Lizzie Armitstead interview: The British cyclist taking the lead on the road to equality
A year after Olympic joy, British rider goes into Saturday's Road World Championships with a sense that attitudes towards women cyclists are changing
Friday 27 September 2013
In these parts they like to call Tuscany the cradle of cycling or the birthplace of bicycles. It may have been born here but Lizzie Armitstead, for one, might question how the Tuscans treat their offspring today, certainly when it comes to women's cycling.
It was only a couple of weeks ago that Armitstead and the majority of her fellow riders refused to ride the final stages of the women's Tour of Toscana, bluntly pointing out that the course was simply not safe enough. It was a damning statement of how women's cycling is treated a matter of days before the best men and women in the world reassembled in Tuscany for the world championships.
It was the second time this season that the Briton had been part of a peloton that had put its collective foot down. In Languedoc too it was decided that safety was not adequate. They refused to get back in the saddle.
It is over a year now since Armitstead splashed down the Mall to claim a gleeful host nation's first medal of the London 2012 Olympics. Afterwards, the emotions of her achievement coursing through her, she raised the subject of inequality within her sport. Her crie de coeur, that in cycling, let alone wider sport, men and women are not treated as equals has been taken up by her fellow riders. Both Brian Cookson and Pat McQuaid, the candidates in today's presidential election for the governing body, the UCI, have responded by promising in their manifestos to improve the standing of women's cycling. Promises, promises. A year on from the Games has anything changed?
"I think the greatest change is that it is being talked about," says Armitstead. "There is more than one person talking about it. I feel supported now when I say it – people are agreeing with me which didn't happen before. Has there been any real change? Not just yet."
There is one possibly significant change on the way. Next May there will be a five-day women's Tour of Britain, a race that has the potential to become the premier female stage race. Armitstead would happily devote much of her season towards winning that in the colours of her Dutch team, Boels Dolmans.
Marianne Vos beats Lizzie Armitstead to gold at London 2012
While the Tour of Britain is written into the calendar, whether women should feature in the Tour de France remains a divisive topic. Armitstead does not support a recent petition for a parallel Tour.
"In order for it to be a powerful voice and powerful voice of change it has to be a united voice so it is very difficult to criticise people who are prepared to stand up, and have the courage to stand up, and put a proposal like that together," she said. "But there are aspects of it that are not realistic – I don't think three weeks of full length stages are possible because you would be asking the vast majority of female cyclists that are not professional who hold down part-time jobs to compete in the greatest race on earth, it's just not realistic. It would be great if there was the last 10 stages run alongside the men's, same finish."
Her immediate priority is getting this season finished. Rather like Bradley Wiggins, who ambles out of the team hotel as Armitstead sits neatly at a table in the sprawling reception area, the 24-year-old from the other side of the Pennines has followed 2012 with a season that has not matched expectation.
This is the first time since the Games that Armitstead has been back in the red, white and blue of her country, preparing to lead Britain's challenge in the women's road race on Saturday, five laps and 140km around the Tuscan countryside before finishing in Florence. Armitstead has only just arrived from her adopted home in Nice (she insists it is Nice, not Monaco – "I pay my taxes," she says and grins).
"I like being part of the Great Britain set up, I like feeling I'm at a race that is important and the pressure that goes with it," says Armitstead. "I have missed that."
Britain are based in the town of Pistoia, across the plain from Florence and on the edge of the hills that will provide the meat in what will be a tough course, one forecast to suit the climbers. Outside the Team Sky bus and a mingling of coaches wearing Sky kit and GB uniforms suggest one obvious reason why Armitstead likes being back in her country's cause. The supporting cast is a different world to the day-to-day of the women's tour. And then there is that feel, the quite buzz and coaches huddled around laptops, of being in the middle of a world championships, the big event.
This is the third of Armitstead's three targets for 2013. She won the national title, beating Laura Trott in a sprint around Glasgow in June, but came sixth in the Tour of Flanders, a one-day race. Which leaves Saturday, and rather like Wiggins she needs something to write home to her native Yorkshire about.
"It's been a difficult season," says Armitstead, who has been dogged by health issues. "I would say I have been consistently average, nothing really scintillating in terms of results. But maybe I have a bit of luck on my side this week and I'll get something."
Armitstead is happy to talk down her chances on Saturday. She does not see herself among the favourites – she forecasts an Italian victory, their superior climbing skills outdoing the remarkable Marianne Vos, the Dutchwoman who beat Armitstead to gold in London and the greatest female cyclist the sport has seen.
"It's a question of whether I can get myself over those climbs five times. If I can then I am in with a shot. I spoke to Lucy Garner [her team-mate] about it and she said that the long climb isn't as bad as she thought, which is music to my ears because I was worried about it."
She has a small and inexperienced team of Garner, Nikki Harris and Katie Colclough in support and is likely to be on her own for the closing stages of the race, looking to hitch a ride on the back of the Italians.
"It's difficult to say where I actually think I will be in this race. There are girls who are coming up to form and girls who are losing it very quickly so I really don't know how the race is going to pan out."
The team season left Armitstead so drained that after competing in the trade team time trial on Sunday she went back to Nice rather than remain here. She feels comfortable in France, where she has lived for two years, chasing Sky riders around the hills on training rides – and occasionally overtaking Jenson Button when he ventures out on two wheels.
"It feels a bit silly name dropping but they are all out and it's good for morale sometimes to beat an F1 driver," she says. The brief return home – regardless of leaving Formula One drivers in her wake – has worked.
"On Sunday after the time trial all I could think about was the end of the season and just getting to the end," she says. "And I thought this is not a great mindset, I need to go away and come back fresh and motivated and that's what I've done. I'm 100 per cent motivated. I haven't done enough yet in cycling to be satisfied."
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