Riding the road to Rio

When Lizzie Armitstead sees herself described as a world champion, she can’t help but have “a little moment”. Virginia, the scene of her greatest sporting triumph, was a world apart from the roads she grew up cycling on in Otley, her West Yorkshire home. To the British road cyclist, the whole ex- perience still seems “quite surreal”. Yet, whilst she admits that she is hugely “proud of [herself]”, it is the confidence that she is taking into 2016 that is most important. In fact, you would be forgiven for forgetting just how special her year was, such is her focus on the “biggest goal of [her] career,” success in Rio.

Armitstead’s story is an impressive one, with road and track success at virtually every turn. She started cycling at 16, when British Cycling’s Olympic Talent Team visited her school. A year later, she won silver at the Junior World Track Championships. By 2008, she was a two-time Under-23 European Scratch Race Champion and, in 2009, she had her first gold.

It was after her move from track to road that Armitstead really began to excel. She was the first Briton to win a medal at the London Olympics, which she followed up a year later with a British Road Race victory, despite battling a hiatus hernia throughout the season.

Then, in 2014, Armitstead secured her first major gold medal, with victory in the women’s road race at the Commonwealth Games. If that was a significant statement on the road to Rio, her performance last season lay down an even greater gauntlet. A World Cup title, another British National Road Race win and, of course, her World Championship gold medal were the highlights of her most successful year on the bike.

As the cycling world enters its new season, Armitstead is riding as well as ever; she is undoubtedly one of the most dominant forces her sport has ever seen.

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For Armitstead, 2016 is the year in which she pursues the gold in Rio that she admits she “thinks about all of the time”. In fact, a place atop the Olympic podium has dominated her thinking from the moment she crossed the line on Pall Mall in second place back in 2012.

Yet, speaking to the Yorkshire-born cyclist, you would never guess the magnitude of the prize she covets. She is calm and focused, refusing to rest on last year’s accolades or cast her mind to the roads of Brazil’s capital prematurely. Her “race programme [in the run-up to Rio] will stay very similar” to the one that brought her so much success in 2015, but they will not follow each other exactly. She will “include some hillier races and take the start of the season a little slower”.

Armitstead is pragmatic, and having been “lucky enough to ride, rather than race” the Olympic course last August, she will be “concentrating on climbing”, aware of just how “brutal” the course will be. The route undoubt- edly favours climbers, with an eight kilometre, eight per cent final climb. Her willingness to adjust her preparations and push her limits shows just how determined Armitstead is, and just how much the end goal means.

However, if Armitstead does win gold this summer, it will not just be her career that has gone from strength to strength. Her sport continues to do well around her. Currently, the world champion road cyclist rides for Boels-Dolmans, an “entirely professional team of full-time riders and support staff”. This set-up is testament to how far her sport has come. In her opinion, “every year it seems to be getting better”, more races are added, the “peloton gets stronger” and, as a result, the racing gets harder. Increasingly, “the depth in talent is more widely spread amongst a tier of top level teams.” In Armitstead’s opinion, “the impact of the Women’s World Tour will be [especially] interesting to see”; the event looks set to heighten the commercial and media interest surrounding women’s cycling, which will only help to fuel an increasingly competitive, increasingly well-supported sport.

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When it comes to the future for women’s cycling, she accepts “there is still a long way to go” but, as far as Armitstead is concerned, “there are steps forward” and “the growth in women’s cycling has been [incredibly] impres- sive over the last couple of years.”

Armitstead’s Sports Personality of the Year nomination, which she describes as “a complete shock”, was a mark of just how far she and her sport have come. She was “proud that there were two other cyclists on the list and, obviously, having women’s cycling represented can only be a good thing”.

The much-decorated cyclist may have been overlooked on the night, along with Chris Froome and Sir Dave Brailsford, but it was with pride rather than disappointment that she left Dublin. Yet, whilst December’s SPOTY celebrations were a glamorous culmination to an exceptional year, there was no question of any prolonged festive indulgence.

Last year’s success required an incredible amount of physical and emotional exertion. Gold in the year ahead will require more of the same, but having come so close to the ultimate prize once, Armitstead is in no mood to stop fighting now.

There will be a great deal of pain before she crosses the line in Brazil this summer, but victory in Rio would be the finishing flourish to a glittering roll of honour.