Lizzie Armitstead interview: the Olympics, life as a pro, and the future
18 March 2014
Although still only 25 years old, Lizzie Armitstead has chalked up a magnificent list of achievements in the ten years since she was discovered at school by British Cycling’s talent team. Her career has already included an Olympic silver, winning the National Road Race Championship, and becoming a World Champion in the team pursuit.
We asked Lizzie about London 2012 & Rio 2016, about her development into a top pro, and about her motivation to train & race. She also told us about the practicalities of her life as an elite cyclist, and what she thinks the future might hold.
She’s a great role model for ambitious young cyclists who can learn a huge amount from her comments. And don’t forget to read what Lizzie’s parents John & Carol had to say, too…
On the Olympic Games…
What were your feelings in the last few miles of the 2012 Olympic road race? What was going through your mind when you rode onto The Mall with Marianne Vos and Olga Zabelinksaya?
I was thinking I was sure of a medal, I just needed to give myself the best chance at Gold. It’s difficult to remember exactly how I was feeling because I was completely in the zone.
How did you feel after you had crossed the finish line?
I felt incredibly happy and proud of myself and the team that had helped it happen. Within minutes I was already thinking about Gold in Rio.
Why was the women’s Olympic road race so much more exciting than the men’s race?
That’s cycling, you have exciting races and you have boring races. The men wanted a bunch sprint for Cavendish, which generally leads to a boring race. The women’s race was wide open and we had a variety of favourites who could have won.
Did you get a chance to mix with athletes from other sports at the Olympics? Were they interested in cycling? Did you learn much from athletes in other sports?
I didn’t get much chance at the Olympics as I still had a world championships after the games to think about. I know other athletes though, and we all have a very similar mind set. I think I need to be more confident when I look at other champions.
What do you think the Olympic Games will be like in Rio in 2016? How will it be different for you compared to London 2012?
The Rio games will be completely different, I will be going there knowing what to expect. London was not only a home games but my first one too. Rio will be a very hard race as it is so hilly!
Did you need encouragement to train or race when you started, or were you always self-motivated?
I have always been self-motivated in cycling. In other sports it was different but with cycling I’ve always wanted to get better.
What made you decide to commit to road racing instead of the track?
My passion for cycling is on the road. It wasn’t an easy option but it was the option that I knew I would enjoy the journey with.
Do you think it’s possible to be a world-class GB road rider without being a track champion first?
Yes, definitely. They are almost two different sports, so if you specialise earlier then it can be an advantage!
What advice would you give to a 12 year old rider who wants to become a World Champion? What advice would you give to their parents?
Try every discipline. Ask people for help, get involved with a local club, and don’t get too serious before you are 16.
To parents I would say: cycling is an expensive sport but there are ways of getting a helping hand; your kids don’t need the best equipment to succeed. The desire has to come from the child not the parent.
How does cycling and training on European roads compare to the UK?
It’s simply the weather that makes it easier to get consistent training in Europe.
What do you do to keep fit when you are injured?
I have used swimming and gym work instead of cycling before.
Do you worry about road safety when you’re training?
I am always worried about safety, it’s extremely important to be constantly aware of your surroundings on the bike.
On travel and living abroad…
Did you find living away from home difficult at first?
I don’t remember finding it difficult. The language is always a barrier – I wish I had done languages at school.
Do you ever get homesick when you are travelling?
I do more as I get older. My sister has a daughter now and I miss seeing her development.
Do you get affected by jet-lag when you fly a long way for races?
I really struggle with lack of sleep, I try to avoid trips to Australia at all costs.
Do you find it easy to sleep when you stay in hotels for races?
I can sleep anywhere. You have to learn to switch off and find comfort wherever you are, because it’s always changing.
On motivation and support…
What motivates and drives you?
To be the best that I can be. I don’t want to waste my talent.
Do you look up to anyone for inspiration? What is it about them that inspires you?
My inspirations come from family and friends – in sport I don’t really have an idol.
Do you enjoy cycling 100% of the time?
Cycling is the best thing when it’s going well, but when it’s not, I question why I am doing it of course.
When you’re suffering in a training session or a race, what do you think about to keep you going?
I never quit. The times when I have quit in the past because I couldn’t face trying harder have stayed with me, and the guilt is not worth it.
How do you deal with setbacks like injuries, or when races don’t go as well as you wanted?
I talk about it with someone who has a logical perspective on it.
Do you ever have times when you doubt if you’ll be able to achieve what you want to?
Of course, maybe too many times. It’s something I am trying to work on, self belief.
Who are some of the key people who’ve helped you during your career?
My original coach, Phil West, introduced me to training and cycling in the best possible way. Danny Stam is my current team director and he believes in my talent more than I do.
On being a pro…
How much say do you have in your training and racing programmes? Is it difficult to co-ordinate what GB team management wants with what your pro team wants?
The only time GB are involved is when I race the World Championships. The rest I arrange with my professional team.
Is it difficult to compete against GB teammates in pro races? Or against your pro-teammates in World Championships or at the Olympics?
I don’t find it difficult, it’s just professionalism.
How much difference does equipment make to performance in pro races?
The pro peloton are on very similar levels of equipment so the differences are minimal.
How do a pro team’s riders and staff from so many different countries manage to communicate with each other?
In our team the general language we use is English, which is handy for me! Sometimes when people are tired they slip back into their mother language. That can cause problems some times.
Do you worry about getting a cold or being ill when you have a big race? How do you deal with that?
I worry about it. I stay away from sick people, I always have a hand gel when travelling through airports. I stay away from sea food unless I can see the sea!
Do you look after your bikes yourself? Are you very interested in bike equipment and technology?
I am a bike racer, definitely not a bike fan. I am useless at mechanics! I do wash my bike well though!
Do you like appearing on TV for interviews and working as a commentator?
I enjoy it for a change. It’s nice to take up the opportunities to do something different and develop skills in other areas.
On life outside cycling…
What do you like to do when you are not training or racing?
I like to go out for good food with a nice “non-cycling” group of friends and take my mind off the day job!
Do you have many non-cycling friends? What do they think of your racing and your lifestyle?
Most of my friends are non-cyclists. They are interested and proud of my achievements but, equally, if I stopped tomorrow they wouldn’t say much about it!
Do people you meet behave differently when they realise who you are?
I haven’t noticed that.
If you hadn’t been talent-spotted by British Cycling and become a cyclist, do you think you would still have become a professional sportswoman? Which sport would you have done?
I think I would have done sport as a hobby but not become professional. Cycling is really my sport, the one I am best at, everything else I am just average at.
Would you have liked to have gone to university? Which subjects were you most interested in at school?
I would probably have gone to uni as another option. I enjoyed business and PE at school.
Can you speak any other languages apart from English?
I understand Dutch because of my team and I’m trying to improve my French. But fluently? I wish!
I read that you’re a vegetarian. What food do you like to eat?
Cheese is top of the list – the stronger the better!
What kind of music do you like?
Very varied range of music on my iPod – I’m not fussy! Emeli Sande is my favourite at the moment.
On women’s racing…
Do you think women’s pro cycling will ever be as big as men’s racing?
It has a long way to go, but it’s possible, why not!?
How do you think women’s cycling will change over the next few years?
I think there will be more coverage and, as a result, more sponsorship, which will lead to more professionalism. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation.
Do you think the British public understands cycling as well as European people do?
The cycling fans do, but the general public don’t. Cycling in Belgium is like football is in the UK – it’s mainstream.
On the future…
What else would you like to achieve in your racing career?
To win the Tour of Flanders, Commonwealth Games, Olympic Games and World Championships… Would all be nice!
What would you like to do once you have finished racing?
That’s a question I wish I knew the answer to. A job that makes me happy and a family would be great!
Would you like to be involved in developing the sport when you retire from racing? What would you try to achieve?
It’s something I think about a lot. I don’t want to commit to saying that, maybe when I retire I won’t want to see a bike again for a while!