Having kids mid-career is now a viable option for female pro cyclists

With teams like Trek-Segafredo and Uno-X supporting maternity leave in sport, the culture around giving birth mid-career is changing.

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When Lizzie Deignan returned to racing after having a baby in 2019, with the support of a top-tier team, she ushered in a new era for women’s cycling. It wasn’t just the resumption of a glittering career put on hold to have her daughter; it was a pivotal moment for professional women’s cycling that changed how teams within the sport would deal with pregnancy in the future.

The announcement that Deignan would be taking 2022 off to have a second child came with a second piece of news that signals another tonal shift in women’s cycling: her team Trek-Segafredo had also extended her contract through 2024.

“I think it’s really important that women don’t see the fact that they want to become a mother as a limiting factor in their career,” Deignan said in a team press release. “Becoming a mum has always been a dream of mine as well as being a professional athlete. To be able to combine the two has made me very proud.

“I do feel very passionate about advocating for other women to do the same. Ultimately, it’s part of a lot of women’s lives and it should be celebrated and encouraged and supported. With a flexible approach from a team, sponsors, and those around you, anything is possible.”

Deignan was not the first woman in professional cycling to get pregnant mid-career, but she did have a hand in changing the way the sport reacts to professional female cyclists taking time off to have a baby. Before Deignan, women who chose to make that life change had a hard time getting back into the upper echelons of the sport, let alone securing the backing of top teams.

A few women have had babies and returned to winning at the highest level. Take three-time Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong for example. Two years after winning her first gold medal in the time trial at the 2008 Olympics, Armstrong left the sport to have her son. A little over a year later she was back to racing, with the 2012 Games only a year away.

Then there is Dame Laura Kenny. After winning two gold medals at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games Kenny and her partner announced she was pregnant. She was back to competing on the world stage in 2019 and took multiple podiums in Track World Cups in Belarus and Poland. At the 2020 Toyko Games in 2021, Kenny won another gold medal in the madison.

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Paralympic legend Dame Sarah Storey gave birth to her daughter in 2013, won three gold medals in the 2016 Games, gave birth to her son, and then won three golds in Tokyo in 2021.

All three of these incredible athletes were fortunate enough to already be Olympic champions prior to giving birth and had the benefit of either constructing their own program without a professional team or having their own team around them on the track or road.

Throughout the rest of her career, Armstrong mainly raced in the United States, with one trip to Europe in 2012 in the lead-up to the USA’s Olympic team selection. She created her own program in the United States and was able to mould her program around her home life. What external support she had came from USA Cycling, not the equivalent of a WorldTour-level women’s team. She would go on to win the time trial in both the 2012 and 2016 Games.

On the road-focused side of cycling, few women apart from Deignan have had babies and returned to that top tier of cycling. Part of the reason is a lack of support from teams in a period of uncertainty. Professional sport, not just cycling, is cutthroat. There’s always someone with as much (or more) talent waiting to take your place.

Keeping someone on a roster who can’t actually participate in the sport is an expense some teams simply can’t afford. Plus, women’s teams usually hire the bare minimum when it comes to numbers. If one person is out for most of a season or all of one, it puts extra pressure on the rest of the team members.

Another challenge for professional athletes with families at home is the logistics for the rider and their family. “Being in a team takes quite a lot of you,” said former pro Emma Johansson. “You need to be a part of the team, you need to be on the team camps, you need to do the preparations with the team, that is part of being professional. Having a baby as a road rider would probably make it a little more difficult.

“Living up north in Norway as I do, you have to spend so much time abroad, of course. I have a husband who supports me and he wouldn’t mind if I wanted to race in between, but it wasn’t really an option.”

Johansson retired in 2016, after winning silver in the road race at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, her second career silver medal after placing second in the road race in Beijing in 2008.

She had planned to retire after the London Olympics in 2012 but after a disappointing season, she set her sights on Rio de Janeiro. When asked if she considered having a baby post-London and then coming back she said it would have been the right moment to try it, but it wasn’t in the cards for her. 

“At the time, after the Olympics in London, would have been a good moment to take a break, try to have a baby, and come back but it wasn’t really an option for me,” Johansson said. “[Women’s cycling] has changed a lot these last years, but I also didn’t really want to have a child and come back.” 

Riders from anywhere outside of Europe have an even greater challenge. North and South American, African, and Australian riders have to figure out the logistics of having a family on another continent.

“For a North American rider the logistics of returning to the sport are extremely challenging if you’re trying to race in Europe and do all the race days your team expects,” Canadian former pro Kirsti Lay said. “To travel that much you’d need your husband to take paternity leave or hire a full-time nanny.”

But women of every sport have proved that coming back after having a baby is more than possible. It’s even possible to come back strong. ‘Mom Watts’ are real. Serena Williams. Nia Ali. Dara Torres. Athletes from running, soccer/football, basketball, swimming. The list is extensive.

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The sport of women’s cycling has seen unparalleled growth in the last couple of years. From the formation of the Women’s WorldTour calendar and subsequent growth of said calendar, to a minimum wage for teams at the highest level. Instead of one-year contracts, riders are offered multi-year deals that come with a level of security and opportunity like never before.

As women’s cycling continues to grow, teams have more means to support riders who want to take time off to have a baby, especially those on WorldTeams.

In October 2021, British track cyclist Elinor Barker announced via social media that she was expecting a baby. She found out at the Tokyo Olympics, a few hours before competing in the team pursuit. Her pregnancy announcement came one month after the new Women’s WorldTeam Uno-X had announced Barker as a new signing for 2022 and 2023.

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“We had an informal agreement with Elinor ahead of her announcing her pregnancy,” said CEO of Uno-X Norway and the Uno-X team, Jens Haugland. “She, of course, wondered what we thought when she announced it to us but for us, that was not a big deal at all.

“For me, it was very important to reach out to Elinor immediately that she has our full support in whatever she wants to do.”

Barker told BBC Sport that she didn’t doubt she would continue cycling after giving birth. “Instantly I knew I wanted to carry on,” Barker said. “I’m not done with cycling, I feel far from that. My Plan A does involve some racing this year, which is possibly a little bit ambitious, but I think I want to be back in races so that when I am actually physically back to full fitness, I’ve got those experiences in recent history that I can draw upon.”

Having been teammates with Kenny on the track while she was pregnant and coming back to cycling, Barker had already seen the possibilities first-hand.

“Now, it’s not an automatic reaction that if you’re pregnant, that’s it,” Barker said. “You don’t have to fit in your career before you have children.”

When Deignan decided she wanted to start a family she was mid-contract with Boels-Dolmans. She says she didn’t know how long it would take, so the implications to her career weren’t top of mind until she and her husband found out she was pregnant. At that point, it was clear to her she would come back to cycling after giving birth.

Deignan announced her pregnancy in March of 2018, right around the start of the WorldTour season.

“I had to have some discussions with my previous team about my pregnancy and what that meant for that year of racing and also what it meant for me trying to come back,” Deignan said of leaving Boels-Dolmans in 2018. “I think after a couple of conversations it became quite clear that our visions of what my comeback could look like or should look like were very different, and it meant that I felt it was time to move on.”

By July of that year Trek-Segafredo was scooping up riders for its new women’s team, and Deignan was one of the first to sign on to the new project. The team signed her while she was six months pregnant, and according to Deignan, it was a clear message that the team would function with a different way of thinking.

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“Trek signing me when I was six months pregnant was a clear message that they value every part of the athlete, not just their performance on the bike,” Deignan said. “I felt incredibly lucky that they signed me when I was pregnant and had the respect for the career I’d had but also the career I could have in the future.

“I do think that they were a bit of a gamechanger, really. For a high-profile company like that to come into women’s cycling and then also sign someone like me, who was on maternity leave, and to cover my maternity leave for me before I’d even done a single race for them was pretty groundbreaking and I do think it has caused a change.”

On Trek’s side, it was a no-brainer to pick up the former world champion. They didn’t see her as an athlete going through a life transition that could change the trajectory of her career; they saw her as “one of the best riders of her generation, and an even better ambassador for the sport”.

“When we started contemplating this team we identified several possible people who can really lead a group from the front and take everyone to the next level, and Lizzie was always right up there in our conversations,” said Tim Vanderjeugd, global director of sports marketing for Trek. “From the start, this team was about the long term and driving the sport forward. In that vein, Lizzie’s pregnancy didn’t cause any hesitation at all. In fact, she was the first person signed to the team, right before Ina [Teutenberg].”

Instead of guessing what Deignan’s capabilities would be after giving birth Trek saw Deignan’s drive. “There was no doubt in Lizzie’s mind about her return to the sport, so why would we second guess her drive?” Vanderjeugd said. “Orla was born in September so we knew Lizzie would start her season later than the other riders, and we simply made plans accordingly.”

Vanderjeugd was quick to credit Deignan when it comes to normalizing pregnancies in professional cycling. “I think her story has normalized pregnancies in sport, as she has proved to be just as successful after having a baby as she was before,” Vanderjeugd said. “I think it has opened people’s eyes that you can have a family and a career in sports, particularly endurance sports. In triathlon, we support Mirinda Carfrae, who was on the podium at Ironman Kona seven times, including three victories, and who has returned twice to the top level of the sport after having two babies.”

Deignan’s comeback may be an incredible story and inspire other athletes to have both a professional athletic career and a family, but a professional cyclist can only be a professional cyclist with the support of a team. Trek-Segafredo’s mindset when hiring Deignan shows a promising departure from previous assumptions about what a woman is capable of doing during and after pregnancy.

When it came to her second pregnancy Trek-Segafredo was just as supportive as it was with the first, regardless of the fact Deignan would miss the whole 2022 season and the highly anticipated Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.

“It’s been quite an emotional experience, actually,” Deignan said. “Talking with Trek and telling them about my pregnancy, they gave me their complete support. I first told Ina, my sports director, and her immediate response was ‘That’s f***ing awesome, congratulations!’ That took me back, really. It meant so much to me personally to have that support. I’m a professional athlete in a professional cycling team, but the support feels very personal and I’m incredibly grateful.

 “I never expected to continue my career through not just one, but two pregnancies, but actually there’s been so many examples now of successful women returning to the sport, and especially older women returning to the sport. I don’t think the same stereotype of athletes retiring at 30 in their prime is necessarily true anymore.”

With Chantal van den Broek-Blaak’s announcement that she would extend her career through 2024, after previously planning to retire in May of 2022, there is a clear shift in the mindset of women and teams in professional cycling.

“We have a wish to have children one day,” Van den Broek Blaak said at the SD Worx team presentation. “I have the full support from the team so if we are lucky that everything is falling in the right place I can get pregnant and we can start a family and then try to make a comeback and the team will support me 100%. And if not, then not. I don’t want to plan my life as I did before.”

One of the two women’s cycling unions, The Cyclists’ Alliance (TCA), believes women in sport have the right to have a child during their career and that that decision should not impact that career or what opportunities they would have prior to childbirth. “TCA has successfully lobbied the Women’s WorldTour commission in 2018 for maternity leave,” said Iris Slappendel, founding member of TCA.

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The successful implementation of maternity leave for women in cycling has made a significant impact on the culture within women’s cycling, and on contract negotiations for mothers-to-be.

When the UCI first announced the introduction of a minimum salary in 2018 it also announced that a contract between a rider and WorldTour team would be required to include a maternity clause, starting in 2020. This new rule requires WorldTeams to pay their riders 100% of their salary during a three-month maternity leave and 50% of their salary for the next five months. This clause only comes into play in employment contracts, where a rider is employed by the team but does not apply when a rider is self-employed in connection with a team.

According to article 2.13.182 of the UCI regulations, a self-employed rider must take out maternity insurance. That insurance is the rider’s responsibility and not the team’s, hence why TCA encourages riders to seek employment agreements over self-employment. Trek-Segafredo and Uno-X have both gone above and beyond the requirements set out by the UCI.

It’s worth mentioning that minimum salaries, maternity leave and the like are only required by WorldTeams, the top 14 teams in the peloton. For the smaller teams, the prospect of having a baby and returning to the sport is still nearly unattainable. But as WorldTour riders and teams set an example, hopefully the benefits will trickle down to Continental-level teams.

“Lobbying opened the conversation,” Slappendel said. “It has been energizing for the sport to see a rider like Lizzie Deignan make a success from combining motherhood and a stellar cycling career. Trek-Segafredo broke new ground in publicly supporting and championing her in this.”

TCA is not able to negotiate contracts for riders, but it does offer a contract management platform to its members that helps inform and empower riders to collectively increase bargaining power.

“Access to maternity leave and good economic conditions is in the power of teams to offer, and for riders to demand,” Slappendel said. “By creating a united front on the minimum standards that riders expect to see in their contract and by providing access to legal education and advice the TCA aims to make riders feel empowered to negotiate this.”

Uno-X operates under Norwegian law, so when it comes to the team’s policy on riders having babies, it is influenced by the company’s rules. “Uno-X is running a proper business in Norway and Denmark already and if one of our employees gets pregnant it’s handled by our law and that’s how we do it in Norway,” said Haugland speaking of the team’s approach to Barker’s pregnancy. “We will of course stick to [Barker’s] contract and pay her full in her whole pregnancy and maternity. That’s how we do it with every employee in Norway.

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“It’s not a big deal, but it’s a big deal in the cycling community, obviously, because it’s a lot of attention,” Haugland said. “The most critical phase is actually to adapt the flexibility you need to have after the birth is given. Because then you need to think about how can you make this possible in terms of travel, training camps, nannies … this is the most critical part.”

“I hope it’s a natural development in the world of cycling, that this is just the normal thing to do, and I’m pretty sure she is not the last pregnant rider I will have in my team. And that’s totally fine.” Haugland joked.

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