This week’s guest on The Game Changers podcast is Lizzie Deignan, the professional road racing cyclist.
The 33-year-old, who races for Trek–Segafredo, clinched a road race silver medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
She went on to become the road race world champion in 2015, also winning her second successive Women’s Road World Cup title in the same year.
Deignan is currently pregnant with her second child, having given birth to her daughter in Orla in September 2018. As a result, the British star is sitting out of the 2022 season.
“Trek Segfriedo actually signed me when I was six months pregnant with my daughter Orla,” Deignan explained. “They decided to set up a women’s team and I was without a team at the time that I was pregnant.
“So they came on board, supported me through my first maternity, I came back, and then they were equally delighted when I told them that actually rather than retiring and stopping my career, I wanted to continue and have another baby. They were delighted.”
“The response has been fantastic. It’s such a difference to the way that everybody responded when I was pregnant with my daughter Orla.
“It was quite emotional, really, that in three years there’s been this huge shift. It was just all positive and it was just really, really nice.”
After giving birth to Orla, Deignan returned to cycling in April 2019. Highlights since her return include a victory at the first ever Paris–Roubaix Femmes.
She revealed she was “absolutely shocked” by how quickly she regained her fitness after pregnancy, and credited the experience with strengthening her mindset.
It is also a benefit that she is coached by her husband Phillip, a former professional road racing cyclist.
“Orla and Phillip tend to stay behind actually, they don’t often come to races, particularly as the last few years has been the pandemic,” Deignan said.
“So it’s been these kind of bubbles and that sometimes is difficult, but my maximum period away is usually around 10 days. I’m often racing on a weekend, fly out on the Friday and I’m home on the Sunday.
“We just find that it’s easier to avoid messing up routine, routine is key in our household and Orla loves the routine, so we stick to that.
“Philip coaches me, which has been brilliant. I never thought that would work, but actually it just makes sense because he understands, if Orla’s had a bad night, how that affects me the next day.”
Despite being one of the best British cyclists of all time, Deignan has not always received adequate support from governing bodies.
In her book “Steadfast”, published in 2017, Deignan details an incident which took place at the 2015 World Championships.
She explained how she was the “out and out favourite” to win the road race world title, but received nowhere near as much support as Mark Cavendish, who was in a similar position in the men’s event.
The situation reached a head when Deignan arrived at the venue and found out the keys to the campervan where she would get changed were with a coach who was busy with the junior men’s race.
“I’d not needed much from British Cycling, but I did need a changing room! After the race, there was massive apologies and acceptance of the fact that our support on the women’s side just wasn’t good enough, but it was a reflection of how it was at the time.
“I’m pleased to say it has changed. I don’t see that same disparity now, but it definitely wasn’t good enough.”
When asked why she felt cycling was behind the curve in terms of gender parity, Deignan was honest with her answer.
“I think probably because of the fact that it’s such an old sport and it’s steeped in tradition, it’s steeped in tradition in European countries, the stronghold of cycling, Belgium, Italy, Spain, where there are still big fights towards equality for women in sport.
“As a British rider, I can see that my exposure in the media is far greater than my compatriots from European countries. So we’re probably still relying on a little bit of catch up from those countries.
“Also just the fact that the culture and tradition around cycling still holds it back in so many ways, not just female parity, but the things like the way we sell our media rights and stuff.
“The whole structure of cycling is very old fashioned and controlled essentially by two parties that are not held account to by many people and it’s taken, I think the last 10 years of social media actually to really push and expose the inequalities, not just female to male, but so many inequalities.”
Cycling is making progress, at least, and this year will see the inaugural Tour de France Femmes.
Deignan will have to make do with watching from home, but that has not quelled her excitement for the race.
“It’s the biggest platform that there is in our sport,” she said. “If you ask anybody, if they understand what professional cycling is, the Tour de France is what they talk about.
“We’re just so happy now that that step has been taken, that we have the opportunity to showcase our side of the sport.
“The thing with a stage race like the Tour France is you start to see the characters below the helmets and that’s where people really engage in sport. So I think that’s our big opportunity.”
As the episode came to an end, Deignan revealed she had no intention of stepping away from cycling any time soon, even if not on a bike.
“My love for the sport has definitely developed further since I’ve had my daughter,” she said. “Also you realise as you get older that you become an expert in something, and I’m an expert essentially in cycling.
“So it would be a shame to waste that expertise. And also age makes me realise that yes, I am outspoken and there’s not that many people who are lucky enough to feel comfortable doing that.
“So potentially being the voice for people who aren’t [outspoken] is something that I can do. So I’m not sure, I might not be the UCI President, but, we’ll see!”