Lizzie Armitstead interview: Garmin-Cervélo’s rising star
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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Lizzie Armitstead interview: Garmin-Cervélo’s rising star

by Jered Gruber at 8:09 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling
 
Young Briton speaks about her past, present and future

Lizzie ArmitsteadNormally, when you talk to a 21 year old star cyclist, the story of their career began about ten years earlier, and their first bike came from their avid riding father. We’ve all read the story a thousand times. Not so with budding British star, Lizzie Armitstead. The former Cervélo TestTeam rider and 2011 Garmin-Cervélo signee, started riding at the ripe old age of sixteen, and it wasn't because of an eager parent ready to nurture the next big thing. The 2005 announcement that London had received the 2012 Olympics bid spurred British Cycling into motion. A countrywide talent identification search began, and along the way, it turned up the prodigious sprinter that VeloNation spoke with on a frigid evening in December at the Holiday Inn in Brussels.

A quick, emphatic rise to the top, first on the track, and more recently on the road, has seen the young rider emerge as one of the next big talents in women's cycling. At only twenty years old in 2009, Armitstead raked in a World Championship gold, silver, and bronze at the World Championships in Poland in March. The road season was just as good, including a stage win and third overall at the Tour Cycliste Féminin International Ardèche, and the best young rider's jersey at the Giro Donne.

That Giro Donne ride got the attention of the Cervélo TestTeam. Not long after that, a contract was signed, and her first year at the highest level was set. The tidal wave of improvement continued this year, starting early on in the season with two more silver medals at the Track World Championships.

Working mainly as a domestique in the Cervélo TestTeam, opportunities were limited early in the season, but when she got them, she ran with them. The latter part of the year was chock-full of success including a coveted stage win at the Tour de l'Aude, a stage of La Route d'Ardeche, three consecutive wins at the Tour Cycliste Feminin plus fourth overall, ninth at the World Championships in Geelong, and all topped off with second place in the Commonwealth Games road race, falling narrowly to Australia's Rochelle Gilmore.

Lizzie ArmitsteadAll looked set for even more in 2011 with Cervélo, but in September, the news came: the TestTeam was closing up shop at the end of the season. There was little doubt that the men's team would end up okay, but when the world's dominant women's team goes belly up, the alarm bells sound. Fortunately, the news followed shortly thereafter that Garmin-Cervélo would also include a professional women’s team.

A huge sigh of relief was the result, but after that, the silence was deafening. There has been little news on next year's Garmin-Cervélo women's team, but even with a mass exodus from the squad following the merger, the team looks set to be a head turner once again with Lizzie Armitstead, Emma Pooley, and Noemi Cantele set to headline the team.

While the 2011 Garmin-Cervélo team was returning to their various homes around the world following a five day trip to the Cayman Islands, another segment of the team, the women's side, was waking up in their own beds; unfortunately, not so for Lizzie. Lizzie left the warmth and sun of Spain to head home to the UK for Christmas, but first, a one day stop in Belgium for a catalog shoot and a few minutes chatting in the hotel lobby following a frigid day of trying to appear comfortable for the pictures while freezing.

VeloNation: So no Cayman Islands trip?

Lizzie Armitstead: No, but that’s kind of typical. We are going to be at the Calpe training camp for two weeks in January, then head to Girona after that. I'm not really bothered though. It sounded like a long way to go for such a short time.

VN: The new team - what are your thoughts? It came out of the blue, or did you have any idea?

LA: No, I had no idea. I literally found out one night because people were texting me saying that I needed to check my email, so I was kind of expecting the worst. I was thinking there had been some kind of natural disaster or something. Then I realized we got an email from the general director saying basically that the team was finished and would run until December.

I was kind of shitting myself because I had a two year contract and hadn't talked to anyone. I thought I was safe. I had an email after that from Gerard [Vroomen] telling me about the Garmin merger. After that, it probably took a week for a contract to come through. I had a stomach ache for a week, then I had the contract in hand, thank God.

Lizzie ArmitsteadIt's kind of good. It's good for me. I have a two year contract again…that means I’m on the first year of a two year deal now, instead of the final year as I would be this year if Cervélo had continued. Hopefully it means that I'll have a team in 2012, which is kind of an important year for me. I'm disappointed though…a lot of the girls that were in the team were a really good unit and they've gone. I think a bit of trust was lost... nobody trusted what was going to happen, so they looked elsewhere. It's understandable.

Lizzie’s comment is a slight understatement. A vast portion of arguably the best women’s team on the planet split off for greener pastures. In fact, only four riders remain from the original Cervélo team: Emma Pooley, Lizzie Armitstead, Sharon Laws, Iris Slappendel. The new additions are: Noemi Cantele, Trine Schmidt, Jesse Daams, and Lucy Martin. A fourteen rider superteam pared down to eight.

VN: What about the new team, in terms of the new additions? Are there any new riders you’re looking forward to racing with, and do you think the dynamic of last year’s team can be replicated?

LA: Yeah, I think so. I’m looking forward to racing with Noemi Cantele. I've never raced with her in a team before and she's a bit of a formidable character. She looks pretty scary on the bike and is pretty good when she's going for it. So, it would be kind of nice to get to know the other side of her off the bike and see if she fits well into the new team.

VN: It sounds like there are a lot of powerful women's teams coming to the fore next year. Seems wide open compared to the other years.

LA: Yeah, people are always panicking and always saying there aren't going to be enough teams and then there always is. There is the new Diadora team which is good. That's another men’s/women’s team investment, which kind of helps the profile. I think this year there won’t be as many dominant teams. Before there was kind of HTC and Cervélo as the power teams, but now I think the talent is being spread a bit, so it should be quite interesting.

VN: 2012 is a big year with the London Olympics. Will you just focus on just the track or are you aiming at the road race as well?

LA: I want to do the road race and the omnium on the track.

VN: Besides training for the Olympics, what other track events do you do?

LA: I did the team pursuit, but I decided to stop doing that and focus on the omnium, because you can only do so much. Otherwise you get three fourth place finishes instead of two golds. That's the aim, anyway.

Lizzie ArmitsteadVN: What do you think about the omnium?

LA: Well, to be totally honest, I'm a bit gutted about it. I love points racing, that's what I love, and I'm passionate about doing. Now I've got to train for the individual pursuit and that kind of thing. I don't know. It's a funny event. It's kind of like the person who's good at everything, but not the best at anything that wins it, which is ok for me, because I'm fairly consistent, but... Take the points race for instance - it’s never going to be as aggressive as it was, because people are thinking of the omnium and they are going to think of the events to come, so they are not going to be attacking full on, which I'm pretty disappointed about.

VN: At least you can still get your points race fix to an extent with the huge calendar of criteriums in Holland, no?

LA: It's pretty horrible. You can go to one of those any time of the year, and you can guarantee at least twenty Dutch riders will all be in great form, even while holding down full-time jobs. They're just good at it. It's good training. I love that racing.

VN: As a British rider with the Olympics at home, does it get any bigger than that?

LA: No, I don’t think so. When there is a football World Cup on in the UK, they just go mad for it. Everybody has flags outside their house. I can't imagine how big the Olympics is going to be. So, to win there when your family can be there…I can't imagine how cool it would be. I think I might as well focus on it for the next two years, because I'll never ever get that opportunity again. Quite a lot of athletes don't get to do the Olympics in their home country. Cycling in general has definitely gotten a lot bigger in the UK as well, and I think there will be quite a lot of pressure in 2012. I think we won 12 out of 14 medals on the track in Beijing, so there’s no hiding from it: there will be pressure.

VN: The road race looks like it could be a decent chance for you too…

LA: I think it should be a good course for me, yeah. I just have to develop my sprint over the next two years. The Copenhagen World Championships are going to be flat and probably end up in a sprint, then the next year, the London Olympics course is going to be flat: I think there will probably be a sprint there as well. So, that's what I'm going to focus on.

VN: You say it's good you're going to have a contract in 2012, as you'll be focusing on the Olympics. Will you still race a normal schedule, or will you be doing a lot of specific work with the Olympics in mind?

LA: I'd say my schedule will be pretty normal really up until a month out from the Olympics, because then things will change, and I'll have to do track training and things like that. I don’t think it should be a problem though. If I end up an Olympics track or road champion or whatever, then everyone is happy. Any publicity is good publicity.

Lizzie ArmitsteadVN: Last season was, for all intents and purposes, a break out road season for you. What are you looking toward in 2011?

LA: I went into the season with the aim of surviving the season without illness or injury and doing a full season. I was kind of a domestique, and when I got the opportunities, I came through with the results.

This year I want to put myself under pressure and say "I want to win these races or whatever." I'm going to go straight from the Track Worlds to the Classics, which I've not done before. The Tour of Flanders is the weekend after Track Worlds, and I want to race it just to see ahead of London how I quickly I can transfer from track to the road. I also want to continue supporting (World TT Champion) Emma Pooley in her goals. She'll be wanting to win the Giro I think next year. I want to help her do that.

VN: You say you want to put pressure on yourself and win certain races. Do you have any that stand out to you?

LA: Not specifically. It's more a case that I'd like to win a World Cup. I don't really mind which one, and then I'd like to put myself in a good position in bunch sprints more often than I have done this year. I want to put myself under pressure to win. So, any races that are finishing in bunch sprints, I want to be there.

VN: Would you say there’s there another sprinter on Garmin-Cervélo?

LA: No, so I should get a lot of opportunities to sprint for the win in 2011.

VN: You and your boyfriend (Omega Pharma-Lotto sprinter) Adam Blythe train together quite frequently, and the latter part of both of your 2010 seasons were incredible. Was that by chance?

LA: I don't know actually. Often when we're training together I'm sort of on his wheel, and it's always sort of steady, three hour rides. He can help me sometimes, like if we're doing sprints then he'll lead me out and I'll sprint, but obviously, I can't do the same back.

I think with him, his form came after just plugging away all year. It was his first year at the highest level as a bloke, so that's quite different to being a girl. It takes a while to get used to the extra distance and stuff. His confidence was getting a lot stronger towards the end of the year and that made a massive difference with him. And then with me as well it was down to confidence. The he team gave me opportunities and that gave me confidence, then I won some races, and that gave me even more confidence. Confidence breeds wins, I suppose.

Lizzie ArmitsteadVN: Do you and Adam get to spend a lot of time together?

LA: It kind of ebbs and flows. You can have three weeks where you don't see each other and two where you do. Probably the most time we spend apart from each other is January through March because he's back in Belgium, and I'm in the UK training for track. That's kind of three months of being away from each other, which is pretty hard, but then I think we're both quite lucky that we live in Belgium in the summer and we both understand it. There is never any blame.

VN: Do you wish he were on the Garmin-Cervélo team?

LA: No. Definitely not. We were on the same national team as juniors, and it was just a nuisance. Even if you're not creating problems by being a couple, that's always the first thing that will come up. If you're not integrating into the group well, it's because you've got a boyfriend that's also on the team. If you're not going well, it's like "Well, her boyfriend is not going well either." I just don't like my personal life being confused with my training. It's always down to me. I like to be Lizzie and not Lizzie, Adam's girlfriend.

VN: The jump to Cervélo last year was your first season at the highest level. What led to that jump?

LA: I've kind of been looked after by British Cycling on a track program for a while. Towards the end of 2008, I started doing some races in Belgium. I wanted to do something properly on the road, and then I got in touch with Lotto and they said "Yeah, we can give you a good program." They don't pay you or anything, but I got a good program and also had the continued support from UK sport in terms of money. At the Giro in 2009, I won the young riders jersey, and that's where Cervélo spotted me and gave me a call and said "We think you've got potential, would you like to join the team," and I said "Yes, please!"

VN: You started when you were 16, how did that come about?

LA: Basically, it was just a talent identification program in the UK. They wanted female athletes, because the London Olympics had just been announced. British cycling sent a van full of bikes around to schools and gave people at school a short lesson, then you went onto the school field and rode around as fast as you could. They said to me "You're good, can you come to the next stage of testing?" I did, and then the next one, and after that, I was given a bike, and it went from there really.

VN: Had you done any cycling before that?

Lizzie ArmitsteadLA: I had a bike when I was younger, and I played out on it like most any child does. I probably didn't have a bike from the age of twelve onwards, because you usually get a bike for Christmas, and I didn't want to waste my Christmas present on a bike ever again. I didn't have a bike from about twelve onward, until I started riding seriously when I turned 16, of course.

VN: Were you active in other sports?

LA: Yeah. I was really active. I was in all the school teams. I was sort of that person who does everything. I ran on the track. I liked the 800 and 1500 events. That's probably what I was best at. I wasn’t as competitive when I started getting older, so that wasn't interesting anymore.

VN: What was it like to get sort of plopped into the mix as a cyclist?

LA: I think I was really lucky. I started off with a coach, Phil West, he used to be a rider and is a really lovely guy, and he's got a lovely wife and son. They really taught me what it was about. It was all track based at the start, and I was really successful at it, so it was pretty easy at the start. The road riding was something I just picked up as I went along, and then living in Belgium, you can’t help but live and breathe cycling. You are immersed in the culture of cycling. You can't really hide from it.

VN: Did you go pretty rapidly from getting picked up by the talent identification program to Belgium?

Lizzie ArmitsteadLA: I stayed in the UK as a junior, finished school, turned senior, had a year in the UK, and then moved to Belgium after that.

VN: How do you train in the UK in the winter?

LA: It's pretty miserable. It's not something I enjoy. All of my teammates will tell you, I'm probably the person who needs the most persuading to ride my bike. I'm not the person who gets everybody geared up for training. I'm much more of a racer than a trainer. I love racing and I love winning and I love being in the race. There is nothing that I love about training in the cold and wet. I'd much rather sprint for an hour than go out for four hours, but saying that, I do do it. I generally have to get other people to come with me, otherwise I'm a bit useless.

VN: Is Adam with you in the UK a lot?

LA: Yeah, he is. Although he gets to go on a few more training camps. His team has a bigger budget than mine. He's been in Spain most of this month.

VN: How different are the two worlds - men’s and women’s racing?

LA: Totally different. I'd say about 5% of the women's peloton is paid. Really, not a lot of women are paid. HTC and Cervélo, the ones that are generally associated with men's teams, pay, but it's not a lot of money. A lot of girls have personal sponsors, that's how they do it. And then obviously the men do better, because of the UCI rules on their teams, they have a minimum wage which makes a massive difference.

VN: So, there's no minumum wage in women’s cycling?

LA: No, you don’t even have to have a minimum budget to run a women’s team. With the UCI you can register a women's team without a budget. It doesn't protect riders very well. You can think you're with a team, and then you're not, because it folds, and there is no protection. There is nobody doing it for the money. Everybody is doing it because they want to ride bikes. The amount of sacrifice is amazing. You have girls sacrificing their races for you and they’re not getting paid anything. Whereas, if you're a bloke, and you're getting 70,000 euros a year, then you're quite happy to be a domestique. The team bonds are really genuine and strong. All the teams I've been in have been great.

VN: How do you like your Cervélo?

Lizzie ArmitsteadLA: Genuinely, it's the nicest bike ever. The first time I rode my bike, I'd had three weeks off. So when I joined the team, I got a Cervélo, and I felt just as fit, even though I wasn’t. It was so easy just to pedal the bike. It was just so nice. It has also been one of the best bikes I've found to fit me. Normally, I find it quite difficult, and I'm always sticking 140mm stems on. It is really nice.

VN: If you had to pick someone who's had the biggest influence on you in cycling, who would it be?

LA: This question always gets me. Influence….um. I would say my original coach Phil West, because I've learnt everything I know from him. He's still someone I would ring up now with a question. In terms of inspirational...it's kind of difficult. It's not like I have a hero from growing up. All the girls that I'm racing with now are kind of my heroes, but they can’t be my heroes, because I'm competing against them. So, they're not my heroes because I want to win. I want to beat them. I don't really have a hero in cycling as such.

VN: Do you have a coach? Why don't you train with power?

LA: I have a British cycling coach who coaches me on the track, but that's just during track session. I kind of lead my own coaching with a little bit of help from the guy I told you about, Phil West. The reason I don't train with power is because, first of all, when I first started out they were too expensive, and I did it all on feel anyway. Then I kind of preferred to go on feel.

I'm a bit old school like that. I find it just as useful. I find that if I do train with something like that, then it becomes unhealthy for me. I'm not motivated by numbers and that sort of thing, and I can see tangible improvements other ways and you're never going to look at your power in a race are you? It really annoys some of the people I train with that I don't use power. I don't even take my heart rate..!


And with that, it was time for Lizzie to head to the airport, and it was time for us to get on the road. Her new Garmin-Cervélo outfit will certainly be a team to watch in 2011, but take particular note of Lizzie, as she looks primed to join a select group of women at the top of the heap. With another two seasons of racing and training ahead of the London Olympics, you could do worse than to put the young Armitstead down as a top favorite for both the women's road race and omnium in 2012.
 

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