Road to Tokyo: Lizzie Deignan would “love to try and be Olympic champion”

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As part of her preparation for the Toyko 2020 Olympics, Lizzie Deignan should have been taking on the cobbled surfaces of the Paris-Roubaix for the first time this weekend.

The inaugural women’s edition of the iconic race was originally due to take place last October, before it was pushed back to April 11th as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With coronavirus still a thorn in the side of organisers, the Paris-Roubaix has once again been postponed. It will now be held on October 2, a couple of weeks after the UCI Road World Championships in Belgium.

In an exclusive interview with GiveMeSport Women, Deignan admitted she was disappointed about the delay, but was ultimately happy with the new dates.

“It’s really big race and there's been a lot of build up about the fact that it's the first ever women's Paris-Roubaix, but I still feel positive that it's going to happen in October,” she said.

“I think they put the race in a really good place in the calendar because it's right after the World Championship, so I think you'll still have the best riders in the world, in the best shape, going to that race. Obviously I'm disappointed, but I think it's still good that the organisers keep on trying to make it happen.”

The introduction of a Paris-Roubaix for female riders is the latest development in the battle to ensure equal attention and resources for men and women’s cycling. This effort has been reaching new heights of late.

For example, a crowdfunding campaign was set up last month after a discrepancy in the prize money on offer for the Strade Bianche was revealed. The campaign, set up by fans, aimed to raise the women’s prize fund of €2,256 (£1,957) to match the men’s winning pot of €16,000 (£13,900).

For Deignan, the introduction of a women’s Paris-Roubaix is crucial in the crusade for gender equality in cycling.

“I do genuinely think it's a win-win when women's races are alongside the men's races,” she explained. “You have the existing fans and infrastructure already at that race, and it's just about introducing current cycling fans to women's cycling.

I think it's been a model that's worked already, so I think for every iconic and huge race like Paris-Roubaix, I think there should be an equivalent women's one. It sends out such a strong message.

Deignan is one of the most successful British road racers of all time, male or female. She began her cycling career on track, however, winning double gold at the Under-23 European Track Championships in 2008.

One year later, Deignan had a team pursuit gold medal from the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in 2009, and also took silver in the scratch and bronze in the points race.

Around the same time, Deignan was beginning to shine on the road. Her status as a world class road cyclist was confirmed when she earned Olympic silver at London 2012, becoming the first British athlete to medal at the home Games.

Deignan entered 2016 as the reigning world, Commonwealth and national road champion, placing fifth at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro that year. It is fair to say the 32-year-old is extremely experienced. Indeed, she will be contesting her third Olympics this year.

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Tokyo 2020 will be a very different affair than London 2012 and Rio 2016, however. The Games in the Japanese capital will be held with strict COVID-19 protocol in place, and it was recently announced international spectators are unable to attend.

Deignan revealed she felt “really lucky” she would not be having her first Olympic experience in Tokyo.

“I don't actually think anything would ever really top London 2012. Rio was different, and then Japan will be different again, but I'm really going to the Olympics to try and win that race – I'm not really going for the Olympic experience, because I've already had it.

“So I feel lucky in that respect. And I think, you know, there's no international fans, but there may be Japanese fans so hopefully there'll be some atmosphere.”

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Despite the disruption to the racing calendar, Deignan was confident she would be adequately prepared for the Olympics.

“I had a really consistent winter of training. I felt like I was in really good shape,” she said.

“Unfortunately, I’ve had a couple of illnesses since racing has started, so I don't feel like I've really been able to show the form that I'd worked towards. But that's one of those things, and, I'm not going to lose too much sleep about it.

In terms of my long term goals, I think I'm in a good place.

As a result, Deignan is aiming for the highest possible accolade at Tokyo 2020, having just missed out at London 2012.

“I would love to try and be an Olympic champion. I think it's really important to set your goals as high as you can, and I'd love to try and bring home that gold medal.”

Before the postponement of Tokyo 2020, Deignan had hinted she planned to retire after the Games. She confirmed this was no longer the plan.

"I've already decided that I will continue, so I've signed a contract with Trek-Segafredo through 2021 – I've learned now not to say when I’m going to retire, I'm pretty open minded, really," she laughed.

Lizzie Deignan is an ambassador for cycle insurance specialist Cycleplan.

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