Sunday 24 July sees the debut edition of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, the eight-day race beginning in Paris on the same day as the 109th edition of the men’s Tour de France finishes in the French capital – but missing from the start list will be one of riders who pushed strongly for the event and is among the most successful women bike racers ever – Lizzie Deignan, who is pregnant with her second child.
The Yorkshire rider’s stellar palmarès include wins in one day races such as La Course by le Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix Femmes, Liège-Bastogne-Liège Femmes, the Tour of Flanders, Strade Bianche Donne, plus overall victories at races including the Women’s Tour and the Tour de Yorkshire – plus of course that memorable world championships victory in Richmond, Virginia in 2015.
In this exclusive interview, the 33-year-old shares her thoughts with road.cc on what the Tour de France Femmes means for women’s cycling and how the profile of the sport has risen in recent years as well as who the main challengers will be, what she considers to be the biggest victories of her career, her return to the sport with Trek-Segafredo after the birth of her daughter in 2017, and what her targets are once she resumes racing next year.
road.cc: How important is the launch of the race for women’s road cycling, and where do you see the sport now compared to when you started your career, eg support from the UCI, teams, sponsors, race organisers, broadcasters, the wider media and fans?
Lizzie Deignan: The Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift is a really exciting and important addition to the women’s race calendar of course. Whilst the Tour de France is globally renowned for the male peloton, the female professionals have only ridden single stages in the past (La Course).
“This is an exciting opportunity and a pivotal moment for us”
Each year the pressure has built up to put on a women’s race, so the previous ‘token gesture’ of a day’s race is now an eight-day stage race. The Tour de France for the men is a world famous sporting event that almost everyone has heard of, and a massive opportunity and platform that female cyclists have been denied to date. This is an exciting opportunity and a pivotal moment for us (the female peloton) as it will grab the attention of a worldwide audience.
One of the most exciting things is that our race is going to be starting on the Sunday, the last day of the men’s race, so there will be a huge number of fans watching and having been engaged in the race both at the events live and at home, so will have an appetite to continue watching cycling.
They’ll have the opportunity to watch women's cycling the very next day and get drawn into the story telling of a stage race, providing the massive boost in popularity the women’s side of the sport needs.
The Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift will also allow the visibility of role models, due to the broadcast coverage it’s going to get, so will no doubt have an impact on young girls being interested in the sport, which is a great step.
The media coverage and exposure that woman's cycling is now able to offer its sponsors and investors is unrecognisable in comparison to 10 years ago, in addition the development and acceleration of social media has enabled riders to be more proactive in supporting their sponsors and telling their own stories.
road.cc: It looks like a terrific route and one which flips the men’s race on its head; the Champs-Elysees stage first, then the winner decided on the last day on the Super Planche des Belles Filles with that gravel section and 25 per cent ramp up towards the top. What do you think of the route, and who do you expect to contest the overall, and the points jersey during the week?
LD: I think that a ‘complete’ rider will win the race, as whilst the route lacks a time trial, it has two back-to-back mountain stages, opportunities for all-rounders and sprinters as well as a stage that features gravel roads.
This stage with gravel sections, Stage 4, I’m particularly interested in as unpaved roads are unusual for us – so think it will mean that an all-round rider will win as you can either win or lose the entire race on stages like these and it will open up the GC race early.
The race will showcase the best that women’s cycling has to offer with a stage suited to every type of rider, and will offer entertaining racing from start to finish – with the final stage finishing on the Super Planche des Belles Filles which is one of the hardest climbs known in cycling and as you say, one that featured in this year’s Tour de France for the men.
“The out and out favourite is Annemiek van Vleuten”
It will be such an honour for those riding in the race, so we’ll see lots of super-motivated riders and everyone will be in top shape because there will be opportunities everywhere. It’s a hard one to call.
The out and out favourite is Annemiek van Vleuten, she is the best climber in the world and has the greatest opportunity to take the yellow jersey on the final stage, there are however a group of favourites just behind her who are better suited to the first 7 stages.
It will be interesting to see how aggressive Elisa Longo Borghini and Kasia Niewiadoma are on the gravel stage, as it is a key stage to use advantage of their skill set.
The French teams will be extra motivated to perform, FDJ have the very strong trio of Grace Brown, Cecile Ludwig and Marta Cavalli, individually they are not quite a match for AVV but together they could pose a real threat.
The favourites for the green jersey will be Marianne Vos and the current World Champion Elisa Balsamo, their battle for points will be extremely close and I expect a fight until the final day.
road.cc: You won La Course in Nice a couple of years ago in that thrilling finish when you outsprinted Marianne Vos; where would you rank that victory among the other races you’ve won, and also where would you place your Paris-Roubaix Femmes win with that solo break?
LD: Paris-Roubaix was another history making day for women’s cycling and without doubt one of my proudest moments of my career. It was such a special day for our sport as it’s always been a men’s race, and it just makes me so proud that women’s cycling is on the world stage now.
I am proud that my daughter Orla can look at the cobblestone trophy and be proud of what her mum is achieving. It’s thanks to the support from the people like those in Trek-Segafredo that we’re here and showing the world what we can do. We had the best team in the race and that’s why I won. It’s always a team effort.
In a race like Paris-Roubaix, anything can happen. I was just fighting those first cobble sections and I knew that Ellen (van Dijk), one of our leaders, was not in such a good position. And I thought well if at least I’m at the front I can cover something. When I looked behind no one was there and it was a long run in to the finish …!
> Lizzie Deignan left with blood stained handlebars after brutal first edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes
My victory in La Course was also very special, it came in 2020 during the season that was so disrupted by the COVID pandemic, every race felt like a bonus and because of that every win was a little bit more emotional. I won in a very close sprint against Marianne Vos, arguably the best cyclist of our generation and one of my oldest rivals so it was incredibly special.
> Tour de France: Promenade d’Anglaise as Lizzie Deignan wins La Course in Nice (+ video)
road.cc: Your second child is due in September (around your daughter Orla’s birthday), and you’re signed to Trek-Segafredo for the next two years, so you have a few months ahead of returning to racing to prepare; it sounds as though the team has been very supportive and of course you are coached by your husband Phil, could you talk us through what you are doing to keep in shape?
“This pregnancy has been much harder than my first”
LD: Trek have been incredibly supportive, I have no deadline on when I need to return to racing, but I hope to be back within about six months. This pregnancy has been much harder than my first so I have not managed to maintain as much fitness as I did the first time, on good days I am able to train about two hours a day, a mixture of indoor and outdoor cycling.
On my bad days I try to walk and do some kind of gentle exercise. It’s made me appreciate that every pregnancy is different, I had assumed I would be able to match my first pregnancy in terms of training capacity but that just hasn’t been the case.
road.cc: You’ve taken some of the biggest wins of your career since becoming a mother, so can you tell us how you handled that transition from pregnancy to giving birth then getting back among the sport’s best?
LD: Since becoming a mum to Orla I have had the privilege to win races such as The Women’s Tour, La Course and Paris-Roubaix.
It’s interesting as I never expected to continue my career after a pregnancy, as it was ‘not the done thing’. However, now there are plenty of examples of successful women returning to sport after giving birth.
> Lizzie Deignan believed she’d never race again before Trek signing
Having been through the journey of having a baby and returning to competitive cycling, I’ve realised that it’s possible, and physically it was actually easier than I expected. It’s obviously demanding and challenging on the body, but I respected that, but it’s certainly not limiting and is possible to come back to form.
Getting back to the highest level would not have been possible without the support of my team, Trek-Segafredo. They were behind me every step of the way and took away an additional pressure which could have affected my return. I’m a professional athlete in a professional cycling team, but the support felt personal which I am incredibly grateful for.
“it was obvious that I would still return ... If I’ve done it before, I can do it again”
Now I’m pregnant with my second child, and I feel like I still have plenty to give from an athletic standpoint, so for me it was obvious that I would still return to cycling. If I’ve done it before, I can do it again.
road.cc: You’ve won all the major one-day races other than the Olympics, given you’re signed through to 2024, Paris must be a big target? If the closing circuit leaked last week is correct, it looks like it will suit you with a couple of climbs to launch attacks on?
LD: I would be delighted to make the Team GB selection for Paris, going to a 4th Olympic Games would be a huge achievement. The course in Paris looks fairly similar to the demands of the London 2012 circuit, which suited me very well.
The Olympics can be a very difficult race to manage from a tactical point of view, my first objective is to score lots of UCI points throughout the season to ensure Team GB secures four spots and therefore has the advantage of a full-sized team, that will be essential for us to take on the other strong nations like the Dutch and the Italians.
road.cc: What are your targets for when you return next season? You’ve won eg Strade Bianche, Roubaix and Liege which all come early on. Then later in the season we have the Giro Donne and Le Tour Femmes, would you anticipate targeting GC on one or both of those?
LD: I am quite flexible about my targets for next season, high on my list are the World Championships in Glasgow, they will be a phenomenal event to be a part of. I would like to race both the Giro and the TdF Femmes but in a support role rather than to take on GC myself, I think they will come a little too early in my comeback after pregnancy. My main objective is to regain fitness and race confidence.
road.cc: Final question. You’re a past Commonwealth road champion, obviously you’ll be missing this year’s race in Birmingham, it’s a different dynamic even to riding for GB due to the four home nations fielding separate teams, and there’s bound to be a strong challenge from for example some of the Australian riders, who are your tips for the race?
LD: I’m confident the Commonwealth Games will be a huge success, I am excited to be a fan and enjoy watching the cycling. The Australians will be a hard team to beat, my favourite for both the road race and time trial is Grace Brown. Grace has had a breakthrough season and I believe she is targeting the Games specifically.
From the home nations we also have a lot of strong contenders. I will be cheering for Wales Elinor Barker, herself on the comeback trail post the birth of her son only 5 months ago!
Thanks to Lizzie's sponsor Cycleplan for arranging the interview.
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