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Q&A: Lizzie Deignan on cycling’s need for parental leave; balancing motherhood with racing

In a wide-ranging interview, Lizzie Deignan discusses her comeback to racing following maternity leave, the need for parental leave for pro riders, and her decision to retire following the 2020 Olympics

Former world champion Lizzie Deignan returned to racing in April, seven months after the birth of her first child, and looked to be in great shape. Lining up in the new Trek-Segafredo colors instead of the familiar orange of the Boels-Dolmans squad, of which she was a part since 2013, Diegnan was eager to return to the action but well aware that results could still be a ways away.

Her high-intensity fitness was still lacking, and what’s more, even her old form — the form that powered her to past WorldTour victories and world championship and Olympic medals — was no longer good enough to be competitive.

“It’s amazing to see, but just in one year the peloton seems stronger,” Deignan told VeloNews. “I mean the results speak for themselves; there are so many different winners now, and it’s a good thing. If I’m going to be world champion [again], I have to be better than I was before I was pregnant. It’s not enough to be just as good as I was.”

But she was up for the challenge. She rode up to three days before giving birth to her daughter, Orla, and got back in the saddle just six weeks after, while trading baby duties with her husband, retired pro cyclist, Philip Diegnan.

Her goal? The world championships on home soil in September. “If I don’t win any other race apart from that one, that’s fine,” Deignan stated.

And so, just five months after that first bike ride — 30 minutes on a Wattbike — Deignan lined up for the hotly contested Amstel Gold race, and finished 19th. She raced twice more in the following week and by the end she was back in the top 10, netting a seventh place finish at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

By June, Deignan was back in winning form, and she won the six-day Ovo Energy Women’s Tour at home in Britain.

VeloNews recently sat down with Deignan to talk about motherhood; the ins and outs of gaining fitness post-pregnancy; the need for paternal leave in professional cycling; and her plans for the upcoming and final two seasons of her career.

VN: Are you getting tired of all the motherhood and baby talk yet?

Lizzie Deignan: No, because I do it too. And I have to catch myself; the girls [on the team] have probably heard enough by now.

VN: The media is talking about you and your comeback as though you’re the only mother in the peloton or pro sports, but you’re certainly not the only one. Off the top of my head, there’s Lindsay Goldman and Olga Zabilinskya and Kristen Armstrong in years past.

LD: Yes, but I do think it’s quite unusual still. There are but a handful, out of how many riders? But I think the real difference with me was that it kind of shocked people. I was kind of at the top of the sport, the top of my career, and I got pregnant right in the middle of that.

It’s also just a really relevant topic at the moment. There’s been all that stuff in the papers about Nike not supporting their athletes as much as they say they are. There’s still so much to fight for. It’s all part of the fight for equality. Being a mom in professional sport comes along with that.

VN: Do you have parental leave in your contract?

LD: No, but my contracts are kind of odd. I was with Boels-Dolmans when I got pregnant and that contract finished. I then signed with Trek as an ambassador while I was six months pregnant because there was no Trek-Segafredo team yet but they knew they were going to sign me for Trek-Segafredo, so they actually covered my maternity. They signed me as a pregnant athlete, which was pretty huge really.

VN: Is that something you’re pushing for going forward: the inclusion of parental leave in sporting contracts?

LD: Yeah, I think it should be in every contract. I think paternity should be as well. I mean, my husband was a professional cyclist and it’s hugely competitive for them. There are so many fathers in the peloton who miss the birth of their children because they have to go to this or that race. I understand that there are points in a male rider’s career where they’re on the cusp of winning a grand tour or something, and they make that choice. But I’m sure that there are riders who are desperate for a contract the following year and think that [by asking for time off] they’re going to be replaced by the next guy. And that shouldn’t be the case because athletes are human. If you don’t see the other side of the
athlete, the human being, then we’re losing it a bit. I think both sides should be looked after a bit more.

VN: Now that you’re nine months in, what is the hardest part of balancing motherhood and your career? Sleep, or…?

LD: Yeah, I do think I still have those first three to four months of lack of sleep to catch up on. My body is still overall kind of a bit tired. And then there are the physiological changes of my hormones plateauing out and stuff.

My body’s still doing things that I’m not expecting it to in training. It’s like working with a different body. It’s exciting, actually, because it’s something different, but probably the recovery is the hardest because I’m not getting the same kind of recovery that I used to get, so managing that is difficult.

Now, when I get off the bike, the priority isn’t eating and then resting, it’s about when’s Orla going to wake up from her nap and when is she going to need her next meal… And I really enjoy that actually because it makes the cycling part of the day just my job and I have to get it done. It’s really my job and I have to do it.

VN: What does a regular day look like for you now?

LD: We get up when Orla wakes up, so if we’re lucky that’s anything after half past seven; if we’re not lucky, it’s before seven. We have breakfast together and I go out training, and Phillip and Orla stay together at home, and when I come home I eat and shower, and then normally Philip has something to do in the afternoon so it’s kind of like he takes the morning shift and I take the afternoon.

VN: Is mommy power real? Can you explain how?

LD: Kind of, yeah! I mean there’s no doubt your pain threshold goes up. You go through something quite traumatic and life changing, and you think “Wow, if I can do that, then I can do anything”.

It’s more mental than physical, I think, but certainly my base fitness came back really quickly. I was really surprised by that. My intensity is not quite there yet, but that’s going to take some time.

VN: Can you talk us through your return to training? How long did that take?

LD: 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.

VN: You were able to ride throughout your pregnancy and had a natural birth. Surely that helped in the recovery process, but how long were you off the bike for?

LD: I was lucky enough to have had an easygoing pregnancy, yeah. I was able to ride until three days before giving birth, and after I took a full six weeks off — being a new mom was hard enough, like I just couldn’t…I needed for my mental health to be outside, but there was no way I was going to ride. Those first six weeks are just so hard on your body and I was just realistic about it; [training] was not the priority right then. After the six weeks I did two weeks of rollers.

VN: What about the nutritional aspect? When you’re breastfeeding, you become like a machine and you’re burning calories like crazy.

LD: Yeah, that was kind of unusual as a cyclist, you know, not being able to eat enough. That was funny! I mean literally, I would go to bed and I would have snacks on the side of the bed and just tried to eat as much as I could. That was nice, for once. I wish I could do that now!

VN: Now you said that what’s lacking is the high-end, the intensity. When are you hoping to get that back?

LD: My goal is the world championships, and if I don’t win any other race apart from that one then that’s fine. I have got to be realistic about my expectations of where I can put in a training load again.

Racing has been really important because I’ve got race rhythm again; all those accelerations that you do in the peloton, you are never going to do that in training, so I needed to race. And then the top-end stuff, I mean hormonally I still am coming to the end of producing a hormone called relaxin, which you produce when you’re breastfeeding, so that means that my pelvis is still unstable.

LD: Yes, yes it does, but I like that. I think [the world championships are] going to be phenomenal. I’m a British athlete, it rides through my hometown, and they’re expecting 15 million people on the side of the road, so I think for every athlete it’s going to be pretty special to be a part of it. I think it’s gonna be huge for the sport as well. It’s going to showcase cycling in a really positive way.

VN: And then, Tokyo 2020 as your last hoorah, your swan song?

LD: Yes, I’m sure that I’m going to retire after Tokyo. That’s not a negotiable thing. That has given me massive motivation for the next two years because this is everything I’ve got for the next two years. And it makes training and racing so much easier actually. I have to give it everything because I don’t want to look back with regret. And then yeah, in retirement, if we’re lucky enough, I’m really keen on having a big family.

VN: What’s the thing you missed the most while you were away?

LD: Nothing.

VN: You didn’t miss it? But you came back. Why?

LD: Yeah, because I embraced the time off, I embrace the time away. I knew that wasn’t done yet. I knew there was a timeline. As a woman being pregnant, I think it’s something that you should kind of indulge yourself in and enjoy it. So I did and wasn’t missing the racing.

Also, I wanted to finish still enjoying my job, and I wasn’t enjoying it before. I’m hugely enjoying it now.

VN: In starting your comeback, was there ever any doubt about being able to come back and find that motivation, that drive, that fitness again?

LD: Oh several times! Yeah. Like those nights when I was night feeding, when you’re alone on the bedroom floor and your baby is just feeding for 45 minutes and you’re thinking, “I have to ride the bike tomorrow but I don’t even have the energy right now to feed.” There were so many times like that.

But to me, if I don’t win, it’s not a failure. As cliché as it sounds, I genuinely think that as long as I have given it my best, I am going to be a happy person.