For a rider whose four-week off-season in October combined scrambling to find a team for 2021 with extensive building work at her house, Lizzy Banks sounds remarkably at ease.
As one of the most exciting talents in cycling today, things were looking rosy for the South Yorkshire rider when she won the second Giro d’Italia stage of her career in mid-September. High-end fashion company Paule Ka had rescued her Bigla-Katusha team after both title sponsors pulled all of their funding in April. Banks, like her other team-mates, had signed a two-year deal with the team. A memorable victory, her second in two years at the Giro, followed on day four of September’s rearranged race. Then, without warning, Paule Ka collapsed on 16 October.
“Devastating, gutting and incredibly stressful: that’s how I’d sum it up,” said Banks on Wednesday morning, shortly before it was announced that she’ll join CERATIZIT-WNT Pro Cycling in 2021. “I had four weeks off and three of them were the most stressful of my cycling career. It was a total disaster. It was so much harder than people imagine. People may think ‘it’s OK, Lizzy will just go to Trek’ but it doesn’t work like that.
“When the sponsors pulled out in April it was bad. But at this point none of us were sure if there’d be any racing in 2020 anyway. When it happened with Paule Ka, it was a total disaster. The other teams were all full – only one of our riders has joined a team who didn’t have a complete roster. Everybody else has joined teams who have made space for us. It’s a huge jigsaw puzzle; the process of putting the pieces together with budgets, their existing team roster and personalities. That’s hard enough in women’s cycling at the best of times, let alone after a pandemic and when we’re on the verge of a huge global recession.”
Banks’ fledgling reputation, mixed with the way she talks both passionately and eloquently with apparent ease, made her the de facto spokesperson following the team’s collapse. She said: “I was getting so many calls with people asking me to tell them what was going on with my team for next year. Everybody wanted to know my business but I didn’t even know my own business. The reality was that I didn’t have a job yet. I didn’t know if I would get one. None of my team-mates knew, either. It was a hopeless situation.”
So impressive has been her rise, it’s easy to overlook the 30-year-old’s background. She only started racing in 2015. This (abridged) season was just her second with a European-focused programme, having raced for the American UnitedHealthcare team in 2018. At last year’s Tour de Yorkshire, incredibly only her 12th race with Bigla, she stepped up to become the now-defunct team’s road captain. “I told them what I wanted to do and how we should race, and we did it,” she recalled. Ninth on GC here triggered an impressive run: top-10s followed in the Festival Elsy Jacobs and the Women’s Tour stage races, before a breakthrough stage victory in the Giro.
It’s a role that she continued to grow into during the 2020 season. Her DS-like preparation contributed to an underappreciated sixth place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (“I was criticised for using a bit too much energy but a lot of the time I floated onto the cobbles because I hit the front at the right time approaching the sectors while others were getting caught up in crashes behind,” she explained) and an unforgettable second behind Lizzie Deignan in a rain-soaked GP de Plouay. Banks attacked with 35 kilometres remaining; Deignan bridged across after Demi Vollering had dropped the wheel in crosswinds. They beat the bunch to the line by over a minute, contrary to what the leaders were being told during the race.
“We had completely unreliable time gaps,” Banks said. “My director told me just before the finish to get on Amy Pieters’ wheel: he thought I was in the bunch, whereas we thought they were on our tail, which is why I was just driving it. If I went back to that race now I feel I’d have a better crack at taking the win. I knew what I needed to do [at the finish] but I was a little bit green – I just went too early. It would be a different sprint, but that doesn’t mean I’d win.”
The Briton’s sole victory of the year came four days into the Giro, when she beat breakaway companion Eugenia Bujak (Alé BTC Ljubljana) in Tivoli, an historic hilltown a few kilometres east of Rome. Luckily, the pre-stage controversary regarding the stage length and its breach of UCI maximum distance rules (such are the technical inconsistencies with the race, the distance reported varies between 161.5km and 170km, with a neutralised section of 12km) did not overshadow her win. Of her two victories in the race to date, this is Banks’ favourite, as it was another perfectly-executed plan.
She explained: “I always map out my own courses: I put them on my Garmin then look at all of the risky parts, points of interest, and study the sprints and climbs. Then I really detail what the finish looks like as that determines everything. The day I won was a real Marianne Vos stage [it finished with a two-kilometre, 7.9% average climb into the town’s old centre] – our team had reconned the finish and I knew that it was steep enough for me to make a difference on. But it was clear to me that any breakaway was going to have to be a long one, otherwise CCC would have chased it down.
“I approached Thomas [Campana, Équipe Paule Ka team manager] before the stage and said that either Marlen [Reusser] or I could do it. I knew that between 105 to 80 kilometres to go was where we had to attack – before was too early, afterwards was too late. Our break ended up being 86 kilometres, which, in my head, doesn’t sound like far, then you remember that distance is pretty much the same as the first Madrid Challenge stage last week!”
Tactically, Banks played the closing kilometres perfectly. Having amassed a gap of nearly six minutes with 30 kilometres remaining, the downhill and flat run into the short, sharp finishing climb all-but ensured the peloton would not chase them down. “I stopped working, which is why the gap tumbled,” she recalled. “But I knew we had enough of a lead, so I could work out how I was going to win. I didn’t want to leave it to a sprint, but I also didn’t think a long-range move was necessary. I felt that I had had the edge over Eugenia on the climb.”
Her confidence was not misguided. The Briton’s attack inside the final kilometre was devastating. Bujak clung to her wheel for 150 metres or so on the lower part of the narrow, partially-cobbled climb, but couldn’t handle the pace for long. Banks won by seven seconds.
One of her abiding memories from the day came in the time between crossing the line and the podium ceremony. Nearly four-and-a-half-hours of racing in temperatures that reached 39°C and a six-minute effort to win the stage took their toll. Banks explained: “Not many people know this but after the stage I couldn’t stop throwing up! It started as soon as my team-mates came to hug me… and I couldn’t stop. I was so conscious of dehydrating so I made sure to take on fluids all day. There are some amazing photos of all of us celebrating together – moments later I’m out of shot and they’re laughing, grimacing and trying to look away!”
However, it wasn’t just this victory that makes Banks a stand-out rider from a year full of unforgettable performances. Off the bike, she has become a vocal campaigner for women’s cycling and equality within sport. Were Banks not such a gifted, self-coached rider, a media career would surely have been on the cards, too: she announced her new team during an appearance on GCN’s World of Cycling show and appears regularly on the Cycling Podcast.
“I don’t really know how it happened,” she said. “At the beginning of this year I was just a name in the peloton. A lot of riders may not have known who I was at that point. I’m just happy that, if I do have a voice, I am able to use it for the right reasons. Ultimately we all want the same thing: we all love cycling, we all want it to progress and we all need to work together. That last point is a problem: a lot of time the stakeholders are attacking one another.
“I never envisaged getting in this position so early in my career. But I want to be a voice that helps increase sponsorship, viewership, participation. That last thing is really big for me. I did a master’s in public health when I was studying medicine. I did my dissertation on the link between mental health and exercise. So whenever I get messages from people who say I inspired them to go and ride, or somebody thanking me for talking about saddles and shorts on my Instagram, it makes me so happy. I was that person in 2014. I was the novice Googling to see if people wore pants under their shorts. I didn’t have a clue.”
Despite not being one of the eight UCI Women’s WorldTeams in 2021, CERATIZIT’s roster is one of the strongest in the peloton. Lisa Brennauer, the 2014 world time trial champion and winner of last week’s Madrid Challenge by La Vuelta, remains their figurehead. Two-time Women’s Tour stage winner Lotta Henttala is another new arrival, having spent the past two seasons with Trek-Segafredo. “The line-up is a bit like the Équipe Paule Ka roster in 2020: we may not have the household names, but we’ve got so much talent,” said Banks. “I’m really encouraged by what I’ve heard about the feeling and atmosphere within the team – it’s important to be in the right environment.”
As Banks talks it becomes clear that, even as last minute as her arrival within the team was, CERATIZIT-WNT weren’t her last-chance saloon. Dropping down to race for a domestic team in the UK was never an option for her; rightly so, given that she was recently added to British Cycling’s world class programme, a move that surely only bodes well with Olympic selection fast approaching for Tokyo 2021. There were murmurs of a move to Movistar, too. But she was ultimately drawn in by the German team’s vision, one that will allow her to continue developing while offering her leadership opportunities.
A potential two-pronged attack with Brennauer is something that Banks is already excited about being a part of. “Lisa is a proven winner; she’s somebody who I can learn from and work with,” she said. “That really gives the team a dynamic duo. We can be a killer pairing: we’re quite similar but where one of us is slightly weaker, the other can make up for it. Her sprinting is slightly better and my climbing is probably slightly better. You can rely on us being there in the final kilometres of race, knowing what the smart thing to do is.”
Banks is back training for 2021 now, although the team’s first camp in Italy next month may have to wait until the New Year because of COVID-19 spikes in the country. She says she feels fresh and in a good place mentally, the result of spending the final week of her break off-grid with her husband in the northern English countryside. The way this season played out – job insecurity and financial uncertainties amid a global pandemic – would have knocked the confidence and enthusiasm in a lot of people. Judging from our conversation, that doesn’t apply to Banks.
She said: “I’ve got so much learning left and so many races that I believe I can win in the future. I saw my physiological progression this year – I made gains that I didn’t think I’d make in the whole of my career, let alone in four months of lockdown training, but I did. Also, you’re going to see this huge crop of the top riders in the world retiring fairly soon. It dawned on me this year that I’m one of those riders who’ll have to step into their shoes. I can’t compare myself to Lizzie [Deignan] but my aim is to get to the heights she’s reached. I don’t feel like I’m far off.”
I ask where her positive attitude comes from. “I was a foster child,” she starts. “So I want to prove that you don’t need to have parents who can take you to the local athletics club or the county hockey practices to achieve what you want. You’ve just got to have the right attitude. In time you can make it happen. In time you can do what you want to do. It might not be possible there and then but don’t give up.” And those final three words to end tell you everything you need to know about Lizzy Banks.
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