different than what they first offered, but my contract is exactly the same as it would have been had I signed it that week anyway, which is nice."

Uno-X are among the five teams that have applied for a top-tier Women's WorldTeam licence in 2022. Haugland is also the CEO of Uno-X Norway, a Scandinavian-based fuel and energy brand, and started a men's Continental team in 2017 that upgraded to ProTeam status in 2020.

The team have been undergoing contract negotiations to fill a 12-rider roster, and they have announced signings including Hannah Barnes, Hannah Ludwig and Joss Lowden. Barker said that her negotiations with the team went well, but she hadn't yet signed her contract offer when she found out that she was pregnant. She said that she weighed her options carefully and, in the end, came to the decision to speak openly with Uno-X about her pregnancy.

"It was more straightforward than I thought it was going to be, and I think that was because of what my attitude had been throughout my career, based on other people's experiences and the opportunities available if women want to have babies. Until very recently, it felt like it would probably mean the end of my career if I was to get pregnant. Taking a year out is no small thing," Barker said.

"I was due to sign my contract with Uno-X the week I found out. I had a long wait until I could have a scan. I couldn't just put them off until then. I couldn't just sign the contract as if nothing had happened. I couldn't just not sign the contract and let this opportunity pass me by."

The UCI introduced a maternity clause to its standard team-rider contracts that allows women to take three months of leave while being entitled to 100 per cent of their salary, followed by an additional five months at 50 per cent of their salary, according to article 2.13.192.

Barker confirmed that she and Uno-X agreed and signed her original contract offer. She will continue to be paid according to her contract, which goes above and beyond the governing body's regulations for maternity leave.

"Regarding the details – not very complex. Paid according to contract (as if you were riding) and come back when you are ready. Deadlines are not in the interest for us nor the rider," Haugland told Cyclingnews.

 "I think the most important part is to have an open, individual dialogue with the rider based on common trust, ensuring that the rider is in the driver's seat. Then we'll have a win-win.

"It is our unconditional responsibility to ensure a safe and generous environment for female athletes in our team, as for any other female employees in the Uno-X company. Then you probably will keep your people longer as well."

Opportunities

UKs Elizabeth Lizzie Deignan celebrates as she crosses the finish line to win the first edition of the women elite race of the ParisRoubaix cycling event 1165km from Denain to Roubaix on October 2 2021 Belgium OUT Photo by ERIC LALMAND BELGA AFP Belgium OUT Photo by ERIC LALMANDBELGAAFP via Getty Images

Lizzie Deignan celebrates winning first-ever women's Paris-Roubaix (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Barker said that she has been reaching out for additional support from her peers among the peloton who have also experienced pregnancy and motherhood. Her compatriots Lizzie Deignan and Laura Kenny have taken time off from their careers to start a family and have returned to the highest level. 

Kenny was part of the team, alongside Katie Archibald, to win the gold medal in the first-ever women's Madison held at the Tokyo Olympic Games in August. She also became Great Britain's most decorated Olympian, earning five gold medals and a silver medal across three Olympic Games. Deignan, meanwhile, has gone down in history after being crowned champion of the first-ever women's Paris-Roubaix in October.

"It's become more expected now that women won't end their careers once they think about having kids. They will have kids, have a small break, and then come back. There is a lot more longevity. When [employers] are supportive and they allow you to take a pause to have a baby, then you might get another six or seven years of a career," Barker said.

"If a woman wants to have a baby, and [an employer] didn't give them an opportunity, think if that had been the case for Laura and Lizzie. Laura won the first-ever Madison for women at the Olympic Games, and Lizzie won the first-ever Paris-Roubaix. These two things would not have happened had they not had the opportunity. 

"It's powerful for me to be able to see that it's possible, and it's powerful for the organisations who are in control of our futures to some extent, also to see that and to provide opportunities to more women."

Barker said she is considering two options for her return to world-class cycling following the birth of her first child but that she is aiming to race an entire season in 2023.

"2023 will be a full year. I have a few different plans, and I'm unsure which one to go for, and I won't know until the baby is born because a lot will depend on the recovery time," Barker said. 

"I might be lucky and get a sufficient amount of sleep, or I might be unlucky and not be capable of getting anywhere close to a competitive standard of sleep in the first few months. I have a dream plan A, but I don't know yet whether that's possible. I will have to wait until the baby is born.

"I already feel motivated to get back to racing as soon as I can. I want it to be a successful season back, and I will probably be more motivated than before. I already thought that if I had a contract offer that was three years long, I would absolutely take that, so based on my experiences so far, before we've even raced, I'm just really happy with how it's gone and with the attitude of the whole team."

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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in bike racing from the grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all cycling disciplines, edits news and writes features. Currently the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten coordinates global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.