Lizzie Deignan is an athlete who thrives on controlling every factor she can, but in Saturday’s world championship road race she will be trusting to “emotion, passion” and the random form that can turn an athlete’s bad day into a good one and vice versa. “I hope I can deliver with those. Normally I’m confident and cool, but I’m not sure about this one.”
With good reason. It is just over three weeks since the 2015 world champion was taken into hospital in the Netherlands to have her appendix removed. The organ was so close to rupturing that when she asked the doctor if she could call her husband Philip to tell him she was going into theatre, she was refused that privilege. “They just said we’re going now. It was pretty fast.”
That came only four days after Deignan had won the Grand Prix de Plouay, which had also been her “rehearsal” race for the world championships when she won in 2015 at Richmond, Virginia. From being apparently on track to contend for a second world title she deteriorated rapidly at the Tour of Holland. “I really didn’t feel well, but it was a stage race, I knew it wasn’t flu, it was just pain.”
On day two, however, she finished the 140km stage, and was unable to make it down to the dinner table in the evening. “The manager came to find me, I was in a bad way.” By then, she was “in pure agony. I just wanted them to sort me out, to get better”. Thinking that her chance of a second rainbow jersey had gone only came later. “The evening after I thought it was out of the question to ride in Norway, but I did a bit of research on it, and different people have different recovery times. So I didn’t rule it out.”
The final decision to race in Bergen was made the day before her flight: Wednesday this week. Which prompts the question: why take the risk of competing so soon after a major operation? “The whole season has been a matter of being up and down, getting sick, preparing for goals, seeing them go out the window. I decided I wanted to be at the start line so that I can finish the season on my own terms.”
Not that Deignan is casual about her health. She acknowledges that her appendix operation might be linked to sickness earlier this season and is to have further tests to see if there are any related problems. That, however, is for next week. “I take it very seriously, I’ve been managing it all year. My thinking is I’ve done OK, and if I can push through to the worlds, I’ve done the preparation so I want to race. I just don’t want to let the sickness I’ve had over the season get the better of me.”
There is more than a hint of the stubborn streak that impelled her to Rio last year in spite of a summer wrecked by her fight against a UK Anti-Doping ban over an alleged three “strikes” on her whereabouts record. It is also, arguably, the same mindset that drove her junior team-mate Lauren Dolan to finish the time trial on Tuesday with severe cuts to a leg, or Geraint Thomas to get back on his bike at the Tour de France with a broken collarbone. Athletes do not always do sensible.
The 28-year-old accepts she is going into the dark. “Whether it is about performing for myself or passing on my experience and leadership to the other girls, I just want to do it on my own terms. As an athlete you have random days when you feel good when you shouldn’t, when you’ve been out partying or something, and sometimes you should go well on paper but have a rubbish day. That’s what I’m going on rather than logic. You never know.”
Fortunately given Deignan’s recent travails, Saturday is not solely about the Yorkshirewoman. “If I have good legs it’s good for me, it’s an opportunistic course, there are places to attack everywhere. It will be wide open. But there are girls in our team who could spring a surprise, they are well able to get away in a move and go a long way into the race. I looked at it in May and thought, will this be hard enough; I rode it this week and I think it’s pretty tough.”
For the first time, Deignan feels she is part of a balanced British women’s team, a welcome development given the sexism allegations that have swirled around British Cycling in the past 18 months, not to mention her comments on the issue in her book, published this year. It is, she feels, no longer a matter of one or two individuals standing out.
“In the past there’s been a standout rider” – Deignan herself, Nicole Cooke or Emma Pooley – “but no Plan B. Now, there’s a good group of strong women: Mel Lowther is in for experience but Dani King, Elinor Barker or Hannah Barnes are all capable of doing things in tough races.”
In Saturday morning’s junior men’s race, the Yorkshire rider Tom Pidcock expects to be a marked man after his victory in Tuesday’s time trial. Pidcock is enjoying a golden season, with a world title at cyclo-cross and the British senior criterium championship to his name already, and he and his team-mate Jacob Vaughan will both start among the pre-race favourites.
On Sunday Peter Sagan will hope to have recovered from recent illness to target a third consecutive rainbow jersey in the elite men’s road race, where he faces stiff competition from the likes of Philippe Gilbert, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Alexander Kristoff. On the hilly course, which will suit punchier riders, Great Britain will look to Ben Swift, Peter Kennaugh and Scott Thwaites to lead a youthful eight-man team.