If Lizzie Armitstead wants a reminder of her best season so far, she only has to turn on the telly: her World Cup trophy is on the stand next to it. It’s time for holiday and celebration. But even during the supposed down time, she can’t properly relax.
“Cycling is always on my mind. I’m one of those people who struggles to unwind. I’m going to Miami for holiday, so hopefully I’ll do that when I’m away, but it’s hard.”
Events at the World Championship road race are still spooling round her mind. Armitstead finished seventh after instigating a four-rider breakaway that was caught inside the last kilometre.
Armitstead's winning ride at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow has been one of the highlights of a successful campaign in 2014. pic: Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com
Now Armitstead sits in the basement of new London bike shop Bella Velo, discussing what she could have done differently. It’s no easier with hindsight. Go earlier on the climb, like Kwiatkowski? Or choose the lull in the group 1500m out? Maybe pick a different wheel in the sprint?
“I felt like things weren’t going my way… This is the first time I went into a Worlds being openly confident about it, maybe that worked against me,” she says.
“It was a big disappointment. If you’re not physically stronger, you just go away and think ‘I’ve got to work harder’. But that wasn’t the case, and that’s harder to get over.”
The difference was that this was the clearest time that Lizzie Armitstead was arguably the strongest, the one being watched. The least acceleration from the Yorkshirewoman and the best in the world were battling for her back wheel, a perverse compliment that shows how far she has come in a year.
The World Championship road race was the final act of a season kicked into gear with Ronde van Drenthe victory in mid-March. “That first World Cup win was something I needed to get under my belt. The way I won it as well, it was a dominant victory,” she says.
She followed it up as runner-up in the Tour of Flanders and Flèche Wallonne on the way to a resounding World Cup overall victory.
“That was kind of not a goal for the season, more a nice added bonus. It was quite surprising because consistency has never been my strong point. That gives me more confidence, to know that I was one of the best in the world throughout the season. It’s not a fluke anymore, I deserved to be there.”
Armitstead was speaking to Rouleur before the opening of female-specific Surbiton bike shop Bella Velo.
Nevertheless, Armitstead, as frank as in past interviews, remains hard on herself. “I’ve grown in self-belief, but it’s still something I struggle with. It’s more a case of if you start the season well, you have the confidence to take breaks when you need them, you’re not chasing form. As soon as you start the season doing that, you might as well stop. It’s a horrible situation that I never want to be in again.”
What else changed to set up Armitstead’s terrific 2014 season? Simply put, she worked harder. “I made the decision to go full-time on the road in 2011, so the motivation for London  was massive. But I didn’t really know what it took to be a road rider. The winter after, I was thinking ‘okay, start doing intervals January, February time’. When actually, you need to be doing that work in December. I suppose I learned from that and started doing them then… I’m still learning all the time.”
Her hiatus hernia, which caused incidents of on-bike vomiting and affected her 2013 season, remains an issue. “It’s something I still have to manage. It’s a warning sign: if my stomach’s bad, I know I need to back off. I’m one step ahead of it now, I don’t need to suffer in silence, I can stop and get some rest.”
Armitstead’s rise this season is indicative of a more level playing field in women’s cycling, with Marianne Vos now fighting hard to remain number one.
“The spread is much more even at the top. We don’t get the kind of exposure sometimes, so people don’t see the races where she’s beaten: it’s not week in, week out that she’s winning races.
Armitstead has delivered success for Boels Dolmans as well as for Great Britain this season. pic: Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com
“Don’t get me wrong, it pisses me off every single interview that I go to: ‘Can you ever beat Marianne Vos?’ When someone puts it to you like that, you think ‘they clearly don’t think I can’. So you’re consistently talking yourself up, which is difficult.
“I think that’s actually why she wins a lot of races, she has this aura. If you have that, you’re waiting for her to attack rather than attack [yourself]… I think I can learn from her.
“Marianne has this burning will to win, which I don’t have. I think we’re different in our motivations: mine is to beat me, to be as good as I can possibly be. Hers is to beat other people – clearly a more successful mentality,” she adds, laughing.
“I think I’m the opposite to what normal athletes are: they start off really competitive and motivated and maybe lose that as the years go on. But I feel like each season, I get more and more competitive and motivated.”
If the growing drive correlates with better results, it bodes very well for Armitstead and her biggest future goals: a rainbow jersey, a Tour of Flanders cobble and Olympic gold.
“Five years time, I’ll have won everything I want to and will be retired. That’ll be nice,” she says, smiling and sitting back in her chair.