Lizzie Deignan: Women’s cycling is at ‘pivotal moment’

British star says a rising younger generation and wave of new races give momentum to women's sport, though some hurdles remain.

Photo: Getty Images

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First there was Paris-Roubaix. Then there was Challenge by La Vuelta. Soon there could be a women’s Tour de France. And after that, who knows.

Women’s cycling has been given a major boost in 2020 by the broadening of a WorldTour calendar that now includes a third monument classic and a newly-expanded Spanish stage race. With a rising wave of young talent headed up by Chloe Dygert, British former world champion and Olympic silver medalist Lizzie Deignan feels that her sport is at a “pivotal moment.”

“I think we’re at a really important time now,” Deignan told VeloNews. “Progress has really been made, and I don’t see that there’s going to be a huge regression any more.”

‘Foot on the gas’ development of the women’s sport

Having hung up her wheels for a period of maternity leave through 2018, Deignan returned to the bike in 2019 as the momentum had begun to swing for the positive in women’s racing. Although ASO’s La Course had been truncated to a one-day format, OVO Women’s Tour had been increased by one stage, and there was growing pressure from within the peloton for increased equality with the men’s sport.

Earlier this year, a wave of UCI reforms saw the first step toward a brighter future for women’s cycling. Deignan feels that the governing body’s measures, combined with last month’s confirmation that 2020 would see a women’s Paris-Roubaix and three-day Spanish race marked a transition.

“I’m just delighted about Roubaix,” Deignan said in a telephone interview. “Yeah, I was really surprised to see that, despite a pandemic and all the rest of it, women’s cycling is still having this amazing kind of pivotal moment. I think it’s quite a huge step forward. I’m really excited by it.”

The addition of Paris-Roubaix to the women’s calendar is a huge opportunity not only for classics specialists such as Deignan, but the sport as a whole. Photo: Luc Claessen/Isosport

Like men’s racing, the women’s side of the sport has been adversely hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Salaries have been cut, CCC-Liv’s future is uncertain and Bigla-Katusha is having to reach out for support via bank guarantees and crowdfunding after both its title sponsors pulled the plug. Key races the OVO Women’s Tour, Ronde van Drenthe and Trofeo Alfredo Binda have all been wiped off the 2020 calendar, to return in 2021.

Despite that, Deignan feels the tide has turned and women’s racing is in a positive place as the world begins to emerge from the coronavirus shutdown.

“I was worried that the pandemic would stop progress, but actually, the signs are really good,” she said. “I think women’s cycling is going to come out of this OK – it’s still kind of foot on the gas.”

That’s not to say that everything is perfect in women’s racing. Although the UCI and ASO are slowly increasing the recognition and equality afforded to the women’s peloton, salaries and prize pots are still dwarfed by those of their male counterparts.

It had been nearly impossible to find a way to watch women’s cycling at the start of Deignan’s career. While more races are being covered via streaming platforms, among them the Colorado Classic and its ever-innovative approach to live-streaming, there is still relatively little racing on traditional broadcasts. Deignan feels that the exposure and financial kickback provided by television coverage is the next piece in the puzzle.

“We’re still looking for more television exposure,” Deignan said. “I think, as long as you can’t watch races on TV, then we’re lacking the ability to offer more to sponsors and therefore more investment. TV exposure is massive – we need more of it.”

A new generation of talent

Anna Van der Breggen and Annemiek Van Vleuten

Van der Breggen is due to retire after the 2021 season and van Vleuten’s future is uncertain, though there are plenty of bright lights coming through behind them. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Although some of the top stars of women’s cycling are reaching the twilights of their careers, there is more than enough new talent on tap. And many of the veterans of the sport aren’t done yet.

Deignan, 31, has no plans to hang up her wheels now she has an 18-month-old daughter, and Marianne Vos, 33, likewise plans to keep riding into the future. World champion Annamiek van Vleuten, 37, is out of contract at the end of 2020 but is looking to continue another two years to see her through the Tokyo Olympics – whether that be with Mitchelton Scott or another team. And with the UCI’s introduction of mandatory maternity pay within WorldTour contracts, motherhood is no object to the elder generation racing through their late 30s.

No matter how long the likes of Deignan, van Vleuten and Vos continue to head up the women’s peloton, there is a whole new generation behind them, led by American world time trial champion Dygert, 23, Liane Lippert, 22, and 21-year-old Dutch star Lorena Wiebes, who was recently scooped up in a long-term deal by Team Sunweb.

“In the year that I was on maternity, there seems to be like this explosion of great new young riders, and in a race, I was like, ‘whoa, who are these girls?’” Deignan said. “Lippert is really impressive. I think she has a bright future. I think the whole German scene actually, we’ve got quite a lot of young German talent coming through.

“Then you have people like Chloe Dygert, who although she’s already world champion, she is going to improve because of her age. So it’s going to be exciting to see what she does, what impact she has on the sport.”

Deignan and Dygert (rear) rode together in the chase group behind van Vleuten in the Harrogate worlds. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Deignan and Dygert rode together in a breakaway group trying to close down an attacking van Vleuten in last year’s world championships. After having launched the move, the Brit faded, the group split, and Dygert went away with Anna van der Breggen and Amanda Spratt, finishing up in fourth after tailing away in the finale. As the winner of the worlds time trial only days before, Deignan feels Dygert’s potential is enormous.

“She’s a phenomenal talent,” Deignan said. “And of course, it takes more than that, she works very hard to back that talent up. With a bit more road racing, Chloe’s potential is almost scary, I think.”

The future is now for women’s cycling with the likes of Deignan, Lippert, and Wiebes. With race calendars set to expand and team contracts offering a new element of security and stability, women’s cycling is on the up, and for Deignan, the progress need not halt there.

“I think the new riders are in a really exciting moment in women’s cycling,” she said. “I’d advise them to take themselves seriously, to make sure that they’re signing contracts that reflect their value – there’s no longer room to be signing contracts for 200 euros a month. Young women need to keep pushing for decent minimum salaries and pay and contracts.”

While it’s not yet perfect, Deignan is optimistic that her sport is flourishing and moving in the right direction. The cobbles of Roubaix this October will mark a symbolic tipping point. After the pavé, there could be a women’s Tour de France come 2022. The foot is firmly on the gas.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.