The moment has arrived for Great Britain's Lizzie Deignan, who returned to racing six months ago from maternity leave with a stated goal of winning a rainbow jersey in the elite women's road race at the UCI Road World Championships in Yorkshire.
Speaking to a handful of journalists two days ahead of the race, Deignan said she's handling the heightened pressures of leading Team GB on home soil well and that she's embracing the opportunity to race among family and friends.
"I'm not thinking about [the race being just 48 hours away] much honestly, I'm just trying to embrace the World Championships," said Deignan, who has a decidedly more relaxed approach to this World Championships than any other she has participated in over the years.
"Like normally I wouldn't watch races, I'd stay in my room and not do too much, but I've kind of taken a different approach this time. Soaking it up and enjoying the atmosphere – just enjoying it."
And why not? The women's 150km road race starts in Bradford and travels as far north as Masham, in North Yorkshire, before looping back south toward the three challenging finishing circuits in Harrogate.
The course suits her and en route, is Otley, the town where Deignan grew up. She will race by her family home, local community along with all of her friends and family, including husband Philip and daughter Orla, who just celebrated her first birthday.
"It's very different, yeah. Just because it's part of the people in my life's everyday consciousness as well. Normally for them the Worlds build-up is maybe the night before, they'll give me a ring and say 'good luck tomorrow', whereas I think for my friends and family and the local community it's been a bit of a build-up, so there's more pressure than normal. Just more excitement around, I think," said Deignan, who went on to described how she might feel racing passing her parents' house during the race.
"It'll just be surreal, yeah it will be a pinch-me moment for sure. You know, I ride from the school I went to up the route I walked to school on every single day. When I was just starting cycling and I didn't really know what I was doing and it wasn't a cool sport... it's a totally different environment now.
"I've got friends who think it's amazing, but they have no idea what it was to be a cyclist. Yeah, it will be a special, surreal, moment."
Deignan will be supported in her attempt to win a second world title by a team of Lizzy Banks, sisters Alice and Hannah Barnes, Nikki Juniper and Anna Henderson. Deignan is a proven winner, having won the world title in Richmond in 2015.
Upon her return to racing this year, she won the OVO Energy Women's Tour. But Team GB's greatest asset is having the crowd and the home-team advantage. They will benefit over visiting teams because they are racing at home and on familiar roads, with crowd support.
Deignan agreed that Team GB have an edge just by virtue of having ridden on the same roads hundreds of times as a cyclist growing up in the area. "Yeah, particularly on a course like this, it's so undulating and relentless," she said.
"Positioning is key, because you have these kind of rollercoaster roads that, if you're in the wrong place, you're climbing hills rather than using them .... into the descent. You know what I mean? So there's lots of places on this circuit where you can save energy, yeah I know it like the back of my hand so that's an advantage."
"I'm as good as I've ever been physically"
Deignan gave birth to her daughter last September and returned to racing with Trek-Segafredo in April at the Ardennes Classics. She set gradual performance targets. She took on a domestique role at first, helping her teammates at Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and through the Tour de Yorkshire and the Tour of California in May.
She went on to win the OVO Energy Women's Tour in Britain before taking a mid-season break. She then took time to focus on specific training to improve her high-end form, all geared toward winning the world title in Yorkshire.
"I'm as good as I've ever been physically and I'm really proud of that, that's taken a lot of hard work and determination to get back to that point, but that doesn't mean I'm in the same position that I was in 2015 where I had the same power," Deignan said.
"The women's peloton has moved on so although I'm back to my best, or the best I've ever been, it's a completely different peloton now so I'm going to have to be better than I've been before on Saturday to win that title."
Indeed, Team GB will face other powerful nations in the women's road race, such as the eight-strong Dutch squad that includes Marianne Vos, Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten. There are also contenders in Australia's Amanda Spratt, Poland's Kasia Niewiadoma, American Coryn Rivera and Italy's Marta Bastianelli.
"I only took a year off and I would say there has been a huge jump in the amount of women at the top tier of the sport. I mean it's welcome, I think it's great that there's so many different winners now and more women able to be professional in every sense of the word. It did surprise me in such a short space of time," Deignan said before elaborating on why they women's cycling has seen a surge in top-level athletes.
"I mean it's professionalism really, it's about having finances and support to do training camps, to have physio, to have osteos, nutritionists, all those elements that make up a professional athlete are accessible to so many more women now which is obviously great."
Deignan said team dynamics will play a big role in the road race for any rider aiming to win the world title. She watched the junior men's race on Thursday where American Quinn Simmons took a solo victory ahead of a small broken-apart chase group, beating Alessio Martinelli (Italy) by 56 seconds. His US teammate Magnus Sheffield finished third at 1:33 back.
"I think tactically it's going to be a very tough race, because although I mean ... the Dutch are just a powerhouse because they have so many women who can win the world title and I don't think we match them in terms of our team strength. I think they are our biggest challenge.
"Watching the junior boys showed it was so attritional, they only did two laps on the circuit but the race, the parcours... the course is very similar in terms of relentless terrain and there were just guys going out the back.
"I think it may be people going out of the back rather than off the front. But it really does depend on the other teams' tactics."
Deignan said that it will be harder to win in Yorkshire than when she won the world title in Richmond. She will have more pressure than almost any other athlete on the start line in Bradford; she's put everything into winning a second world title, and is the home favourite and the sole leader of the British squad. How well she handles such pressures and expectations will play a factor in the outcome of her success in Harrogate.
"Yeah, I mean it's just, it's an opportunity and it would be crazy to see it negatively," Deignan said.
"I have the perspective that it is – although I'm hugely motivated and it's important and I've had a lot of support to get me here – it's just a bike race and the world will carry on turning whether I win or lose, you know. I'm just determined to enjoy it. It would be crazy to see it as a negative."
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