Commentary: The power of Lizzie Deignan’s La Course by le Tour de France victory

Lizzie Deignan has become a global inspiration for athletic moms, and she's used her platform to advance topics like paid maternity leave and the need for a women's Tour de France.

Photo: Getty Images

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Hug a mom today, because Lizzie Deignan just won the biggest race of her career since becoming a mother.

Deignan (Trek-Segafredo), the 2015 UCI world road champion, surged past pre-race favorite Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) in the last 20 meters of so of Saturday’s hilly course to win the eighth edition of La Course by le Tour de France.

Deignan is just the fifth rider to win La Course, and she’s the first mom to do so. Her victory comes 1 year 11 months and five days since she and her husband, retired rider Phil Deignan, welcomed their daughter Orla into the world.

Deignan’s win carries significance for several reasons, which I will address later in this column. Yet I cannot undervalue the significance of Deignan’s win for all of the cyclists who are also mothers out there. Much like Kristin Armstrong before her, Deignan has shown again and again that female athletes can return to their world-beating form after childbirth, even if the process is more difficult than male cyclists will ever know.

An open book on motherhood

Deignan has often used her platform to discuss how she balances motherhood with elite cycling. Photo: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

In May of 2019 we spoke to Deignan at the Amgen Tour of California, and she was forthcoming about all of the challenges she had faced in her return to training and racing. Recovery from birth, breastfeeding, scheduling — Deignan was an open book about how she had managed the daunting requirements of both early motherhood and professional cycling.

“Because I’ve always coached myself, it was all about listening to my body, and trusting the natural process of being a mom in terms of breastfeeding, which I did for six months. That meant that I couldn’t really be away from Orla for more than three hours, so then my training was three hours.

Because Orla was the priority at that point and her sleep and things were not in a rhythm, it was kind of like Orla was the coach and dictated what I could and couldn’t do And that was probably good because it restricted me from doing too much. It was really until March that I added in intensity and have been able to train harder.

This is also why I chose to be public about it and talk about what I am doing because I had no examples really. I was looking for information and there’s just no information on this.”

Of course we were not the only platform to interview Deignan about her return from childbirth, and throughout 2019 she was an open book about her story. On social media, Deignan showed her followers how she and her husband balanced their lives in elite sport with parenting. In doing so, Deignan has become an inspirational figure in our sport.

I realize this may sound strange coming from a male writer — apologies, as our Senior Editor Betsy Welch is currently out of the office. As a relatively new dad, who is married to a relatively new mom, I can attest to the power of Deignan and her story. Her story can show parents of young children around the globe that pursuing sport and being a good parent is possible.

Deignan has also been a vocal proponent for maternity leave within the pro peloton, a topic that’s been far from the forefront of our sport’s labor discussions. Time and again, she’s used her platform to advance the topic of motherhood in cycling, and she’s used her legs to show what is possible. Lizzie Deignan is the hero that women’s cycling deserves.

Peloton parity

Lizzy Deignan won the 2020 GP de Plouay, on a rain-soaked course
Earlier this week Lizzy Deignan won the 2020 GP de Plouay on a rain-soaked course. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Deignan’s win marks a step toward more parity in the women’s peloton, since the storyline of 2020 thus far has been the domination of one woman: Annemiek van Vleuten. All eyes were on van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) before Saturday’s race, as she’s already a two-time La Course champion and the reining world champ. Vos was another easy pick for the win, since the hilly course with a final sprint catered to her strengths.

And van Vleuten tried her hardest to win, attacking relentlessly on the final climb of the day. But Deignan and others were strong enough to match van Vleuten on the uphills, which is something we just haven’t seen this year.

“We knew Annemiek would have to go on that second climb and we knew that we had to be in the wheel,” Deignan said. “So we followed her and let her pace us up that climb. And then we knew as soon as we came over that with the numbers we had the advantage and we knew we could play the game.”

Van Vleuten’s unbeaten streak was the biggest story in women’s cycling through the first weeks of August. Yet I’m glad it’s over. Domination makes for good headlines, but parity makes for exciting racing.

Earlier this year Deignan spoke to us about the growing parity in women’s cycling, and cheered on the new faces coming to the front of the peloton.

Now, in the past few weeks, we’ve seen Van Vleuten, Anna van der Breggen, Elisa Longo Borgini, and now Lizzie Deignan take big, impressive wins. The sight of this many riders on top form heading into the Giro Rosa and then the UCI worlds is, in my opinion, better for women’s cycling than if one rider was winning everything.

Women’s Tour de France

Deignan says she will retire following the 2021 Olympics. We hope she sticks around for a potential women’s Tour de France. Photo: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

In her post-race press conference, Deignan addressed the proverbial Elephant in the room: The potential for a women’s Tour de France in the coming years. Deignan wasted little breath in explaining why a women’s Tour de France is necessary.

“I think we benefit definitely from being at the Tour de France there’s no doubt about it,” she said. “The tour de France is the biggest race in the world and draws the biggest audience so if we can be here, even if it’s just for one day then it benefits women’s cycling. As an athlete, of course, I want a women’s Tour de France. I want to be pushed to my limits and showcase what women’s sport is about. And then women’s sport can be just more than just one stage of course. So I think obviously there’s room for development and growth. I think we’re going in that direction. But at the same time, I’m happy that we had this opportunity today.”

Earlier this week UCI President David Lappartient said that ASO is planning a major women’s stage race to follow the 2022 Tour de France. Let’s cross our fingers. After all, there’s nothing we here at VeloNews would like to see more than Lizzie Deignan, Annemiek van Vleuten, and the other top athletes in the women’s peloton battling it out across France.

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