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Lizzy Banks eyeing 2023 season as recovery from long COVID continues

British EF Education-TIBCO-SVB rider celebrates ‘resounding success’ of Tour de France Femmes.

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Lizzy Banks has had a rollercoaster couple of years.

Winner of a stage of the Giro Rosa in both 2019 and 2020 and runner-up in the WorldTour GP de Plouay in 2020, the Briton enjoyed a dazzling rise as a pro rider.

Having only taken up racing in 2015 and securing her first pro contract in 2018, her momentum was such that a big, big future seemed to be in store. Then the first of two big setbacks happened.

Banks crashed early on during the 2021 Strade Bianche, and while she remounted and finished the race, she suffered a concussion that would leave her with symptoms for months afterward. These included difficulties with her vision and sensitivity to light, bouts of dizziness, and problems with her coordination.

Even watching television or looking at her phone was very difficult, and it took a long time to recover.

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She managed to get back on track after several months but was hit by another problem earlier this season.

“I completely recovered from the concussion by October last year,” Banks told VeloNews this month. “I worked really hard to come back. I was in probably some of the best form I’d ever been in, in February.

“And then I caught COVID the day before my first race. So that was a challenge. I thought I was recovered when I came back for Gent-Wevelgem. And then in Dwars Door Vlaanderen, I realized I wasn’t.

“I was experiencing chest pain and burning in my chest and shortness of breath, which quickly got worse and worse to the point that I had to go to A&E because it was symptoms that felt similar to having a heart attack.

“So yes, it was scary. And it was also at the same time that Sonny Colbrelli had had his very scary incident at the end of whichever race it was, where he collapsed and had a cardiac arrest.”

Colbrelli’s medical issue happened immediately after stage 1 of the Volta a Catalunya, where he had just finished second in the sprint. It is understandable that this would cause Banks huge concern, and she and her EF Education-TIBCO-SVB took things very carefully.

She received a diagnosis of pericarditis, an inflammation of the fibrous sac surrounding the heart, and things have been gradually getting better since then.

“I’ve improved a lot,” she told VeloNews. “Unfortunately the symptoms still aren’t gone. Pericarditis is caused by COVID, so you could call it long COVID or you could call it pericarditis due to COVID. It’s obviously a difficult and frustrating situation. But also, it’s a situation in which 1000s of people, probably millions of people across the globe are finding themselves with.

“I’m very fortunate to have had great medical support, great support from my team, and being treated for it. I’m feeling a lot better. Unfortunately, the symptoms haven’t gone yet, and until they’re gone I’m not able to get back on the bike. Which is obviously a challenge.”

Banks is in the fortunate situation where she already had a contract for 2023. This took the pressure off somewhat, and she has focused on getting well.

“I’m just trying to be trying to be patient and trying to be at peace with it,” she said. “Hopefully, it will be gone soon and I will be able to get back on the bike… Right now I’ve to rest. But I feel I’m very close to being able to get back on the bike.

“It is like the dregs of the symptoms in the bottom of the teacup, and I’m just trying to wash them away.”

Lizzy Banks was on the podium during the 2019 Tour de Yorkshire (Photo: Bradley Collyer/PA Images via Getty Images)

‘A resounding success’ – Banks celebrates inaugural Tour de France Femmes

Banks only took up bike racing in 2015, coming late to the sport late. She was sufficiently passionate about bike racing to put her medical degree on hold, just months away from completing it, and dedicated herself completely to becoming the best competitor she could be.

She’s had a lot of time on the sidelines this year, but fortunately took a lot of inspiration from watching the Tour de France Femmes.

The race motivated her and energized her, giving her a target to aim for when she is able to compete again.

What was her opinion of the event?

“Brilliant, and a resounding success,” she said. “More successful than I think we could have possibly imagined. The viewing figures coming out now are just astonishing, I think, especially for a race in its first year in its new format.”

Race organizers ASO released impressive statistics about the race. These included the finding that 75 million hours of the women’s event were watched across seven European countries and that there was a reach of more than 14 million viewers on Eurosport.

That’s very encouraging for a race in its first year, and Banks believes that things will only grow from here.

“Once we have free to view TV, which hopefully we’ll have next year, then the viewing figures will just go up and up,” she said. “The audience reach will go to a new place once we have free to view TV.”

Banks makes clear that she is including British free to view in that. “ITV covered the men’s race. They didn’t cover the women’s this year. But I think after having been such a huge success, they may well do it.”

She believes the race has a crucial role to play in the future of the sport. It’s a huge event in and of itself, but it is also a potential catalyst to snowball the growth of cycling.

“It could be huge once we can activate those people who are not necessarily hardcore cycling fans, who perhaps only watch the Tour de France on ITV every year and don’t really watch cycling otherwise. If they then see this women’s version, then perhaps they will become cycling fans and get drawn into the sport that way.

“That is a really important means of getting women’s cycling out to the larger public, and increasing the number of fans of our sport.”

A wishlist for future Tours

The Tour de France Femmes captured the attention and imagination of the public. (Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

The excitement around the Tour de France Femmes has inevitably led to speculation and debate about the future of the event. What could it look like next year, and beyond? Should it grow longer? Should it include a time trial in 2023?

Banks isn’t convinced by the arguments for a race against the clock.

“I think that it’s been incredibly successful this year. The route has been incredibly successful,” she said. “There’s a lot of talk about a time trial, which I’m not actually sure is right for the Tour de France yet.

“That’s because I think that at the moment, we need to focus on having a parcours that’s incredibly exciting and very viewer friendly.”

She’s also uncertain about the length of the event.

“I’m not sure if we’re ready to grow the number of days yet, because of the timing of the Tour de France. With [the Tour de France Femmes] starting on the last day of the men’s, the fact that it’s eight days means that we can finish on a Sunday, which is also very important for viewing figures and for having people out on the road.

“So perhaps next year, it would be sensible to replicate the success of the 2022 edition. But using a different famous finishing climb, perhaps, something in the Pyrenees, or the Alpe d’Huez or something. Something that’s an iconic finishing climb that will draw in the public.

“That’s very important. And kind of leaving that high mountain stage to the end there, that we have an open race right up to the end.”

Banks’ suggestion about ending on a climb like Alpe d’Huez echoes the same call by the inaugural race winner Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar). The Dutchwoman named that climb on her wishlist for next year’s edition. Other women have also talked about what they would like to see future editions of the race include.

Julie de Wilde (Plantur-Pura) is one who would like to see something done about the prize fund. “The prize money is for sure still not the same as the men’s. That’s a thing that they really can improve,” she said.

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Banks has been vocal in the past about the need for better prize money for women, but while there are big differences between the men’s and women’s Tours she believes that there should be other priorities at this point in time.

“I think the important thing is not prize money, but having a good race,” she explained. “We know that the richest riders [already] get the most riches with prize money. Right now, the prize money isn’t the most important thing for the growth of the sport.

“I think that the most important thing for growth is focusing on the attractiveness of the race to the viewing public.

“And also about pushing to get the race on Free to View TV in countries other than France, in countries across the globe. It’s been such a success that we need to get it out to the wider public as well.”

Lizzy Banks on the attack at Dwars door Vlaanderen
Lizzy Banks on the attack at Dwars door Vlaanderen (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

“Watching the Tour has fueled my determination even further”

The 2022 season is now in its final months. When Banks spoke to VeloNews this month she was hoping to be able to return to the bike in the coming weeks. She hasn’t been able to train properly since February and so a resumption of competition this year looks highly unlikely.

Having another year left of her contract is encouraging, and so too has been the attitude of EF Education-TIBCO-SVB. “This has been very challenging, but my team has been brilliant and very supportive,” she said.

Banks is committed to getting things back on track as soon as she has a green light to do so.

“It’s not like I don’t want to carry on. It’s the situation rather than me not wanting to carry on,” she said. “If anything, watching the Tour de France Femmes from afar has fueled my determination even further. Not being there makes you realize quite how much you miss it.

“And, yes, this situation can be quite a challenge. But it’s also nice to watch the progression in women’s cycling and see the good things that are happening once I am away.”

So is it fair to say the thoughts of the Tour de France Femmes have acted as a big motivator for her?

“Yes, very much so,” she said, with conviction in her voice.

It’s been a difficult two seasons for Banks, but the race is like a beacon drawing her on.