Lizzie Deignan: ‘I have to listen to my body more than I have ever done before’

On centre stage:  Lizzie Deignan and  Mark Cavendish. Picture: Tony JohnsonOn centre stage:  Lizzie Deignan and  Mark Cavendish. Picture: Tony Johnson
On centre stage: Lizzie Deignan and Mark Cavendish. Picture: Tony Johnson
There were times in the middle of the night, when feeding her new-born daughter, that Lizzie Deignan thought she would never ride a bike competitively again.

But before such bleary-eyed thoughts could take hold, Deignan quickly pushed them to the back of her mind and instead focused on those fellow athletes who told her the life-changing decision she had made off the bike would not ultimately end her future on it.

In those days when the doubts crept in, Deignan thought of the counsel she had sought from Dame Sarah Storey and Laura Trott, Paralympic and Olympic cycling champions who had both taken time off to have children, only to come back stronger.

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“In those moments where I thought, ‘this isn’t possible’ I knew it was possible because of them,” Deignan tells The Yorkshire Post.

The women's section of the TDYThe women's section of the TDY
The women's section of the TDY

“The main thing for me was having them as role models.

“I spoke to Sarah about breastfeeding. She’d breastfed both her kids and I wanted to do the same, but there wasn’t much information on how exercising will affect that, so I broke a few myths by talking to Sarah on that. She was really helpful. Laura Kenny was also very helpful and lovely.”

Deignan, nee Armitstead, was at the peak of her powers in 2017 – Tour de Yorkshire winner, 2015 world champion – when along with husband and fellow professional cyclist Philip Deignan they decided to try for a family.

“You never know how lucky you’re going to be, whether you’re going to be able to have children in the first place, or when it’s going to happen. You can’t really plan it,” she says.

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“That was the only decision that was made, that we wanted to try, and the rest was an organic process.

“I signed for a new team in Trek and they made it a whole lot easier for me as well.”

Orla Deignan was born in September, 2018, almost a year to the day from the UCI Road World Championships women’s race from Bradford to Harrogate on September 28.

The prospect of a home world title, plus the chance to ride for that elusive Olympic gold medal in Tokyo next summer, are the reasons Deignan is back in the saddle a little over seven months after giving birth.

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As well as the sleepless nights, childbirth and motherhood has affected her body in ways she could not have expected.

Toni Minichiello, the coach of Jessica Ennis-Hill, said it was like training a completely different athlete when the Olympic heptathlon champion returned from childbirth. Deignan is also noticing the dramatic change.

“I’m training differently, there are certain aspects that have changed,” says Deignan, who made her competitive return at the Amstel Gold Race last month.

“I returned seven months after giving birth, but my body won’t be back to normal until nine months. That’s part of a process I can’t speed up due to hormones etcetera. I have to listen to my body more than I ever have done before.

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“It’s been a tough challenge getting back in, but really nice at the same time. I’ve been cycling for 15 years, going to the same races, I’d won most of what I wanted to win. I was doing all the right things, but the motivation wasn’t there. But now I’m more motivated than I’ve ever been.”

Regaining the Tour de Yorkshire and world titles is driving her on.

First up is the Tour de Yorkshire, which begins in Barnsley this morning. In her two previous attempts at the women’s race Deignan has gone for broke both times, unsuccessfully into Doncaster the first time, but successfully into Harrogate 12 months later.

“I’m open-minded about this week,” she says. “I’m optimistic, and I’ll certainly be aggressive, trying my best to go for the victory. I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to pull it off, but I’ll certainly be trying.”

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Then it is back to Harrogate for the world championships. “I’ll need to get better if I want to win the world title,” adds Deignan. “I’ll have to be better than I was and, even after having a child, I think that’s possible.”