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Lotte Kopecky: Women no longer need to stop pro sports when they have a child

300122 / Mechelen / Teampresentatie / SDWORX
Belgian Champion Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) (Image credit: Getty Images)

"It makes me want to have a baby, too," laughed Lotte Kopecky when asked her thoughts on Lizzie Deignan's announcement that she was expecting her second child and taking maternity leave from professional racing with a contract extension to return in 2023 and 2024.

Kopecky spoke on the subject of maternity leave in a pre-race press conference ahead of her road racing season debut with SD Worx at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. She stated her position that, as options such as maternity leave become available, female athletes no longer need to feel that they must end their professional sports careers when they decide to start a family. 

At least in top-tier pro women's cycling, the option for a female athlete to take paid time off during pregnancy and resume racing after childbirth is becoming more accepted, mainly because of the maternity leave clause in contracts for Women's WorldTeams.

"It makes me want to have a baby, too. No, not yet, but I think it's good for women's cycling that it's possible," Kopecky said.

The maternity leave clause, introduced to top-tier team contracts in 2020, allows female riders 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, according to article 2.13.192. 

The current minimum salary is set at €27,500 (employed) and €45,100 (self-employed) in 2022, although Deignan's team Trek-Segafredo increased women's team base salaries to equal their male teammates for 2021 - €40,045 (employed) or €65,673 (self-employed).

Deignan joined Trek-Segafredo in 2018 during her first pregnancy. She gave birth to her daughter in 2019 and then successfully came back to professional cycling. She also made history as the first female winner of Paris-Roubaix in October. 

Other high-profile cyclists to have taken time off to start a family and returned to their highest level include former world champion Marta Bastianelli of Italy. Also, Laura Kenny, who went on to become Great Britain's most decorated Olympian, earning five gold medals and a silver medal across three Olympic Games. Kenny, alongside Katie Archibald, won the first-ever women's Madison at the Tokyo Games.

Olympian and five-time World Champion Elinor Barker learned of her pregnancy while competing at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021, where she secured the silver medal in the Team Pursuit. Barker confirmed to Cyclingnews that she and Uno-X agreed and signed her original contract offer while pregnant. She will continue to be paid according to her contract, which goes above and beyond the governing body's regulations for maternity leave, and aims to race an entire season in 2023. 

Trek-Segafredo made a similar arrangement with Abi Van Twisk in 2020, where she was paid 100 per cent of her contract. At that time, Van Twisk had not decided if she would return to professional racing following the birth of her child and didn't want to feel pressured to make that decision, indicating that she could pursue a more creative field because of her passion for arts.

"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," Barker told Cyclingnews.

Kopecky's teammate Chantal van de Broek Blaak recently announced that she would postpone her retirement and continue racing through 2024. The former world champion said that being able to pursue starting a family was a factor in that decision. Kopecky applauded her team's support of van den Broek Blaak's decision but noted that such opportunities are not offered to everyone in the peloton.

A minimum salary and a maternity clause are part of the standard contract for the 14 Women's WorldTeams, but there are no such provisions available to the riders contracted with the 50 Continental women's teams.

"We also see, with Chantal van den Broek Blaak, that the team is giving her the possibility to have a baby and then come back to racing. If I'm honest, at this moment, it's not possible yet for every rider. I think it's possible because it's Lizzie Deignan, and it's possible because it's Chantal van den Broek Blaak, and there are probably a few other riders who can do this and arrange this with a team. I think that if you're not a top rider, then it's still pretty hard to do so," Kopecky said.

A promising sign for the future? Kopecky says, 'yes' and that the idea of maternity leave or a female athlete returning to world-class sport after having a baby wasn't even open for discussion ten years ago.

"Yes, it's a really good sign. It's nice from teams Trek and SD Worx, that they will allow it. I mean, it's not because you want to have a child that you have to stop professional cycling or stop being a professional athlete. This, [if it] happened ten years ago, we would not have thought about it. It's nice that we can now talk about this, and it's happening. It's a really good evolution," Kopecky said.

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Kirsten Frattini

Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in cycling from the community and 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 men's and women's races including Spring Classics, Grand Tours, World Championships and Olympic Games, and writes and edits news and features. As the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten also coordinates and oversees the global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.