Great Britain will be lining up at the women’s road race in the Tokyo Olympic Games on Sunday with just two riders, Lizzie Deignan and neo-pro Anna Shackley, against the might of the unquestionable Dutch favourites who are fielding four of the world’s top riders. The role of the underdog, however, could just work to their advantage.
Deignan, 32, who has a lengthy list of wins to her name including a World Championship, may not be entering the race with a large squad but after an unexpected fourth place at the Giro d’Italia Donne it is clear she has form, as well as experience, on her side. Plus, on the 137-kilometre course, with the largest climb peaking 80 kilometres into the race, the opportunistic approach that a small team necessitates could be just what’s required.
“To try and beat the Dutch is going to be hard,” Deignan told Cyclingnews in the run-in to the crucial block of racing that started with La Course and ends with the Olympics. “I really see them as a super team, obviously, but then they are kind of a super team of individuals. The Italian team always races really well as a team, the Germans as well."
All of those teams line up with four riders, along with Australia and the United States, plus the Italian team also has Elisa Longo Borghini, the only rider in the top five of world rankings that isn’t on the Dutch Olympic team. Deignan is usually a teammate with Longo Borghini on Trek-Segafredo, with the pair often proving a powerful force, but this time she’ll instead be looking to Shackley, who usually rides for Dutch squad SD Worx.
“From a Great Britain perspective, I think Anna Shackley's going to be there towards the final of the race,” said Deignan. “I mean, she's shown this year that she's really, really strong."
Of the five Olympic Games this century, the Dutch have won the gold medal three times, with only the Australians and British interrupting their run of success, Sara Carrigan in 2004 and Britain’s Nicole Cooke in 2008. Deignan finished in second, behind Marianne Vos, in 2012, a year when the team lined up with four riders, and then she took fifth in 2016 from a team of three. Now in her third Olympics, she'll again be lining up with one less teammate than in the last.
“Obviously it's disappointing," said Deignan. "We've had four qualified quite a few times but hopefully it motivates the British riders for Paris and hopefully we have a proper selection there."
For Tokyo, though, they'll just have to make the best of it.
“It doesn't really scare me too much,” she said. “Two riders means that we're underdogs, which is not a bad position to be in. The pressure of the race doesn't lie on our shoulders. We can just be opportunistic and race with nothing to lose and I think if you're trying to become Olympic champion, you have to race as though you're not afraid to lose because it's such a unique race tactically.”
Apart from the Dutch and the team size, there is another big factor that could well play a part in the women’s road race, which starts at Musashinonomori Park and finishes on the Fuji International Speedway, and that’s the heat.
While many of her rivals were training at altitude ahead of La Course, the Giro Donne d’Italia and the Olympics, Deignan opted for the warmer climates of Monaco, partly because of the convenience of the home base when considering family life, but also with an eye to the climate.
“Tokyo is going to be hot and humid and we've got those conditions where I've been training and that's really important,” said Deignan last month. “I don’t cope well in those conditions and I’ve been immersed in the heat for a few weeks now which has been good.”
Does that mean Deignan is ready for the potential hot conditions in Tokyo?
“As ready as I can be, I don't think I'm ever going to be a rider that's going to say, 'yeah it's hot, great’. I'd much prefer the snow or the rain, but it is what it is.”
Grateful retirement delayed
Just a couple of years ago the Tokyo Olympic Games was the race that Deignan had drawn a line under as the event that was going to bring an end to her victory-filled career. Now, she’ll be heading to the road race on Sunday excited about what’s ahead and grateful not to have missed this new phase in the development of women’s cycling.
"It just shows there is really no point having a life plan," Deignan said with a chuckle. "And, yeah, I'm really grateful that I didn't retire, potentially I could have not been racing still so the pandemic has definitely prolonged my career."
Deignan now has a contract with Trek-Segafredo that runs through the end of 2022. She originally signed with what was then a soon-to-launch Trek-Segafredo, with the fact that they signed her in 2018 while she was in her final trimester of pregnancy, an important mark of a shift in the women's cycling landscape, but there have also been many more since then.
"I mean, it is unrecognisable to when I first started racing, and I'm just so excited for the next generation because they're going to have what people who retired when I first started have always wished for. And it's great. I just don't think there is going to be room for regression anymore, which is really the most positive thing. I don't think society would allow that to happen. There's no excuse for sexism anymore.
"It's a really exciting time to be a female athlete in general because I think it's been recognised more and more," said Deignan. "I think I'm really lucky to have seen the progression but I also think, wow, what an opportunity for a young female cyclist to come into the sport now – what a career and what an opportunity they're going to have."
Conditions are changing, the number of top-tier teams rising and, if all runs to plan, later this year we will see the first women's Paris-Roubaix and next year the first Tour de France Femmes, which is set to start as an eight-day stage race after the men's event.
"That's really exciting and I feel just really grateful that it's going to happen in my career, that I get to say that I've ridden the Tour de France and that I get to enjoy, hopefully, the start of what will become a full, three-week stage race for women," said last year's La Course winner. "I'm excited that I can be a part of that history."
When asked whether she thinks she'll still be riding when that three-week women's Tour de France comes into existence, Deignan's answer was: "Who knows. Never say never. I mean, I've got a contract next year so I'll be racing the week -ong version and, yeah, if they organise a good one, why not!"
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