Lizzie Deignan on challenges of balancing elite competition with motherhood

Lizzie Deignan with baby Orla
Lizzie Deignan used social media to announce the arrival of baby Orla last September

Racing a bike is about many things: tactics, teamwork, luck, technique. None of them are as important as the ability to suffer - in training, in the wind, up brutal climbs, when your heart and lungs want you to stop but the race does not.

Lizzie Deignan, like all great champions, could always do that. It's part of what took her to the world title in 2015, to Olympic silver, to the Tour of Flanders. And then, eight months ago, she became a mother for the first time, and her definition of what she could endure changed forever.

"Those first six weeks were absolutely brutal," she says. "And because you've never done it before, you have no idea that it's going to get easier.

"I wasn't thinking 'I miss cycling'. I was thinking 'I miss sleep'.

"I'm happy I said from the beginning that I was going to return to riding, because if I hadn't, and I'd left it as a maybe, then perhaps in those moments in the middle of the night, feeding Orla at four in the morning, having had two hours' sleep, knowing you're going to be up in three hours again - you're so tired, even your eyeballs sting…"

Becoming a parent changes lives. You rely on advice and the experience of others. There are precedents to fall back on and procedures to follow.

For an elite female sports star, attempting to balance motherhood with a return to training, trying to breastfeed while also riding hard on the roads, there is almost nothing. Sports science touches almost every corner of an athlete's life but has only just begun to look at pregnancy and its aftermath.

"I was one of the best riders in the world, and I was Googling things," says Deignan. "That's how basic it is.

"There really isn't any sort of guidance about being a professional athlete, or even being relatively active. I was searching for any sort of information. Telling people that I rode my bike during pregnancy - that was definitely frowned upon.

"Looking back I'm not quite sure how I did it. I'm really proud that I was able to.

"When you're breastfeeding you're living in these three-hour windows. I expressed milk as well, which meant I could leave Orla for slightly longer, but that's draining too. My body was like, 'what are you doing to me right now?'"

Deignan began racing again for her Trek-Segafredo team in the Ardennes Classics this spring. She rode the Tour de Yorkshire, on the roads she grew up on, and will start the six-stage Ovo Energy Women's Tour in Suffolk on Monday.

The form of old has not returned instantly. She is hopeful of competing for a stage next week but knows the green jersey of the overall winner is out of reach.

But if the form is not there, neither are the other old ways - the long, unbroken sleeps, the ability to get in from a ride, eat what she wants to eat when she wants to eat it, to spend the rest of the day with her feet up on the sofa.

"There were times where I doubted if it was a possible, but never a time where I was ready to give up. I suppose that's the lucky thing about signing a contract when you're six months pregnant - you have to follow through on it.

"Maybe it's like other experiences in my life - you almost fake it until you make it. If you've said you're going to do something, then some way or another you've got to make it happen.

"Recovery is not what it used to be. But it's been exciting for me. I was a professional athlete from the age of 15 really. I coached myself to the top of the world, but it's really exciting to coach myself with a different body - to see what I can do on less volume, on less recovery.

"It's unrealistic for me and my character to say that I love being a mum 100% of the time. There are times when it is just incredibly overwhelming.

"Life used to be so simple. There are times when you almost resent it. But the best times are when you learn to embrace it. You realise, I love being busy. I don't miss my old life."

Lizzie Deignan
Lizzie Deignan returned to competition after giving birth last year

From the upheaval has come a fresh perspective. Deignan is now 30. Maybe the old obsession, the stresses that came with being at the top and fighting to stay there, have been ameliorated by something more nuanced.

Her husband Phil, once a pro rider with Team Sky, is now into retirement from his first career, splitting his time between coaching others and raising Orla. Deignan herself is also moving on, in her own way.

"I really regret some of the times in my career when I was just winning and taking it for granted," she says.

"I'd win and think 'this doesn't really matter'. I was always thinking about Rio. Always thinking about that Olympic gold.

"Now I would never take a win for granted. I would be delighted. It's fun, racing where you can't just rely on your legs, when you're leaning on tactics, and your ability to suffer.

"I love it. More than I ever have."

Deignan's bid for Olympic gold three summers ago appeared to be derailed, as much by anything, by the controversy around her three missed dope tests.

Miss that many random out-of-competition tests in a 12-month period and you can be suspended for up to two years. Deignan went to the Court for Arbitration in Sport to argue that the first of hers was the result of failings from the testing authorities. The court agreed, and she was cleared to compete.

But she was a shadow of herself in the Olympic road race, describing herself afterwards as a "zombie" after weeks of little sleep.

What will she tell Orla about that period if her daughter asks about it in the future?

"Nothing can quite prepare you for being in the eye of a storm like that. It was so far out of my comfort zone, so far out of anything I'd ever experienced, that I don't think being a mum would have changed it.

"Orla will be brought up in a house where integrity is really important. If she asks me any questions about that - about anything - then me and Philip will always be completely honest.

"As long as she can grow up and look herself in the eye and be proud of who she is, then that is the main thing.

"You can't please everybody, that's what I learned from that period. It's about my own integrity and being proud of who I am. And I am."

Deignan's win at the 2015 Worlds in Richmond, Virginia made her the fourth British woman, after Beryl Burton, Mandy Jones and Nicole Cooke, to take the road race title.

The course this September could not be better suited to her - going past the house where she grew up in Otley, taking in classic Yorkshire climbs, enough hills to take the legs from the sprinters, enough technical stuff to trouble the pure climbers.

There will be expectations, as there were before. But they have changed, just as her life has, just as she has too.

"Before Orla, I would have spent a lot more time worrying about lack of results or pressure. It's crazy to think I wasn't enjoying it when I was the best in the world.

"So now I'm just determined, whatever happens, to enjoy it. I don't know whether it's about being a mum or having that year out from the sport, but I understand now that it's not going to last forever.

"The Worlds will be phenomenal. If I'm not successful it would be crazy to not enjoy it, to just see it as stressful.

"I don't want to get to the end of the World Championships and be glad it's over. I want to love it, and enjoy it, and embrace it."

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