Words by William Fotheringham | Photos by SWpix.com / Cor Vos
The rejigged and immensely uncertain intra-pandemic cycling season can now be said to have taken some shape, in the same way that a kaleidoscope occasionally pauses. Narrative lines have emerged: rider safety, the travails of Team Ineos, the dominance of the Dutch women’s world championship team. Stars have risen – and in some cases, step forward Marc Hirschi and Tadej Pogacar – have already decided to take a well-earned rest.
One obvious theme will be how some cyclists have dealt better than others with the unique pressures this season has brought to bear, as season in which there is zero margin for error. Lizzie Deignan is one of those: in form since the last week of August, in which she won the GP Plouay and La Course. The latter filled a gap on her already more than decent palmarès; so too was her most recent win, in Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday. This is her best run of form since early 2016, and it adds a whole new twist to the story of her comeback after the birth of daughter Orla in September 2018.
When Deignan came back to racing in 2019, she was as fit as she had been pre-partum, but felt the level of the riders around her had moved on. There’s been another development: an increase in the strength in depth at the top of the tree. The best teams have more hitters and they are more professionally supported. Hence some of the tactical battles we’ve seen emerging between the likes of Deignan’s Trek-Segafredo, Mitchelton and Boels-Dolman in particular.
Deignan’s emerging partnership with Elisa Longo-Borghini is part of that interesting tactical picture. “We really complement each other. I only won La Course because she was there.” And the same thing could be said of Deignan’s win at Liège, which she forged on her own, but where Longo-Borghini’s presence in the chase group was influential. “They had to watch her as well, going that early they all just thought ‘we will let Lizzie go and die out there’.” And then there was having Ellen van Dijk in the early break.
“The idea was that Elisa and me would come across to her; I was in a good position in Francorchamps, on the cobbles at the bottom of the town, my instinct was to go then, and I followed it. The idea was to get over La Redoute before Annemiek [Van Vleuten] and the real favourites attacked.” And if you’re wondering why the big names – Van Vleuten, Anna van der Bergen – would allow a rider of Deignan’s stature to head off up the road, Deignan puts it down to poor positioning and the general confusion of racing in the wet. The upshot was her solo ride into Liège after leaving the break behind on La Redoute, surviving a late chase from Mitchelton’s Grace Brown.
Asked to explain her current run of form, Deignan says, “I’m having fun. There is no fear of failure. It’s fantastic having that partnership with Elisa. At Trek-Segafredo I’ve got experienced directors – you grow up looking at riders like Ina-Yoko Teutenberg and Georgia Bronzini, and then having them telling you to follow your instincts is quite empowering.” At Boels-Dolmans, Deignan’s partnership with Danny Stam was critical, but working with Teutenberg and Bronzini is different, she says, largely because they have raced so recently with her biggest rivals. “It’s very insightful having someone like Georgia explaining to me how to beat Marianne Vos – if she’s telling me, I have to react.”
Another factor, she says, was dealing with the sudden curtailment of the season. “It was different for different people. We were fortunate to be in the UK, so I was able to keep riding on the road, and we were lucky to have a garden for Orla to play in. It was bizarre when lockdown happened, but I just decided to continue my training program as if I was going to be racing. I always have a break in May and build back, so I kept to that routine. I didn’t look outside that, didn’t do any Everesting or whatever. I tried to focus on the positive which was the extra family time and make the best of it.”
As for the rest of the Classics campaign – this weekend’s Ghent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix – there is no sense that Deignan is satisfied with what she has got so far. “I’m excited, I’m in great shape, so are the rest of the team. It’s a refreshing feeling being excited about racing. Normally this would be late in the season, but I’m not desperate for the off season. With Philip coaching me I’ve managed to stay physically and mentally fresh.”
She confesses to being “delighted” about the new race on the calendar, Paris-Roubaix, as long as it happens. “I just hope it’s on. It’s so cool having a women’s Roubaix. In a pandemic year to have a new race like that is surprising, a bonus. The plan is to stay up there for a week after Flanders, do the recons, get used to the different bike. It’s not like this year you really have the chance to go to Belgium for any random week or whatever. There’s no point investing too much until we know for sure it’s happening.”