Forget a mid-life crisis; the quarter-life one is hitting Lizzie Armitstead hard. “I am old now and I don’t like it. Twenty-five is pretty old, don’t you think?” No way. I give a quizzical, look to encourage a reaction. “You’re a man, you’re all right: you don’t have to push a baby out. Now I am starting to think, crap. What am I gonna do after cycling? What career am I gonna have? Everyone’s buying a house, getting married, having kids and I’m still a bit of a nomad.”
The time of year probably doesn’t help the feeling of unsettlement.
We’ve drifted out to early December, as distant from the racing season as you can get: nine weeks after her last race of 2013, another nine before the season gets underway. Normal life has caught up. Armitstead is at her parents’ house in Otley, a world away from her first race in Qatar or her seasonal residence in Monaco, which she likens to Disneyland, clean and pleasant but ultra-fake.
Lizzie doesn’t do phony. She has the kettle on and a mug of tea in my cold hands within minutes of me walking through the door. You can take the girl out of Yorkshire, but you can’t take the Yorkshire out of the girl.
In her hands, she holds a London 2012 mug, adorned with five slightly faded coloured rings. A few dishwasher trips too many, probably.
The Olympics. Let’s get that O-word out of the way first. It’s hard to avoid – it’s what most people associate with Lizzie Armitstead with – and the experience has informed a lot about her current state of mind.
It had always been about London 2012 for her. One day in July would define her whole career. Pressure? Just a bit. In the approach, she was a woman on the cusp of a breakdown. She wept on a train back home after getting ill at the Giro Rosa, worried that she’d compromised her chance.
It didn’t help that her dad, John, had a habit of putting his foot in it when chatting to her on the phone as the race approached. “He manages to say the wrong thing. He’s funny. He’d be like ‘are you gonna beat Vos then?’ Or ‘but she’s looking good though, isn’t she?’”
Armitstead rose to the challenge on the day to take Britain’s first medal of the Games. Sometimes it seems easy for the public to forget – a Sky sports gameshow even announced her as Olympic champion – that she actually finished second, a bike length away from Marianne Vos, and from achieving what she had set out to do. I think she hesitates to feel complete happiness with the result, and it is hemmed in by the memory of the surrounding pressure. “Looking back, it was full on for a year. It was a relief when it was over,” she reflects.
For Rio 2016, she wouldn’t change it. “I think it’s a good thing. It never became ‘get me out of here, I don’t want to do it’. I like having pressure, I don’t perform without it.”
Her two weeks in the Olympic village went by in a blur. She wishes she’d written things down. She spent time doing laps of the post-Games dinner circuit, realising her finite appeal as a medallist. “I wanted to embrace all the things I got offered to do in the off-season,” she says.
So Armitstead sat on the same table as Stephen Hawking one night and met Prince William and Kate on another. Did she ever feel like she was losing touch with her normality? “No. Doing the whole celebrity thing made me realise even more that” – she drops her voice to a whisper, as if it’s a secret – “actually, I’m not impressed by it.”
After all, playing any kind of fame game goes against her entrenched roots. “The only thing that I really struggle with is pretence. I can’t stand fakeness or any of that stuff,” she says. That can’t be easy in the world of cycling.
This is someone who once reckoned a lot of team managers found her a nuisance because of her honesty, and who eschews media training because “it makes you boring”. Eureka, a professional cyclist who gets it.
“If someone does ask me a question, although I know that it’s gonna have consequences if it’s misquoted, I do tend to speak my mind quite a lot,” she continues.
Few other cyclists are as frank about the elastic existence of the professional cyclist and how the enforced absence from family and friends, that often unspoken, stabilising side of life, affects them.
After London 2012, she had to plot her life again. “I’d not thought about anything after the Olympics. I didn’t know if I was even going to be still be riding a bike or any of that stuff. It was all about London and the Olympics, ever since I started riding a bike. I needed extra time to figure out what I wanted to do and how long I want to carry on for.”
With reflection, it transpired that the Games had changed a lot for Lizzie. She had previously disliked London and felt intimidated by its bustle; now she thinks she could settle there sometime.
Before, racing had felt more selfish, taking her away from friends and family. What service was cycling giving others, anyway? With her raised profile, she saw that she could inspire people to ride bikes. Most of all, before she had seemed like a woman in a rush to get everything done, mentioning that she would retire in 2016. That’s up in the air too. Maybe it took Olympic silver for Armitstead to truly realise her own standing.
“Sometimes I have days where I’m like ‘after Rio, I’ll retire and do something else’. Then other times, I think ‘why would I?' The next Games after that, I’d only be 31. That’s plenty of time to have a family and all those things… I don’t know. It depends how women’s cycling develops and if I can keep up, all those things.”
She could hold the pace in 2013, but beating her peers often eluded her, partly due to those late nights at post-Olympic dinners. “Not because I wasn’t training but because I wasn’t resting… I just felt like I was chasing form the whole season and because of that, you never have the confidence to take risks when you should.”
Among a haul of top-five finishes, her only victory was at the British national road race in Glasgow. Throughout the season, Armitstead struggled with a hiatus hernia. “I have a problem where my stomach sits up into my oesophagus three centimetres,” she explains. “There’s a sphincter muscle at the top which means things should only go in rather than out, but mine doesn’t function, so things come back out,” she says, miming vomiting with surprising cheeriness. “I was spending a lot of time being sick and in pain on the bike.”
During a bout at the World Championship road race in Florence, a Polish rider asked her if she was okay. “I thought ‘well, it’s the World Championships. It’s very nice of you to ask, I wouldn’t be asking you the same thing’,” Armitstead says. Cue a mental image of her leaving her rival for dust.
“It gets a bit frustrating being constantly asked ‘are you all right?’ No, I’m not all right, but I’m not going to get better, so I’m getting on with it. Just leave me to it.”
This stubbornness emerged in her first bike race. She left maths class to take part in a test for the Talent Team, the British Cycling gold-panning programme typically targeting at 14- to 16-year-olds, racing mountain bikes round cones on her comprehensive school field. “Bet you can’t beat me”, a childhood friend taunted her.
“That’s why I raced him and that’s why they spotted me,” she says. “Otherwise I was just going to ride round and miss a lesson.” Oh, and she did beat him. “Not easily, it was quite a fight. It was pretty lucky that I did that test. It changed my life.”
The track became her first love, especially the points and scratch races. When they were thrown out of the Olympic programme after 2008, it pushed her towards where she was already gravitating: European road racing. Moreover, she had seen too many Olympic track champions who still seemed unhappy with success.
Yet that move took her away from the smooth velodrome, the more travelled and better supported route. Later, over another cup of tea, Armitstead reflects on how impressive it was for Nicole Cooke, her predecessor as GB team leader, to achieve what she did with relatively scant resources.
It makes you wonder too, long before Cavendish and two British Tour wins, why fans and the key background figures didn’t jump on the bandwagon to support Cooke and the sport.
A few years ago, Lizzie was a brighter-eyed idealist, bristling at the injustices apparent internationally and at home. What, no minimum wage? Or a women’s Team Sky? But with a little experience, indignation has been replaced by greater weariness. She’s asked the questions and been told the state of the game. Plus, the other danger is that outspoken cyclists come across as grumblers.
“There’s not really anyone who is being realistic and stating facts. Facts, rather than opinion, would be a better way of portraying what actually goes on and what the problems are,” she says. “If people could see the facts of the sexism in it, they could make up their own minds rather than me just moaning.”
Armitstead reckons making WorldTour teams have women’s squads (at a snip of their budgets) would be the best short-term change.
It can’t hurt knowing the man at the top of the sport, UCI president Brian Cookson. In fact, when Armitstead was commentating at the World Championships in Florence, he ventured into the box. “He was sort of saying ‘you know Lizzie, it wasn’t just manifesto, I’m going to improve it’,” she recalls. “I was like ‘okay then, I’ll keep an eye out’,” she says, sounding like a stern headmistress keeping watch over a pupil.
There’s the British issue too. The road riders supported by British Cycling for the next Olympic Games are “me and Lucy Garner and that’s it. Come Rio, will there be a team of support around me or a specified leader? Probably not.” Given that the last six years have yielded Olympic road race gold and silver, World Championship gold for Emma Pooley, Commonwealth road race silver for Armitstead, and a couple of junior world champions, it’s hardly a futile exercise, even allowing for the tougher Rio route.
Has she raised it with management at British Cycling? “You know me,” she sighs, as if regretting her own lack of pretence. “It went as I expected. I expected an open and honest conversation and that’s what I got. I’m okay with it: there’s no women’s programme, there’s no women’s road academy; there’s no pathway for women. That’s how it is and how it will be for the foreseeable future. At least I got an honest answer out of them and I know what I’ve got to do.”
The answer is to keep carving her own way, with the help of influential figures like Boels-Dolmans directeur sportif Danny Stam and mentor Phil West, who witnessed her Talent Team audition and was her first coach.
Armitstead can feel privileged as one of the bunch’s better earners, but she’s no Monaco high roller. She still uses her Olympic bike for training when at home and, for anyone out there in the market for a 54-centimetre frame; she’s looking to sell her Cervélo, unable to afford to keep it for sentiment. “It came to having two bikes in the garage, and one I can sell and make a bit of money on,” she says.
At least her Dutch team Boels-Dolmans provides balance in a transient sport. The sponsors have signed up to the end of 2016, ending Armitstead’s annual joyless parlour game of pin-down-the-contract, played the previous three winters when her respective outfits (Cervélo, Garmin and AA Drink) all folded.
Boels-Dolmans is on the up too after signing world time-trial champion Ellen Van Dijk and sprinter Christine Majerus this winter.
As she begins her sixth year as a professional, how have Armitstead’s abilities developed? While her sprint isn’t as menacing a weapon, she has matured into a hardened, crafty Classics rider. Next on the ambition list is “Flanders and the World Championships. I’d like a cobble and a striped jersey, then I’d be happy.”
Marianne Vos remains the intimidating bulwark that she and every other ambitious rival must crumble. “I’ve tried to look at her athlete profile and break down a couple of the things that she’s very good at – like tolerance at power: she can do Philippe Gilbert-style attacks in the big ring and continue over the top of the climbs. Sustained high-end power is something I’m going to look at.”
Does it damage women’s cycling that Vos has been so dominant for the last six years? “If I’m being honest, probably… She gets off at the road worlds, goes to cyclo-cross the next weekend and beats everyone by a minute or whatever. That’s pretty rubbish in terms of media: ‘Yeah, Marianne Vos has won again…’” she says, mimicking journalists apathetic at foregone conclusions.
“But from my perspective in the races, it’s totally different to a few years ago. She’s winning by centimetres in sprints, rather than a bike length. She’s pushed all the way to the line, it’s not like she’s winning everything easily. You could see it in the 2013 Giro, she was nowhere near the podium. I think the rest of the world is catching up.”
A vegetarian since the age of ten, Armitstead possesses a different kind of appetite for success to the rest. She takes protein supplements in a bid to prop up her iron levels. Unfortunately, there’s nothing on the market to keep the monotony down. “Like at a stage race in France, it starts to get a bit rubbish after a week of green beans and rice without the chicken.”
A second cup of tea and Armitstead is ready to set off to the gym in Manchester for her first workout in ages. She is filling every day of her time in Otley with tasks: still a nomad, rushing around. There’s an urgency that comes with her honesty. “That’s two and a half years till Rio. It’s gone quickly,” she realises as we talk about it.
The sewing kit and Sunday papers lie on the kitchen table, left out by her parents, but she’s not about to take them up any time soon. Old? Please. She doesn’t know the meaning of the word. And anyway, what one person calls old age, another would call experience. Maybe Lizzie Armitstead will come to like the spoils that it brings.
This originally appeared in issue 45 of Rouleur Magazine, published in March 2014.
Stuff and nonsense from the week in cycling.