In an alternate reality, one in which COVID-19 hadn’t swept the globe and the Tokyo Olympics had still taken place this summer, British cyclist Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead) would not currently be in Imola, Italy, for the World Road Cycling Championships.
Instead, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist will start tomorrow’s road race as a strong podium contender.
Deignan finds herself in this unexpected position, in part, because Imola wasn’t supposed to host this year’s event. (Swiss host Aigle-Martigny backed out last month due to government regulations limiting mass gatherings.)
More importantly, though, Deignan had planned on retiring by now.
“I kind of always had in mind that Tokyo would be that retirement race,” the 31-year-old said on Thursday. “The break from cycling has completely renewed my love for the sport. I don’t see Tokyo being the finish line at all anymore, even though it’s a year later.”
In addition to feeling refreshed, Deignan also points to the growth of women’s cycling as a key reason for her longevity in the sport. “I’m in a fantastic position where I’m able to support my family and make a good living from being a bike rider. And that wasn’t where I saw myself 10 years ago, that was just impossible to think about.”
That’s not to say that all is fair for women in cycling. Far from it, in fact. The fight for equality in cycling is a multi-faceted battle, involving everything from racing distance to prize money to media coverage.
At this year’s World Championships, the women’s road race is 143 km (88.8 miles), while the men’s road race is 258 km (160 miles).
Compared to other cycling competitions, however, this discrepancy looks minor.
In August, Deignan won “La Course,” the single-stage race that currently serves as the women’s counterpart to the men’s 21-stage Tour de France. After her victory, she expressed support for a full women’s Tour de France in the future. “I want to be pushed to my limits and showcase what women’s sport is about,” she told CyclingNews.
“My gripe sometimes is, with the shorter [women’s] events, that they’re potentially just token gestures on the same day as a men’s event,” Deignan said on Thursday. “I don’t think it’s necessary that we have stages that are as long as men’s races. I think probably it’s more likely that the men’s races should get shorter if we’re talking about fast and interesting and dynamic racing.”
Right now, the longest women’s multi-stage event is the Giro Rosa, which takes place annually in Italy. This year’s competition, held earlier this month, included nine stages totaling 975.8 km (606.3 miles). Deignan participated as a support rider for her Trek-Segafredo teammate Elisa Longo Borghini of Italy, who finished third overall.
This year’s Giro Rosa featured a stage that was just over 170 km (technically a violation of UCI rules, which state women’s stages should be a max of 160 km). After the longer-than-usual stage, however, most riders were most vocal about a different rule violation: the fact that Giro Rosa organizers were not providing any live coverage of the event. (UCI rules state that organizers of women’s WorldTour events must provide at least 45 minutes of live coverage each day.)
On the lack of exposure, Deignan says, “It’s kind of an obvious answer for us when asked about it, like, we’re not happy, it’s not good enough and it has to be better… When you’re in the Giro, you want to be given the same respect as your counterparts and just be able to focus on the race itself, because it was just so intense and so hard. That is the opportunity that we are all searching for as athletes: to be given the opportunity to just focus on the racing aspect of it.”
In recent years, Deignan’s role in the fight for equality has taken on new meaning. In September 2018, she and her husband Philip Deignan welcomed their first child, daughter Orla.
“I think the main thing I’d like to pass on to her is, as a woman, that she [has] no boundaries, no limitations,” Deignan says. “I hope she grows up in a house where her gender doesn’t dictate what she does in her work.”
Hopefully for Orla, and the next generation of female cyclists, that is no alternate reality.
Tomorrow’s women’s road race airs live on Olympic Channel at 6:30 am ET. Live coverage of the 2020 World Road Cycling Championships concludes on Sunday with the men’s road race at 3:45 am ET. Live streaming of all events is also available to “Cycling Pass” subscribers on NBC Sports Gold.