Change of course gives Lizzie Deignan a renewed sense of freedom

Lizzie Deignan will carry no pressure on her shoulders when she leads Great Britain into the women’s road race at the UCI Road World Championships on Saturday.

The 31-year-old will look to recapture the title she won back in 2015 this weekend, riding a course in Imola that team-mate Lizzy Banks said suits her “perfectly”, but Deignan said she can do so without any expectations.

“I feel completely at ease and just excited to race,” Deignan said. “Normally I’m petrified and really nervous. I just feel like it’s an opportunity and I have nothing to lose.”

That sense of freedom comes amid the uncertainty of a pandemic-hit season. Until last month, these World Championships were scheduled to take place in the Aigle-Martigny region of Switzerland, on a course Deignan had written off as too mountainous.

Now, as Banks attests, the more rolling 143km circuit starting and finishing on the famous motor racing circuit in Imola plays to Deignan’s strengths with climbs of a shorter, sharper nature.

“For Switzerland, I’d totally written it off, it wasn’t a goal,” Deignan said. “It was too mountainous, simply a climber’s course.

“Up until two weeks ago I didn’t even believe there would be a World Championships so to be sat here with people saying it really suits me when I’d not considered it until two weeks ago is a bit weird.”

It is a world away from 12 months ago, when a World Championships on home roads in Yorkshire came with a long build-up and an intense focus on Deignan – something she admitted eventually affected her as an attacking display ended with 31st place.

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“I think I rode like somebody under pressure last year,” Deignan said. “Tactically I wasn’t very smart. I spent far too much time on the front trying to chase down Annemiek van Vleuten.

“I should have spent more time in the wheels. This year I don’t feel like the race rests on my shoulders. I can duck and dive and come out with the best result possible.”

Van Vleuten thought she had seen her hopes of defending her title this weekend ended when she broke a wrist in the Giro Rosa just over a week ago, but the 37-year-old has been cleared to race.

Her Dutch squad, which also includes three-time world champion Marianne Vos and 2018 winner Anna van der Breggen, newly crowned as the time trial world champion, will be the one to watch.

2019 UCI Road World Championships – Women’s Elite Road Race – Bradford to Harrogate
2019 UCI Road World Championships – Women’s Elite Road Race – Bradford to Harrogate

Britain – who also include Alice and Hannah Barnes, Anna Henderson, and Anna Shackley – hope to be a wild card, playing on the strength of both Deignan and Banks, who took a stage win in the Giro.

“The fact our characteristics are both quite similar puts us in a really good position,” Banks said of Deignan.

“Having two dynamic riders able to be there in the final can be a challenge for our rivals as well.”

Whether they can pull it off or not, Deignan is clear this will not be her final worlds.

Though she has previously hinted at retirement – either after the worlds in Yorkshire last year or post-Tokyo had the Games gone ahead this summer – the idea has now been shelved, with next year’s worlds in Flanders high on her agenda.

“I should probably stop talking about retirement because no one will believe me when I actually do,” she said.

“I always had in mind that Tokyo would be that retirement race but life changes and moves on. I have a family now and the break from cycling completely renewed my love for the sport.

“I don’t see Tokyo as the finish line any more even though it’s moved, I’m very open-minded about that.”