Less than 7 months after giving birth, Lizzie Deignan was back in the peloton. Here's how she did it:
Lizzie Deignan was planning to return from her second pregnancy on May 1 for the start of La Vuelta Femenina, but she evidently couldn’t wait. Instead, she raced nearly two weeks earlier, at Flèche Wallonne, while the Ardennes Classics were in mid-stride. Four days later, she was on the start line of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“Training-wise I wasn’t ready, but I knew that I was planning to suffer in training,” Deignan said in the latest episode of All Access. “I was planning to increase the intensity and this just meant that I had to increase that intensity in a very public way, off the back on La Redoute.”
Less than seven months after giving birth to her son Shea, she found herself in the well-stoked chaos of late spring classics. A stage race like La Vuelta might have been an easier reintroduction to the peloton, but if Deignan were ever concerned with what was “easy” she might not be one of the most accomplished cyclists ever. Just a few highlights: A World Championship, the only two-time general classification winner of The Women’s Tour, and the first ever winner of Paris-Roubaix Femmes.
But Deignan is much more than her palmarès. Throughout her career, she has helped lead the charge for more exposure on women’s cycling and better compensation for her colleagues. In 2018, she had her first child, Orla, and then became one of the first athletes in the sport to show how athletes can return to elite performance following pregnancy. With Trek-Segafredo, Deignan has been a consummate leader and mentor amongst an immensely talented roster of women.
Watch the latest episode of All Access below, and get to know one of the most influential women’s cyclists ever, and why Deignan is fit to be called a Queen.
Deignan may have made her journey back to racing look easy, but her road hasn’t been entirely smooth. Here are five of the biggest steps Deignan took to get back up to speed in the women’s peloton, according to her interviews from the latest All Access.
Step 1: Understanding she was ready to return
New parents tend to fret about their children. Deignan described being simultaneously excited to be back within the family atmosphere of Trek-Segafredo, and not wanting to leave her direct family behind.
Fortunately, she had little to fear. Deignan trusted her intuition that she and her family were ready to handle her return to racing, and she was proven right.
“Leaving Shea before he was sleeping through the night, the control freak in me was wanting all those things to be set in stone before I left, but turns out he slept through the night the day I left,” Deignan said. “So he knew the plan.”
Deignan’s daughter Orla resisted letting her mother go back to work, but ultimately the four-year-old was amenable to reason.
“Orla, she’s older now, she understands, and for the first time ever, she asked me not to go away,” Deignan said. “And that was a bit of a moment. But you know, I explained pretty quickly that mommy has to go to work and she’s pretty adaptable. All kids are. So I just kind of kept coming back to the logic and trying to take the emotion out of it.”
Step 2: Accepting struggle
It’s safe to say that Deignan has high standards for herself. At her best, she has good reason to believe she can win every race she enters.
In returning to the peloton after pregnancy, however, she had to accept that she wouldn’t be at the front of the pack. At least, not right away. Instead, Deignan took on domestique duties, and contributed to team goals as best she could while working back up to form.
“The main thing for me was that I wasn’t just going to go to the Ardennes and get dropped, that I could have an impact on the race and do something,” Deignan said. “And I knew very early on that my job would be just shepherding Gaia [Realini] around the peloton.”
The main thing for me was that I wasn't just going to go to the Ardennes and get dropped, that I could have an impact on the race and do something.
Job done: The 21-year-old Realini took third at Flèche Wallonne, seventh at Liège, and third on the General Classification at La Vuelta while winning the Mountains Classification.
Deignan also knows that there’s no better way to get back into race day shape than racing itself. Training rides can accomplish a lot, but they can’t acclimate the body to the stresses of competition like, say, a week of wheel-to-wheel action across Spain.
“I can do motor pacing, but I’m not braking and accelerating hundreds of times,” Deignan said. “So I need to get that stimulus as quickly as possible in a condensed period of time. And to me, a stage race is the perfect place to do it. I go away for seven days and I get probably thousands of accelerations in the legs.”
Step 3: Appreciating progress
Knowing that you’re not competing at the level you’d like can be difficult for an athlete, but there is a silver lining: A chance to see significant jumps in progress, as long as you trust the process.
“It’s a really nice process to get fit again,” Deignan said. “Because once you are at a certain level, you’re looking for percentages. And now I’m making these massive jumps every week. And every time I get on my bike, I feel stronger. And you don’t feel like that for a lot of the time when you’re a professional athlete.”
Deignan is fortunate to have gone through the comeback process before. She conquered the inevitable feelings of self doubt after having Orla by proving that pregnancy doesn’t need to hinder long term success. More importantly, she can follow her own blueprint to getting back up to speed. If nothing else, having that previous experience has made Deignan’s second return from pregnancy much more enjoyable.
“I know the journey. I know how it works. I know that I have to trust in the process and my body,” Deignan said. “Logically, I know that if I don’t feel 100 percent now then in a month, dramatic changes can happen. So that experience is useful.
“Every pregnancy, every baby is different. So I don’t know 100 percent on what to expect, but I think I’m looking forward to it more than I was the first time around because I know it’s possible.”
Step 4: Redefining her relationship with the sport
Deignan’s world looked very different after becoming a mother. No longer did she feel primarily defined by what she could do on her bicycle. Bad races no longer felt like catastrophes, and good races no longer felt like ticking off boxes on the to-do list. Deignan said she felt more joy in her sport after having her first child
“The weirdest thing is that if I look at my life before as an athlete before I had kids, I was winning a lot more bike races. But it was a relief when I won them,” Deignan said. “And now when I win a bike race it’s absolute pure joy and elation. I have this life outside of cycling that gives me so much fulfillment and so much love.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but Deignan explains that having children may have helped her extend her career in cycling. By being able to reframe her mentality towards the sport, she was able to achieve one her most groundbreaking wins.
“Paris-Roubaix, the victory there I owe it all to Orla, because if I had not had Orla, I would not be doing cycling anymore,” Deignan said. “I would have quit. It was too overwhelming. It was too all-consuming. It was too intense. And I couldn’t maintain that anymore. And I think as athletes, we’re kind of under this pressure that more is better all the time, you have to be on your limits at all times. And actually, that’s not sustainable or healthy. I chose to try and build a life alongside my career, and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Step 5: Finding balance every day
Deignan appreciates being held as a strong example of successful motherhood among athletes, but she also emphasizes that parenting while maintaining a strict training regimen is really difficult — much more difficult that it is sometimes portrayed, especially in the early days of having a child.
“It’s just relentless, and really non-stop,” Deignan said. “And you kind of think, ‘Oh, my goodness, when are we ever going to get through this?’ And you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. You forget that the feedings spread out and the sleep gets longer. And it just gets easier naturally. And you don’t have to be in control of that.”
For Deignan, a big part of balancing both her career and parenting is having a strong, supportive partner in her husband, Philip. Their relationship isn’t necessarily unique, however, and Deignan points out that many of her male colleagues are managing the same juggling act as she is, but with significantly less attention.
“Society still thinks that the majority of childcare is on the mother’s shoulders,” Deignan says. “I’m very lucky and proud of my husband that we’re a team. And it’s never not been that way for him, as I’m sure it’s not for a lot of men and a lot of my teammates. But there’s still this underlying assumption that the balance lays on my shoulders rather than his. And it never has. We’ve been a team from day one.”
I don't want it to come across that this is easy or a fairy tale.
Deignan admits that returning to full-time racing also gives her some nice reprieve from motherly responsibilities. Being in a professional environment — where she has structure, benchmarks and built-in rest — is very different from the unpredictable chaos of having two children under four years old.
Deignan wouldn’t change anything about her growing family. But if there’s one thing she wants to stress, it may be that having children, though rewarding, is hard no matter what you do for a living.
“I don’t want it to come across that this is easy or a fairy tale,” Deignan said. “It is my choice and I love everything that we’re doing, but I would hate for anybody to make a comparison. I think that’s a thief of joy when you’re bringing up young children and trying to compare yourself to other families. Because everybody does it differently, and it’s tiring in its own way, but brilliant in its own way too.”