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Maternity leave is changing the future of women’s cycling, but it’s still not open to all

Lizzie Deignan has shown that it is possible to have a child and make a successful return to racing. Her example could change the face of women's racing.

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Lizzie Deignan’s announcement last month that she was taking time away from racing to have a second child was major news, but it really shouldn’t have been.

In most careers, and in many countries around the world, maternity leave is a commonly accepted occurrence. According to a report by the New York Times, some 186 countries offer some form of national paid maternity leave by law with the USA just one of six countries that do not.

Cycling has been far behind the curve on maternity rights — as well as paternity rights — with the decision to start a family often seen as the end of a female rider’s career. Meanwhile, riders such as Alejandro Valverde have been able to race into their 40s and have several children without it slowing them down.

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Deignan has shown on a grand scale that women don’t need to choose between their racing careers and having a family, and it is already having an impact on how maternity leave is seen in the sport.

“It should not be an issue in my opinion because you also see it in a normal work, normal jobs,” Chantal van den Broek-Blaak told VeloNews. “The reason we are talking about it is because it’s physically hard, but it is possible to try it. Everybody knows a woman’s body is unpredictable and everything needs to be good. I understand but I don’t see a reason why it shouldn’t be in a contract and why we should be talking about it.

“If I had a normal job I could do it already. Now, I have to make an announcement and say a lot of things about it. My friends say, of course, it’s not a thing.”

Before Deignan had her first child in 2018 and returned the following year, Marta Bastianelli and Kristin Armstrong were two of the few top-level road racers to have had a child and successfully return to racing. Bastianelli had her child relatively young and credited the support of her family with helping her get back to racing.

Things are changing slowly with a maternity clause now a mandated part of Women’s WorldTour contracts. As things stand, WorldTour riders now have the right to be paid 100 percent of their salary for the first three months and 50 percent for a further five months.

Van den Broek-Blaak was set to retire this year and among the several reasons that she pinpointed for her decision was to start a family with her husband. Toward the end of last year, she started getting cold feet about her retirement, and with her SD Worx stepping up to WorldTour in 2021, the barrier of becoming pregnant was no longer there.

The Dutch former world champion admits that elite cycling is a different prospect to a regular office job, but says the treatment shouldn’t be any different.

“It is hard. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, because it’s super hard,” she said. “You’re still doing sports on the highest level. And for your body, it’s a big shock and a big challenge, and maybe you cannot reach the level anymore and you also don’t know what will happen.

“If everything goes, alright, it is possible. You can also have some bumps in the roads and then you might change plans. I’m happy that I have the opportunity and the support, and also the support if I cannot make it back. It is a risk in the sport, and that’s not the case for a normal job.”

In announcing her second pregnancy, Deignan detailed some of the challenges she’s faced but she added that the physical aspect was not as hard as she had initially anticipated.

“Having been through the journey of having a baby and returning to the sport, I’ve realized that it is possible, and physically it’s actually easier than I expected,” she said. “It’s obviously demanding and challenging on your body but it’s certainly not limiting, so that was a huge surprise after having Orla, and something that helps my decision in coming back after another baby.

“It’s the stuff around it; the family life balance that sometimes is difficult to manage, but I also think that we’re at the point now, three years after having Orla, that we know what we’re doing and we feel like we can manage more, and we actually enjoy that.”

Staying around for longer

Van den Broek-Blaak is not the only rider, aside from Deignan, that has credited the recent contract changes for her decision to race on for longer. Hour Record holder Joss Lowden had pondered on hanging up her wheels at the end of last year, despite racing one of the best seasons of her career.

Lowden, who is 34, was a late-comer to cycling and only started riding for her first UCI-registered team in 2018. She was hitting her best performances, but she wanted to have a child, and continuing to compete did not seem compatible with that.

But, like van den Broek-Blaak, she was not ready to give up on her racing career just yet.

“I thought I would do this year and then try and get pregnant,” Lowden told VeloNews at the end of the 2021 season. “But I’m just not at that point yet. I’m not ready for that yet. So, I’ll give it another year, another two years or something like that and then maybe we’ll see.

“Uno-X made a really big thing about wanting to support our careers, even if you’ve got maternity leave, even if you have a family, you carry on working. Cycling is your job, and it should be viewed exactly as that, not like a case of you do your cycling, and then you stop. You should be able to take time out, have a baby and come back. Because of that, I think I’ve got a bit more of an open mind to seeing this as a profession and something I can carry on doing some more.”

Lowden and van den Broek-Blaak are two well-publicized examples of female riders that only a few years ago would have had to give up on a successful career to have children. Lowden’s Uno-X teammate Elinor Barker, an Olympic gold medalist, is another that has been able to take time out to have a child without the worry of not being able to compete again.

Barker knew she was pregnant at the time she was negotiating her contract with Uno-X and she was fully open with the Norwegian squad, who was keen to sign her nevertheless.

It is baby steps at the moment — every pun intended — for the women’s peloton but that top riders are even considering it as an option is a huge step for the future. Deignan’s decision to take a break and her subsequent return, which has been massively successful, has quietened many doubters.

With a small, but growing number of riders looking as though they will follow in her footsteps, it is a hugely positive sign for the future. Over the years, we’ve lost many talented riders from the bunch due to the lack of support around maternity leave, but these improvements could see many staying in the peloton for far longer.

Not only will we get a chance to watch some of the best riders around for even longer, but younger riders will also have more time to develop below them as they will not be thrown to the forefront in an effort to fill the void left behind.

As improvements are made to maternity leave, it could have a huge and positive impact on women’s cycling.

For the few, not the many

That ideal is still a long way away and the safety net that the maternity clause provides is only available for riders on the 14 WorldTour teams. Even then, the support only goes so far and riders who are deemed to be self-employed are not covered by the provision and they must take out their own maternity insurance.

For those on the lower end of the minimum WorldTour salary requirements and riders on Continental teams, with sometimes little to no salary to speak of, taking time out to have a child is still a much more challenging prospect.

Only time will tell if there is a trickle-down effect from the top-tier riders to those in lower-ranked teams, but it is a good start from a sport that has previously offered no maternity support.

“It’s a really good sign and it’s really nice for Trek to do that that,” Lotte Kopecky said in a recent press conference. “I think it’s really good for women’s cycling that it’s possible. We also see now with Chantal van den Broek-Blaak that the team is giving her the possibility to have a baby and come back to racing.

“I have to be honest, but I think that, at this moment, it’s not possible yet for every rider. I think it’s possible because it’s Lizzie Deignan, and it’s possible because it’s Chantal van den Broek-Blaak. There will probably also be a few other riders who can do this in but, I think if you’re not the top rider, then I think it’s still pretty hard to do.”