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Lizzie Deignan: ‘I’m not scared of anything at all going into the Olympics’

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T

he two Olympic experiences could not have been more contrasting, 2012 and 2016 standing at either extreme of the spectrum.

On her Games debut, Lizzie Deignan (then Armitstead) was within touching distance of gold in the women’s road race in front of her home crowd neck and neck down the mall with Marianne Vos, eventually crossing the line in second.

Four years on, the headlines were altogether more negative, a whirlwind of publicity as news emerged of three whereabouts failures leading to a possible ban just days out from the Rio Olympics before one of those said failures was erased by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Yet, she still finished a creditable fifth.

Quite what her third and, most likely, final Olympic experience brings, she is unsure but now, she insists, nothing fazes her.

“I learned so much as an athlete and person then about what’s important to me,” she said, “and now I feel like completely different person.

“There were lots of things going on professionally and personally so to come through those difficult experiences makes you stronger and wiser. I’m grateful as I’m not scared of anything at all, and an Olympics without all that going on will feel easy.”

For the delayed Tokyo Games, her hope had been of it coming close to replicating the buzz of London 2012, which still stands out as an Olympic peak not just for her but also her multi-national peers.

“When I speak to my teammates from other nations they say that nothing has compared to them for London,” she said. “It was such a special Games. It would be hard to top that but I think Tokyo would have been a nation to make a real spectacle. That’s difficult now with everything going on, which is a shame.”

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Deignan has an advantage over others of having ridden the Tokyo course before. Back in 2019, she went to recce it with fellow rider Hannah Barnes and women’s endurance coach Chris Newton during the men’s test event, after which they got to ride sections of the course.

The biggest learning point was acclimatising to both the heat and the Pacific Time zone difference.

Now returned to Japan, it will be without the wider support of her family who had planned to travel out but she has been in the saddle long enough not to be unduly concerned. That said, the absence from her Yorkshire-based family, 1,000miles away from her Monaco home has been hard in different ways.

“Honestly I’d just prefer to have dinner with my family then have them in Tokyo,” she said ahead of Sunday’s road race. “That would be my priority.”

Closer to home, her two-year-old daughter Orla is unsurprisingly getting into cycling – Deignan’s husband is former Team Sky rider Philip, although despite the gene pool her interest is more in repairing pedals than turning them.

“She was sent three balance bikes within a week of being born but she’s not that interested,” she said. “She prefers to fix things.”

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As for Deignan herself, the aim is for Tokyo to be one of her three peaks in a season which has occasionally been beset by illness after a first winter illness free in recent memory.

Form and fitness depending, she will be among the favourites come the road race, although downplays the lack of recce’ing for the field will play to her strengths.

“One thing I know is there’s not a chance of a bunch sprint,” she said. “It will be a small group and the winner is whoever managed to get their timing right with this pandemic and whose managed to stay mentally fresh.”

For Deignan, she hopes that will be her for what could be a fitting swansong, although she veers away for any retirement talk at the age of 32.

Her Olympic ambition, though, is simple despite the shifting sporting landscape amid Covid. She added: “I’m there for the bike racing and to be Olympic champion. I don’t need the Olympic experience – I’m not spending two weeks out there sightseeing.”