Lizzie Deignan arrives at our interview, on the roof terrace of the Columbus Hotel in Monaco, a stone’s throw from her apartment, looking relaxed and it has to be said, surprisingly well rested. For someone who is juggling motherhood with a comeback to elite level cycling – Deignan makes her return at Amstel Gold Race next Sunday, less than seven months post-childbirth – she shows few outward signs of fatigue. No bags under the eyes, no baby sick on her shoulder. In fact, no baby at all.
“Well, Phil isn't racing any more,” she points out, referring to her husband, the ex-Team Sky rider Philip Deignan who quit the sport at the end of last year, partly to help look after their daughter Orla who was born in late September. “So that makes a huge difference. Plus Orla’s on solids now. I stopped breastfeeding two weeks ago. That’s partly why I’ve been able to come back now.”
More than that, though, Deignan says her relaxed state is is simply down to the fact that she is enjoying life again. She feels rebooted.
This is Lizzie 2.0. The first incarnation saw Deignan – then Armitstead – ride into the national consciousness at London 2012, when she famously took silver behind Marianne Vos in driving rain on The Mall. It was Team GB’s first medal of the Games. Her rise from that point onwards was inexorable, culminating in that rainbow jersey in Richmond, Virginia in 2015.
Then the wheels abruptly fell off. On the eve of the Rio road race in 2016, for which Deignan was favourite, it emerged that she had successfully appealed against a UK Anti-Doping ban for missing three whereabouts tests.
Deignan argued that the first one should never have applied since the doping control officer did not make sufficient efforts to reach her in her hotel room – CAS agreed unanimously – and said the final missed test was the result of a traumatic family event which meant she forgot to change a box on a form. But many – including some of her rivals – felt she had got off lightly.
She finished the race fifth, and went on to achieve some decent results in 2017, including victories at the Women’s Tour de Yorkshire and at the nationals as well as placing second at La Course by Le Tour (“I’m proud of the fact that I was able to do that even though I wasn’t enjoying it”). But the spark had gone.
“Definitely,” she replies when asked whether the Rio experience had caused her to fall out of love with the sport. “It was a combination. I mean, I put absolutely everything I had into trying to win Olympic gold. When I look back at the training I was doing, I really gave it absolutely everything. It was a massive disappointment to not win gold. Then everything we went through as a family, and how it played out in the media. It was not a nice time.”
Has she made peace with it now, I ask. Deignan conceded at the time she would have to accept that some people would always doubt her. Does she feel she has been forgiven? Deignan considers this. “I think to be forgiven you have to sin,” she replies. “And I didn’t do that. We’re talking about ticking the wrong box here. It’s not a moral mistake. I can stand behind who I am from a moral perspective.
“For me, being a mum now, I understand what’s important in life. And strangers’ opinions of me me is not something I can control. I know I can look myself in the mirror and look everybody I care about in the eye, and they know I’d never cheat. Absolutely 100 per cent I am still zero tolerance on drugs.”
Deignan says she is taking an entirely different approach to her comeback, partly out of necessity due to being a mother, but also partly because she realises now that her intensity three years ago was “unhealthy”.
“I think there’s this perception in cycling that unless you’re absolutely knackered all of the time you’re not training hard enough,” she says. “But I don’t actually have that choice any more. I can’t be absolutely knackered all of the time because I have a daughter to look after when I get in off the bike. So I actually hold back in terms of that overall fatigue. I’m avoiding that intensive fatigue. I do fewer hours. I do less volume. But I don’t think it’s making a difference. In fact, I think it’s making me better. We’ll see I guess.”
Very shortly in fact. Amstel Gold is the first race of a busy programme that currently includes La Flèche Wallonne Féminine, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour de Yorkshire, and the Tour of California Women’s Race. And that’s before we even reach June, which was her original return date.
“I realised that coming back in June didn’t really work because if you’re structuring a season around the worlds then ideally I need to be coming off in June to build back up again,” she explains.
Deignan is referring, of course, to the road world championships in her native Yorkshire this autumn. She was over earlier this week to visit one of the Yorkshire Bank Bike Libraries – an initiative which provides free bikes for kids – and believes the party atmosphere could top the 2014 Tour de France grand depart, when millions of spectators lined the roads in a carnival of colour.
The opportunity to win the rainbow jersey for a second time, on roads she grew up on, and crucially, as a mother – Orla will be one year and four days old by the time of her race – is, Deignan admits, what is driving her comeback. She wants to prove that it can be done. “It's not like I said 'Right, OK Phil let's get pregnant so I can come back and be the Serena of cycling,” she says of being a trailblazer. “But it’s definitely a big part of it.”
Deignan has signed for a new team this season, Trek-Segafredo, partly because they share that vision, and speaks about being inspired by the likes of Serena Williams and Jessica Ennis as well as fellow cyclists Laura Kenny, and Sarah Storey.
Can she do it? By coincidence – or maybe not? – Marta Bastianelli, who is pretty much the only other mother in the women’s pro peloton, won last weekend’s Tour of Flanders. And Kristin Armstrong won Olympic time trial gold in both London and Rio after having become a mum in 2010. But no one, certainly in modern times, has yet come back from giving birth to win world and Olympic road race titles.
Deignan is hopeful. She says her baseline power is “the same as it was” even if the “top end isn’t where it was yet”. “Postpartum I've done everything I can but there's certain aspects of it, like, regaining lost muscle mass, that just takes time. I can't accelerate that. But it will be there for September.”
Most of all, though, she just feels in a better place mentally. “I think [motherhood] gives me that edge. I really do. Because when you’re sat around a table with other elite athletes, and everyone is so intense, I feel I’m at an advantage. I realise it’s not the be all and end all.
“Plus,” she adds, “my pain threshold has gone up considerably.”
With a thoroughly modern domestic set-up – husband Philip at home looking after the baby while she is off training and competing, and a supportive team behind her – Deignan concedes not every rider would be able to juggle things as she does. “They fit in around my schedule really,” she says. “I’m very lucky in that respect.”
But nevertheless, she hopes her experience will inspire others.
“Previously I always thought ‘how could you possibly have a baby [as a professional cyclist] and feel like you're doing a good job as a mother?’ But realistically what mother gets to have a full-time job but only be away from her daughter for four hours a day?
“I hope it makes women in the peloton who want to start a family at least consider that it doesn’t have to be at the end of their careers, yeah. They should be able to if they want. Bike riders are human beings as well as professional athletes. We’re entitled to have that balance of a normal life as well.”