Lizzie Deignan will embark on an important year ahead where she will devote her training, race schedule and focus toward a singular goal of winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. In an interview with Cyclingnews from the Trek-Segafredo training camp in Italy, the decorated British cyclist reflected on her first year of motherhood, breaking down barriers for other athlete-mothers, and the Olympics.
"It's been life changing," Deignan told Cyclingnews about what it's been like as an athlete after giving birth to her daughter Orla just over a year ago. "It teaches you to … well, I'm not the priority anymore. As an athlete, previously, I was the priority but I prefer not to be. It's taken the pressure off me. I prefer it that way. It's not the be-all and end-all whether I win a bike race or not.
"[Bike racing] is a pretty small world when you're away from it. It was quite overwhelming, the change in becoming a mom. It's special and I'm very lucky."
Deignan announced in March of 2017 that she was expecting her first baby. A newly launched Trek-Segafredo welcomed her to the team while she was still six months pregnant and effectively paid her salary while she was on leave. They agreed to a two-year term so that she could focus on the 2019 UCI Road World Championships in Yorkshire and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Although she indicated retirement at the end of that two-year term, she has told Cyclingnews that she is now undecided and will leave her options to continue racing open.
Deignan returned to racing at the Ardennes Classics in April at the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and raced through the Tour de Yorkshire and the Tour of California. In June, she won the OVO Energy Women's Tour in Britain. She also raced La Course, PostNord Vargarda Road Race and the Boels Ladies Tour. At the Yorkshire World Championships, she finished 31st after being involved in a chase group behind eventual winner Annemiek van Vleuten (Netherlands).
"Yes, [signing with Trek-Segafredo] has been huge," Deignan said. "I did 22 races this year, which isn't a huge amount, but they understood that mentally and physically, I needed that time to be able to figure out how it all worked. They've been fantastic."
Deignan said that becoming an athlete-mother has sometimes been a challenging process to navigate, especially when she first returned to the professional cycling. She said that she looked to other women in sports such as distance running for guidance.
"I would like to think [I've proved it's possible to be an athlete and a mother] because it's important to have role models," Deignan said. "I looked to other sports to keep me going in those first few months where it seemed impossible. There are countless other athletes who have done it.
"Paula Radcliffe was an amazing example. She won the New York Marathon six months after giving birth, which was impressive. Jo Pavey, as well, because she's had two kids and made two comebacks. I was looking at endurance athletes rather than someone like Serena Williams."
Some of the unexpected challenges that Deignan faced after her postpartum return to high-performance sport was that she had lost much of her high-end speed and strength. She said that it's taken over a year to build back the upper percentages of her fitness.
"My base fitness came back a lot quicker than I expected it to, but that final percentage has taken months because that physical top-end speed and strength is what I lost, and it's taken quite a while to build back up," she said. "I only feel like I'm getting that back now, so over a year later.
"I had been looking at my numbers from previous years as a benchmark, but the benchmark has moved on. Going into this winter with that knowledge is an advantage because now I know where I need to be."
The UCI has launch new reforms for professional women's cycling with a two-tier team system - Women's WorldTeam and Continental Teams. Trek-Segafredo is among the eight top-tier teams, which have increased financial requirements that include a minimum salary of €15,000 (employed) or €24,600 (self-employed), along with social insurances and benefits such as maternity leave.
The new maternity leave clause is included in the self-employed standard contract, will allow for women to take three months leave while being entitled to 100 per cent of their salary, followed by an additional five months at 50 per cent of their salary.
"The maternity clause is a huge thing. [Having a baby] doesn't need to be a limiting factor to an athlete's career. I had always assumed it would be. I've even surprised myself."
Deignan said that being a mother has been the defining moment of her life and has provided with benefits to her athletic career such as happiness, a new identity and a bigger focus in life.
"There's happiness. It's given me happiness, which is probably a bit corny but it's the truth. My life is a lot fuller and a lot busier, but it's a lot more dynamic than it used to be. It's not just about cycling anymore and I've come to a point in my career where that was just too much and it was weighing too heavy on me, that that was who I was becoming: Lizzie the cyclist. Now cycling is a part of my life and I like it that way. It's motivating that it's my thing, my focus and my career, but it's only a part of who I am.
"I had almost come to a plateau [as an athlete before becoming a mother] and so stepping away and then returning made me motivated and happy, and being excited to be on my bike everyday was huge.
"I don't think I would still be riding if I hadn't had Orla, honestly, because I was just over it. To be motivated is the majority of what it takes [to be a successful athlete]. I'm motivated and a better athlete because of that.
"There's no doubt my recovery isn't what it used to be. I don't come home from training, feed myself and then lay on the couch for the afternoon, but it's manageable. There's freedom to forget about cycling for the rest of the day, and not sit around concentrating on how the training session went or didn't go. I move on quickly and perhaps that's a good thing."
Olympic Games: Tokyo suits me far better than Rio
Great Britain have qualified two spots for the road events at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in July. Although the team has not been selected yet, the federation sent Deignan and Hannah Barnes to preview the road race course this summer.
The women's field will race 137km from Musashinonomori Park and ending at the Fuji International Speedway. The women's course will not go over the iconic Mt. Fuji, like the men's route, but will include climbs over Donushi Road and Kagosaka Pass, and total 2,692 metres of climbing. Deignan told Cyclingnews that route reminded her of Amstel Gold Race, and that riders who tend to do well at the Ardennes Classics could also do well in Tokyo.
"I love the course," she said. "It's always a nerve-wracking experience when you do the recon. I remember doing the recon for Rio and thinking, 'oh shit, I'm going to have to climb everyday for the next however long'. I wasn't intimidated by the Tokyo course like I was in Rio. I was excited by it and that means that in training I can work on my strengths and doing intervals that I love doing such as high intensity, and not climbing for an hour. That's nice. Tokyo suits me far better than Rio.
"It's a big puzzle. Working toward a single goal like the Olympic Games, you just break it down. Knowing what the course is like is a huge part of that."
The UCI announced that the women's race will field 67 riders, compared to 130 riders in the men's road race, whereby the world's strongest cycling nations; Australia, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and the United States will field four riders on each team. Belgium was the only nation that secured three spots for the women's road race, while nations that secured two riders per team included Canada, Denmark, Spain, Great Britain, Japan, Norway, Poland and South Africa. All other competing nations secured one spot.
Deignan didn't seem bothered by the quotas and in fact said that having only two spots could play into the favour of Great Britain.
"The Olympics is a weird race because the peloton is so small. It will be a little easier than a race like the World Championships where you have eight Dutch [riders], it will be a little bit more matched, I hope - two versus four," Deignan said.
"Going in as a British rider, we, in a way, have an advantage because we are underdogs. Sometimes it's nice to be underdogs and not be watched. There will be no responsibility on my shoulders to be chasing a breakaway down. I have to be willing to lose in order to win it."
Deignan said she will focus her 2020 racing calendar with Trek-Segafredo around her preparations for the Olympic Games. She aims to do well in the Ardennes Classics and will likely compete in Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, rather than the cobbled Classics.
"There is a protocol [to be selected to the Olympic team] but all I have to do is focus on my results, and the races I'm doing this spring, and I should be selected," Deignan said.
"I have always focussed on the cobbled Classics but next year I'll focus on the Ardennes Classics. I've gotten plenty of second places there but I've never won an Ardennes Classic. Given that they are similar to the Tokyo course I would like to win one of those to build confidence."
Part of Deignan's goal in her postpartum return to professional cycling was to try and win a gold medal in Tokyo. But she told Cyclingnews that she wouldn't be too disappointed if that dream doesn't materialise.
"Once you achieve something like the World Championships, and you have this medal … it's not real gold, it's just a piece of metal … it's more about the achievement and the journey to it," Deignan said.
"As long as I can look back on Tokyo and say that I gave it everything. I'll be proud of that in itself. It's an achievement to prepare yourself as best you can for something like the Olympics Games. If I win, great, but it won't be the defining moment in my life."