Lizzie Armitstead: Back in the saddle and facing the future

Lizzie Armitstead's Olympics ended in disappointment and without a place on the podium.  Picture Bruce Rollinson
Lizzie Armitstead's Olympics ended in disappointment and without a place on the podium. Picture Bruce Rollinson
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After the disappointment of Rio, the Otley cyclist talks to Sarah Freeman about everything from wedding plans to world title ambitions.

About now, Lizzie Armitstead should have been gearing up for the publication of her autobiography. A packed diary of interviews and photoshoots had been scheduled for just after her return from Rio. Her publishers no doubt hoped she would be able to pose with her second Olympic medal, quite possibly a gold.

Great Britain's Lizzie Armitstead had been one of the favourites to take gold at the women's road race in Rio. Mike Egerton/PA Wire.

Great Britain's Lizzie Armitstead had been one of the favourites to take gold at the women's road race in Rio. Mike Egerton/PA Wire.

Except it didn’t quite pan out that way. Just a few days before the opening ceremony, the Otley cyclist found herself in a media storm over a series of missed drugs tests which almost left her career in tatters. While the sport’s governing body upheld her appeal on one of the missed tests, meaning it didn’t have to enforce its three strikes and you’re out policy, it was hardly the perfect build up to a Games she had spent four years preparing for.

The sleepless nights were eased a little by her decision to publish her own account of what happened, but even then the 27 year old admitted that whatever the mitigating circumstances there would now always be a shadow of suspicion over her career.

Given the distractions she did well to even be on the starting line of the women’s road race which wound 140km around some of Rio’s most spectacular scenery. However, unlike in London 2012 where she claimed Team GB’s very first medal, a defiant, tearful and clearly exhausted Armitstead could only manage fifth. It wasn’t the final chapter anyone had hoped for and the autobiography, originally due out in September, has now been put back.

“The plan was always to write about what happened in Rio when I got back, but I guess now that final chapter is more important than ever,” says Armitstead. “I don’t want to rush it. I want it to be right and so I have decided just to give myself some more time.”

By way of proof, when we speak, Armitstead has just driven from her base in Monaco to join her sister and nieces on holiday on an Italian campsite. After that there is the small question of her wedding in a few weeks to fiancé and fellow professional cyclist Philip Deignan.

“It’s going to be back home in Otley,” she says. “There are still a few things to organise, but I’m not one to panic or get stressed out. To be honest I’m pretty laid back about things I know other brides will probably agonise about. It will just be good to be surrounded by family and friends. They have always been a huge support, particularly in the last few weeks, so it will be really nice to give them something positive to celebrate.”

While this year’s Games ended in disappointment and without a place on the podium, Armitstead, forever a glass full kind of girl, says that despite everything she did bring home some good memories from Rio.

“It is a beautiful city and unlike a lot of the other athletes who compete indoors I actually got a chance to see the place. When my race was over, like everyone at home I was watching and cheering on every other GB athlete. It’s impossible not to feel good when someone gets a medal and I think the entire fortnight showed that we have now got the right training and funding system in place to give us the best chance of excelling at the highest level.

“The success of British cycling is a blueprint for all sports, because it now provides a pathway for young talent and allows them to achieve their potential.”

Armitstead is proof of that. Talent spotted while still a pupil at Prince Henry’s Grammar School, she won her first medal at the Junior World Track Championships in 2005. Turning professional she moved to road racing in 2009 and as of last year she is the reigning World, Commonwealth and National road race champion.

“There have been so many highlights in such a short space of time,” she says. “Winning the World title has got to be up there, along with my silver in London, but there have been a hundred memorable moments . The Tour de Yorkshire is obviously a bit of a homecoming for me and getting to race through Otley in front of those huge crowds always feels like a privilege.”

This year’s race saw more than one million spectators line the route and the women’s race was also historic with the organisers offering a first prize of £15,628 - more than the winning man got for completing the three-day event.

“When people talk of legacy from something like the Grand Depart, that’s what they mean,” says Armitstead. “Since I started out in this sport, the profile of cycling in this country has changed beyond all recognition. I am proud to have played my own small part in that, but what’s really great is to see Yorkshire, not just cycling fans, embrace these races as a community.”

With a tricky course looming at this year’s World Championships in Doha, Armitstead now has her sights on next year’s event in Norway and following the wedding it will be back to business as usual.

“On a typical day I will get up, have breakfast, which is not just the most important, but also my favourite meal of the day,” says Amitstead, who has been vegetarian since the age of 10. “After a bowl of porridge I’ll do three to five hours on the bike, come back, have lunch and possibly have a massage. After that there will be a gym session and I usually spend an hour or two answering emails before bedtime.

“Honestly the life of a cyclist is pretty dull, but it is important that you do try to have some downtime away from the bike. It’s not something that I’m very good at, but I know that it is important to have some balance otherwise it can become all-consuming. A lot of athletes say they get the post-Olympic blues and I can understand why, but for me it only lasts about a day. I never stay unhappy or miserable for long, I just switch focus and move on.”

Even at 31, if she stays fit, Armitstead will still have every chance of getting that elusive gold at the Tokyo Olympics. However, four years is a long time in cycling with the chance of serious injury only ever one competition or one training session away.

“I tend to think in 12-month chunks, so while I haven’t thought about what I’ll do post retirement, I probably should,” she says. “I am pretty sure that once I stop racing the competitiveness that keeps me going will also disappear. I’m not sure I would have it in me to do a Victoria Pendleton and try another sport, but who knows.”

For now though, Armitstead is focused on winning and of making her family proud. “That’s always been my priority. Of course I’m grateful for any support which comes through social media, but I don’t go on Twitter looking for approval. I don’t think that would be a very healthy thing to do.”

It has undoubtedly been the toughest few months of her career, but when that autobiography does land in bookshops this November, Steadfast will have never looked like a more appropriate title.

Lizzie Armitstead is a Great Starts ambassador for Team GB cereal sponsor Kellogg’s, which is offering the chance to win a day with an Olympian. Visit https://heroday.kelloggs.com/ for more details.

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