Five years after the contorted, controversial run-in to the Rio Olympic Games, Lizzie Deignan is happy to admit the contrast between then and now could hardly be greater. Since June 2016, when the Yorkshire rider endured a whereabouts controversy that was stymied by the court of arbitration for sport, and went on to finish fifth in Rio, she has married, given birth to her daughter Orla and returned to competition at the highest level.
Following all that with juggling family life and bike racing in the middle of a global pandemic does lend a certain degree of perspective, as she points out. “Personally and professionally I’m in a totally different place. I’m still very focused, I still want to win the race but my perspective on where it stands in the rest of my life is very different. I’m a lot more relaxed than going into Rio. Life’s good and I’m happy to be here.”
The circumstances change, but the basic conundrum for any top-level women’s bike racer remains the same in Tokyo as it was when Deignan made her full international debut at the 2008 world championship in Varese, where she rode herself to exhaustion to help Nicole Cooke win gold. Women’s road racing is dominated by one nation, the Netherlands. Anna van der Breggen won gold in the road race and time trial at last year’s world championships; Annemiek van Vleuten dominated the 2019 worlds in Harrogate, and Marianne Vos – 14 Olympic and world titles to her name – is the greatest bike racer of the last 40 years bar none. Demi Vollering is at the start of her career, but has nailed two of this year’s biggest races, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and La Course by Le Tour, on both occasions with the support of Van der Breggen.
Deignan laughs when she is asked how to beat the Dutch, not because it’s amusing per se, but because she’s asked the question before every major championship. “You guys need to tell me. It’s athletic, physiological ability. They are phenomenal athletes individually. You have four world-class athletes who are able to win the gold themselves. So potentially the only thing that can work against them is that they have four leaders in the team.
“It needs to be a hard race because I don’t think they would risk taking it to a sprint against riders like [Denmark’s] Emma Norsgaard. Marianne is not 100% sure to win a sprint, so they have to make it hard, so they have to sacrifice some of their riders. It depends on their team meeting who they decide to sacrifice.”
It is a perennial challenge: the 2012 London road race came down to Vos versus Deignan in the final metres, and Tokyo could go the same way.
As for where Deignan fits into the picture, the Dutch challenge means she cannot afford to race conservatively. “I simply have to be willing to lose in order to win. I can’t follow every move that the Dutch make. I have to be really selective and the only way I can do that is rely on my race instinct. I think overthinking it will put me in trouble, and overreacting. It’s not down to me to react to the Dutch.”
Stopping yourself overthinking is easier than it sounds. A perfect road race is ridden largely on instinct, with body and mind working together; a split second’s reflection can be hugely costly. Deignan has worked out her own way of managing the mental battle. “I don’t listen to other people because right before an Olympic road race you’ll have a lot of advice from a lot of people. I tend to try and ignore people, it’s all about focusing on what my thought process is. I have a good race instinct so I try and avoid planning too much or talking to too many people about it.”
The Tokyo course, she believes, is better suited to her explosive racing style than Rio, where she had to hone her climbing skills to match Van Vleuten, who fell off in the finale, letting Van der Breggen through. “The final circuit is very punchy and very difficult so I’d expect it to be a small group, if not a solo rider, at the finish.”
At 32, Deignan isn’t able to state whether she will now carry on racing until the next World Championships on UK soil, in Glasgow in 2023, but what she can say is that there are new challenges – Paris-Roubaix this October, the Tour de France next year – which are giving her an incentive to keep competing.
“I’ve continued my career further than I thought I would do because of the opportunity that Trek have given me [to return after the birth of Orla]. We have the women’s Tour de France next year, and women’s cycling is growing and growing, so whenever I decide to walk away it will be a hard decision because there are so many more opportunities on the horizon.”