Cycling: Armitstead is top of the world

Lizzie Armitstead, centre, celebrates winning the UCI World Road Championships.
Lizzie Armitstead, centre, celebrates winning the UCI World Road Championships.
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After getting engaged and becoming world champion in quick succession, Lizzie Armitstead is now eyeing Olympic gold. Lee Sobot reports.

OTLEY’S LIZZIE Armitstead has dreamt of being a cycling world champion ever since she was a little girl.

It’s ironic then, actually fulfilling that aim last weekend was not her finest moment of 2015.

After Irish cyclist Philip Deignan popped the question, a 2016 wedding awaits – but not before Armitstead’s most important sporting engagement yet, at the Rio Olympic Games.

Former Prince Henry’s Grammar School pupil Armitstead made international headlines last weekend by winning the women’s UCI World Road Championships in the Virginia capital of Richmond.

In doing so, the 26-year-old became only the fourth British woman in history to take the title – following in the footsteps of Morley’s Beryl Burton, Mandy Jones and Nicole Cooke – and it naturally follows that the cyclist has been in major demand since. After celebrating Stateside with ‘bubbles, dancing and tequila’, Armitstead caught a Sunday night flight back to Amsterdam to her team’s headquarters in Holland before jetting straight over to Belfast to join her future husband – the Team Sky rider –and his family.

Yet there was no time to put the feet up with the new world champ flying back to Holland for a sponsored team race yesterday before jetting back into Leeds last night to spend time with her family ahead of a one-week stay in Yorkshire. The celebrations will continue next weekend when Armitstead’s grandparents hold a party for their diamond wedding anniversary.

Yet as far as Yorkshire’s world champion cyclist is concerned, the ultimate celebrations will be held in 2016 when the Armitstead-Deignan wedding is on the agenda with a gold medal in Rio hopefully providing the perfect aperitif. Mind, even the feeling of becoming world champion will take some topping. Speaking to the YEP from Ireland this week, Armitstead said: “I’m still in shock and I haven’t stopped. Literally the easiest part of the last week was definitely the bike race. It’s been non-stop since I got off it – media, trying to make sure that I have spoken to friends and family and then a ten-hour flight.

“But becoming world champion is just the best feeling. You can win so much in cycling and be the best in the world really. I’ve won the World Cups for the last two years running which means that I’ve been consistently the best in the world but I didn’t have my hands on the rainbow jersey and that’s what translates to people – being able to tell them you’re a world champion is what people understand and what you get the rainbow for.

“I’ve just always wanted that and nothing else is really enough. I can say that I’m world champion now, the best in the world and have the title to go with it. Now it’s all about Rio next year but then there’s my wedding and that’s going to be a big event I suppose!

“We’re pretty keen, well my fiance is pretty keen not to drag out the planning too long! It will be this time next year I think, after the season and I think I’ll have quite a lot of help from my mum so that I am not too stressed about it going into Rio! We also agreed on Tuesday morning that it will be a Yorkshire wedding. We’ve not picked a venue but we’ve picked a country!”

That, in itself, is difficult enough. While Armitstead’s family home is in Otley, Deignan was brought up in Letterkenny near Donegal and then Armitstead’s Boel-Dolmans team are based in Holland. Yet the young couple live in Monaco which Armitstead says has the ideal climate and terrain for a professional cyclist. True ‘home’, though, will always be in Yorkshire, not least where daily living is rather more affordable. Armitstead laughed: “It’s pricey all right. But if you’re a boring cyclist who doesn’t go out much then you’re all right.”

The world champ admitted: “I miss home lots. I miss my family so much and it’s the hardest part of my job definitely, being away from friends and family. But I know that one day I will come back to it and, while I’m cycling, being in a cyclist’s climate is just what I need to be honest, particularly the weather.

“If the weather was better at home then I wouldn’t need to be away and I miss it a lot but I would have thought one day we would settle back in Yorkshire – that or Ireland. I suppose I’ll have to have discussions with the husband and see what we think!”

For now at least, that discussion can wait with Armitstead still only 26 years old and not turning 27 until the Friday before Christmas. Even now the Otley ace admits she will probably still be around for Tokyo 2020.

“There’s definitely Tokyo – another free holiday – so I will be doing that one,” she laughs.

But wedding plans aside, every single ounce of her attention is now focused on next year’s Games in South America. Armitstead was just 23 when taking a silver medal at London 2012 and admits going one better would top even her recent worlds’ achievements. She explained: “London was my first Olympics and I think as a home Olympics nothing will ever top that. But I think even other athletes from other countries thought the London Olympics were something special because they did such a good job of it.

“So I think Rio has got a lot to live up to but in terms of personal goals then to be an Olympic champion would surpass being world champion.

“It’s all about Rio now, definitely. The World Championships are in Qatar next October although that’s not really on my horizons to be honest. I’m just thinking about Rio, that’s all I’m thinking about and in an Olympic year you can’t really have too many goals. I don’t think you can look at anything other than the Olympics.” Assessing her chances of glory in Rio, and asked if the world champion would be seen as favourite, Armitstead added: “I really struggled going to the worlds as favourite but I think it was the right call as that course really suited me. With the Olympics, I will be one of the favourites going into it but not the overwhelming favourite.

“It really does suit more a climbing kind of athlete so it depends on what happens between now and then really.”

“They are quite different courses Richmond and Rio – Rio is a course for a mountain goat so I will be spending a lot of time in the hills this winter.”

Yet first comes four weeks of well deserved rest, though Armitstead explained that social plans mean she can’t put her bike away just yet.

After jet-setting from the US to Holland to Ireland to Holland, Armitstead flew back home into Leeds last night ahead of a one week stay with her parents in Otley and said: “I’ll probably meet up with some friends and go out for a meal and I’m not sure, there might be a surprise party – I’ve heard a few different things. Then my grandparents have got their diamond wedding anniversary the week after so there will be a big family party.

“I think we are down near Rutland Water Reservoir or something.

“We are staying in some huts and going on a bike ride – just what I want to do on my holidays!”