There was a Dutch rowing champion who competed in the double for the Netherlands at the World Championships in the 1960s. After winning by more than a boat’s length, he earnestly remarked to the press that it surprised him that, at a race of such importance, the other rowers didn’t pull a little harder on their oars. It is an uncommon champion who wins so casually they genuinely wonder whether the competition is trying or not.
The 2016 spring Cycling campaign must have felt that way for Lizzie Armitstead (now Deignan), winning every important race on the women’s European calendar. On the cobbles, on the gravel, in the hills.
She won solo, she won in small groups. She waited, she attacked. Whatever the circumstances required, she met them. At Omloop Het Nieuwsblad she simply rode away from the group she was in, hardly noticing that she was riding fast already.
Making a living as a professional athlete is hard, especially in a fringe sport like Cycling. As men’s Cycling has matured, it has slowly developed into a lavishly, if erratically, funded and comparatively well-managed sport. Media coverage has grown and with it sponsorship and supporting infrastructure.
Women’s Cycling, on the other hand, is at roughly the same level of maturity as men’s Cycling was in the ’70s and ’80s, when riders largely managed themselves and drove themselves and their kit to the start of races. People come up with all manner of excuses not to support women’s sports: the competition isn’t fierce enough, the speeds are too low, the athletes aren’t strong enough.
Whatever correlation people have tried to find between having the ability to bear children and to compete at the highest levels was put soundly to rest at the 2012 Women’s Olympic Road Race, which was an order of magnitude more Five and Nine and an order of magnitude more exciting than the men’s race. Lizzie was in the crucial move and eventually rode to the silver medal behind a nearly unbeatable Marianne Vos.
A Brit taking the first home medal of the Games was a landmark achievement, and one that had the potential to change her life forever. But when the microphones were stuck in her face at the finish, she didn’t talk about what it meant for her as an athlete. She didn’t talk about how huge an achievement it was for her. She didn’t talk about her trade team. She didn’t talk about her sponsors. She didn’t thank her mum, or her family, or British Cycling.
Lizzie talked about how the women had shown the Olympic Road Race the respect it deserved. She talked about the fact that it was a much better race than the men’s race, and that women’s Cycling deserved to be covered by the media and to be properly funded and supported by the UCI. Women’s Cycling does deserve better coverage and, since that day in July 2012, has started to get it.
Change always happens more slowly than we would like it to, and it almost always requires an agent to set it into motion. Queen Lizzie saw the opportunity and sacrificed her own immediate agenda for that of her sport at large.
It takes courage to speak out about the hard issues and risk humiliation on the world’s stage. That day Lizzie showed bags of courage and became a powerful spokesperson for her sport. For that, we doff our caps to her.