World Champion Lizzie Armitstead has been riding a winning wave this year – that much is undeniable.
She kicked off the season by winning Omloop Nieuwsblad, followed it up with first at Strade Bianche, then won the Trofeo Binda, and took the top step at the Tour of Flanders – one of her key season goals. Leading the UCI Women’s World Tour standings, she’s certainly not feeling the effects of the much cited ‘Curse of the Rainbow Jersey’.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Armitstead this week as she made a flying visit to the UK, to enjoy some much needed rest and prepare herself for the Tour de Yorkshire this coming weekend. Of course her huge success over 2016 was a key topic of conversation - but there were three major C words that cropped up...
Lizzie Armitstead on: Confidence
Armitstead puts much of her recent good form down to our first big C: Confidence. Something she tells us she’s only learnt to harness recently.
She explains: “Confidence is vital. Since winning Richmond my confidence has become one of my assets. Before it was one of my weaknesses. And I see so many women that hold themselves back. They do everything right, but when it comes to the crunch time, they don’t have the confidence. They don’t believe in themselves. It’s easy to exploit that in some athletes… a simple ‘oh, you look a bit tired today’ – and that’s it.
"The mind is such a vital part of being an athlete. It’s only recently that I’ve grasped that. And it’s almost like a decision."
“The mind is such a vital part of being an athlete. It’s only recently that I’ve grasped that. And it’s almost like a decision, it’s almost like a flick of the switch. [You have to think] ‘I compromise so much in my life, I train 100%, and I’m letting myself down in the last minute by not being confident’. It’s a decision that now I’m going to be confident and I’m going to give myself the best chance."
Confidence is something that a lot of women struggle with in their riding – and we rather meanly asked Armitstead to hypothesise as to why. She had an idea, saying: “[Women often put themselves down before races] out of fear, it’s fear of failure. If you set yourself up for failure, it softens the blow if you don’t achieve. But I think it’s really important that people recognise that and give themselves an opportunity. At the end of the day, it’s just bike racing, it’s not that important [so there’s no reason to be so scared of failure]. Give yourself the best opportunity, because you’ve sacrificed so much already – so be confident."
Lizzie Armitstead on: Coaching
Armitstead is an incredible athlete. That much we know already. But one of the most amazing things about her is that she goes it alone - she’s self-coached. This is pretty unique at pro level, in fact it’s even unique at a top end amateur level and we where keen to find out why she chooses to plan her own training, and how she does it.
Initially, the decision came out of necessity – Armitstead says: “It was more out of circumstance, really – I was a track rider, on a track programme, coached by a track coach. Then I decided to go to the road, and there was nobody available to coach me [on the road]."
A lot has changed since then, and clearly Armitstead could find a coach if she wanted to now – but she just doesn’t see the need – saying: “Since then I’ve tried to work with other people… but I’m not naturally the best communicator anyway. So picking up the phone and telling effectively a stranger how I’m feeling… I think it’s quite an intimate conversation. And I’m not that good at being able to do that with somebody that I haven’t got a strong relationship with."
Obviously, Armitstead coaching Armitstead works out pretty well - too - she says: "I just feel I’m capable of doing it [planning effective training]… and I read up a lot [on training], I’m not going into it blindly. It’s so all encompassing, our job, and what we do, I kind of feel like I need to be at the centre of it. I need to work out what I’m doing."
"Being independent has been a streak that I’ve had since childhood, it’s always helped me."
I ask if that desire to be in total control is perhaps a piece in the puzzle that makes up the winning combination of a World Champion, and she says: “I think it [being good at controlling situations] contributes. Being independent has been a streak that I’ve had since childhood, it’s always helped me. Trying to be at the top of your game, you need to be able to be selfish, you need to know what’s right for you, and particularly in cycling there’s all sorts of people coming from different angles giving you advice and having that one focus and trusting your instinct is really valuable."
Trust is important in the relationship between a coach and athlete, and the advantage Armitstead has is that she can write her own plan, and thus have total belief that it’s the right thing for her. She explains: “If you’re working with a coach you don’t trust, it’s not going to work. I see that all the time. I’m training with women who have coaches, but yet are questioning [their plan] all the time.
"I’m training with women who have coaches, but yet are questioning it [their plan] all the time."
"I can do a race, and I can know exactly what happened in that race. I can go home, and sit down, and analyse my next week’s training and know what I need from it, because I was in that race. Whereas if you have a coach that lives in a different country and wasn’t at the bike race… is their analysis of what I need the next week as good as mine is? I don’t think so."
Writing a training plan can be quite a challenge. So many spinning plates, things to consider – how does a World Champion go about that vital planning? I joke about sitting down with a 12 month calendar and a black marker pen – and it turns out I’m close to the truth. But there’s colour coding.
“At the start of the season, I phase plan. So I write in my races, and I block off - in colour coded sections - this phase will be endurance, this phase will be competition, this phase will be recovery. Then I go into each phase and add even more detail – this week will be strength work, this week will be interval training, this week focus on diet, this week focus on recovery, this week put sponsorship commitments in because you don’t have to travel. All these areas that affect performance – I think about them all."
We’re nodding and considering our own plans as she goes on: “Then I decide which races I want to win. And that can be because I need the confidence more than anything, for example to go into Rio I want to win a stage in the Giro. Specific sessions I will plan a week in advance, then complete it, analyse how it went, and go on to the next week. And those specific sessions will be very detailed."
Lizzie Armitstead on: Climbing
Improving our climbing is something so many cyclists set as a goal – and Armitstead is indeed no different, though her goals and motivations are a little more lofty. The Rio road race course is lumpy, and ends with a long ascent – something she’ll be focusing on in the run up.
Part of that will be becoming (even) leaner, but she needs to be careful: “Realistically in Rio I need to be as lean as I’ve ever been, but I know that from experience if I’m too lean for too long, then I get poorly. You can’t maintain that kind of motivation and dedication… and it’s not healthy I don’t think to be that lean for more than six weeks. So it’s about, for me, being balanced and losing weight slowly into Rio, rather than doing something extreme."
"Climbing isn’t just about losing weight. You get better at it by climbing."
It’s not all about being light, though – believing that weight is the only part of the power to weight equation that matters on an ascent is a trap too many cyclists fall into. Armitstead says: “Climbing isn’t just about losing weight. You get better at it by climbing. Spending as much time as you can in the mountains – learning the rhythm of climbing, and power as well – it comes down to more than just being lean.
“Cadence is something I’m going to work at. It’s my least favourite thing to do. It’s not ‘suffering’ painful, it’s painful neurologically… being able to spin is just uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable to sit and spin… it’s more comfortable as a woman – with pain and the saddle – to sit and turn a bigger gear. So that’s something I need to work on."
In the case of Rio, she’ll need to make sure her efforts are specific: “For me breaking down the Rio course, where I’ll win or lose the race is the last climb, which is 30 minutes long. So I need to become better at 30 minute efforts. I need to be suffering for 30 minutes, which I haven’t needed before. In women’s cycling there aren’t the Grand Tour stages where you need that, the efforts are more likely to be ten minutes. It’s quite different. So training effectively will compromise my performances in races leading up to it. That’s another thing you have to factor in – ignoring the media pressure and expectation, because I know that my training is right for Rio, not for being first over a 3 minute climb in the Women’s Tour or something."
So that’s it – don’t expect to see Armitstead dominating those short climbs at upcoming races – but do expect to see her bossing the final kilometres in Rio. We can’t wait.