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  • 02.12.15

    Lizzie Armitstead: "Winning the Olympics would be a perfect way to bow out”

    The world road race champion on the lessons of Ponferrada, retirement and the curse of the rainbow jersey

    Andy McGrath

Eight weeks on, winning the World Championships still hasn’t sunk in with Lizzie Armitstead. As she jokes on stage at the Rouleur Classic the day before we talk, the big change is that she’s got to remember to separate her coloured kit from the iconic white-and-rainbow stripes version when it comes to washing.

Armitstead had imagined winning the World Championships a lot in the years, months and weeks before this year’s edition in Richmond, Virginia. It’s fair to say her emotional, hand-on-mouth celebration was never planned.

“The way I imagined it was arms up in the air after a sprint from a small group. That was my plan, and that’s exactly what happened; it was perfect, crazy,” she says.

It was the apogee of the finest year of Armitstead's career, which also saw her claim the Trofeo Binda, GP Plouay and the World Cup overall. (She also got engaged to boyfriend and fellow pro cyclist Philip Deignan; during our chat, she absentmindedly plays with the ring a few times.)

Her season-ending success was partly borne out of disappointment. Sometimes it takes a crushing loss at for a rider to realise just how good they are. That befell Armitstead at the 2014 World Championships in Ponferrada.

“I was devastated: seventh place. I knew I could win that race, I had the physical condition. I was just so frustrated after it. I knew that I didn’t want to feel like that going into Richmond, I knew I needed to win it. I wasn’t prepared to feel like that again. Ponferrada was a big turning point for me.”

Her angst after the race underlined her evolution as a rider. “It was different to the [2012] Olympics,” she says. “I was incredibly proud of the Olympic silver medal, I felt that I’d given everything I could. Marianne Vos was just faster than me.”

As we head into 2016 and another Olympic road race, she is aware of how her biggest victory so far will change things. “I expect there’ll probably be huge lessons in the rainbow jersey,” she says. “There’s all the pressure and expectation that comes with it, I’ll have to learn to deal with that. Then there’s the whole rainbow jersey curse."

Does she believe in that? “No, I don’t believe in the curse,” she says, laughing. “I think the thing that comes with the rainbow jersey is the expectation in your off-season. That’s what tires you out, that’s what I’m trying to manage, that’s why you wouldn’t have had as good a season as the year before. Learning to say no [to event invitations], I suppose,” she says.

Demand has been sky-high. With various awards nominations, including the Rouleur Rider of the Year and BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Armitstead is wary of juggling appearances with day-to-day training. It leaves little time for seeing friends and family.

“I had a really nice, honest chat with my sister [Kate] the other day, because I was feeling quite tired, spreading myself a bit too thin. I miss home and being with her. She has just had another baby. I just felt guilty. And she said ‘don’t feel guilty, it’s not forever, we’re not going to disappear.’”

At the top of her sport, Armitstead is taking nothing for granted. “I’ve had an amazing run the last two years, I’m always scared of when it’s going to stop. It has to come to an end at some point, that’s sport,” she says.

She could put a close to it on her own terms, sooner rather than later. Armitstead has hinted in recent months at retiring after Rio 2016. “There’s no end date set yet,” she says.

Would winning the Olympic road race change things? “If I become Olympic champion, then I’ll be reigning Olympic, Commonwealth and world champion. And I want to end on a high. So that would be the perfect way to bow out,” she says.

Ultimately, she is still uncertain. “Whether I can realistically think this is my last December of training… I don’t know. I don’t think I’d be able to move away from it just yet, I feel like I’m just getting there.”

“But I’ve seen too many people continue for too many years, so I don’t know. We’ll see.”

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