Lizzie Deignan says she feels like she is competing in a “new sport” as the ever-rising standards in the women’s peloton keep her motivated.
In 2019 Deignan, who turned 32 in December, openly contemplated retiring this winter, but ultimately ruled it out before starring in last year’s disrupted campaign.
Deignan won three of the 11 WorldTour races in 2020 to top the individual rankings, and goes into 2021 with ambitious targets around the Tokyo Olympics and the World Championships in Flanders but starting with Paris-Roubaix in April.
What a year it’s been.
After all that Lizzie Deignan was the best Women’s WorldTour & Liane Lippert the best young rider.
— UCI_WWT (@UCI_WWT) November 8, 2020
The first-ever women’s edition of the ‘Hell of the North’ offers a fresh target for a rider with so many accomplishments already to her name, but it is not the only thing keeping the former world champion going.
“(Paris-Roubaix is) really exciting, but there’s also just the fact that women’s cycling has grown so much,” Deignan told the PA news agency.
“I do feel like I’m part of a new sport. It’s harder to win races and that is still motivating. Winning as many races as I did in 2016 is way harder now. It’s not easy and that keeps me motivated.”
The push for greater equality in cycling has not been straightforward, with several backward steps interrupting the journey forwards, but the level of competition has changed markedly in a few short years.
“Things that won me races back then, being able to attack at the bottom of a steep climb and pull away won’t work now,” Deignan said. “Now the speed into the bottom of the climbs, because of the depth of the peloton, doesn’t allow my jump to get me as big of a gap as it used to.”
Deignan’s Trek-Segafredo team was only formed in 2019 but has quickly become the dominant force in women’s cycling, with a star-studded roster boasting the likes of Elisa Longo Borghini and Ellen Van Dijk alongside Deignan.
Former world champion Annemiek Van Vleuten said she turned down the team this winter for fear of them becoming too dominant – removing the unpredictability which has been the sport’s best selling point.
“I think they’re fair,” Deignan said of Van Vleuten’s comments. “It’s important that the kind of women who are winning races are spread out among different teams, though I don’t think dominant teams ever last forever.
“You see it in men’s cycling. Ineos had a few years and then other teams get to that level. I think in women’s cycling, with the announcement of things like Cofidis having a team, that means there will be more competition and room to negotiate for riders.
“It won’t just be about choosing a team with a decent salary, it will be about choosing a team with decent opportunities.”
Deignan put her success last year down to staying flexible amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, an approach she can only try to repeat in 2021.
If the season progresses as planned, Deignan will head to the Ardennes Classics after Paris-Roubaix on April 11, then turn her attention towards Tokyo.
“I’ll do some heat acclimatisation work that will be based at home – almost like having a greenhouse over my bike or doing turbo sessions in the bathroom,” she said. “It will be fairly basic but quite effective. I think for me the biggest challenge in Tokyo will be the heat and humidity.”
With goals mapped out throughout the season and a contract in place until the end of 2022, all talk of retirement is on the back burner.
Asked if she got as far as considering what will come next, the Otley-born rider laughed.
“It’s probably because I don’t know what’s next that I’ll carry on!” she said.
“I don’t know but it’s definitely something I think about. Retiring from professional sport is a very difficult thing to do and I would like to be prepared.”