Mother Courage: The women who are changing attitudes towards maternity in cycling

For female cyclists, having a child would once have spelled the end of their career. But times are changing and the sport is modernising for the better. These are the women at the forefront of a new era for women’s cycling

This article was originally published in Issue 113, the Inspiration Issue. 

"But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended upon. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgement as a goddess.

"She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone." - The Wrath of Grapes, John Steinbeck 

Mother. There’s so much meaning in the word. Creation. Support. Nurture. Loneliness. Strength. Continuation of life. For Steinbeck the idea of mother had achieved almost mythical status. In the Grapes of Wrath, Ma Joad is shown as the fiercely dedicated matriarch of the family, their driving force on the brutal pilgrimage to California where they hope to find jobs, dignity, land and a brighter future. Ma is a rock, with Steinbeck shining a light on the responsibility and importance of her role. But this notion of motherhood is not reflected in all facets of our world today.

The sporting sphere is one area of society where becoming a mother has not always been a cause for respect, or celebration. There has long been a stigma that motherhood and elite sports are incompatible; for years female athletes have lost support and sponsorship when they became pregnant. Lizzie Deignan, winner of the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes in 2021, blazed a trail in 2018, when she announced she was expecting her first child, and her new team, Trek-Segafredo, threw their weight behind her. However, there was still outdated speculation about her ability to come back, in an undeniably traditional sport that the British rider says is “often left behind”.

“My first pregnancy shocked a lot of people,” says Deignan. “I think when people don’t know what to say, they often say the wrong thing. For me, it was an emotional time because I just expected people to be happy for me and not everybody was. Not everybody understood that I was still going to come back to the sport.”

Now more than three years since the birth of her first child, Orla, Deignan is speaking to me through her headphones as she pushes a trolley down the aisles of IKEA. A few months ago she announced she was pregnant for a second time and would not be racing in 2022. Her plan continues to be to return to the peloton in 2023 with her eyes set on stage wins at the Tour de France Femmes and taking her second rainbow jersey at the World Championships Road Race in Glasgow.

As she pops up on my screen, the 33-year-old apologises for being a few minutes late and explains why she’s in a furniture shop. “I texted my friend who has just had a baby and asked if she needed anything here. I did the whole shop, got back in the car, then she replied saying what she wanted, so I’ve had to come back in,” she says with a smile.

This is who Lizzie Deignan is: generous with her time, and eager to help others. Her return to the highest level of the sport after giving birth has been well documented. The victory in Paris-Roubaix Femmes two years after she gave birth, was picked up by media outlets worldwide as a landmark moment in the history of women’s sport. Deignan has become a figurehead in the peloton and someone who many of her colleagues seek out for advice.

“More and more people come up to me in the peloton and ask about being a mum,” she says. “It’s really nice that they trust me in the first place to ask about it. But also that more women feel confident to give motherhood a go.”

One person helped by Deignan’s victory in Paris-Roubaix Femmes – perhaps more than the Trek-Segafredo athlete will ever know – is five-time world champion and professional cyclist for Team Uno-X, Elinor Barker.

“I found out I was pregnant straight after the team pursuit in Tokyo,” Barker tells me. “I FaceTimed my boyfriend and I had to spend the next few days just going, oh my god, what am I going to do?” With a long flight home to the UK giving her time to reflect on her options, Barker came to the conclusion that she wasn’t ready to retire. “I thought to myself: I definitely want to carry on cycling. I’m not done. It just depends on what support is available to me.”

For Barker, it transpired that the support she was offered was better than she’d even hoped for. The Welsh athlete had originally planned to race with newly-formed women’s WorldTour Team Uno-X, once she returned from the Olympics, “hitting the ground running” with a full road schedule including the National Championship road race later that month. Those plans changed when she discovered she was pregnant.

“The Uno-X bosses were actually among the first people I spoke to about it,” says Barker. “They were incredibly supportive. The message that Jens Haugland [Uno-X team manager] sent me once he found out I was pregnant, was one of the nicest things I’ve ever read. It was so lovely, so supportive. It really just made me think actually, I can do this.”

This open-minded support, shown by teams like Uno-X when it comes to issues like maternity leave for athletes, is something that has developed hugely in the last three years. “I think Lizzie played a massive part in that,” says Barker. “People saw her win one of the most iconic bike races in the world. The amount of publicity that Trek is still getting from that race is insane. I see pictures of it all the time. At least once a week I see a picture of Lizzie, either winning at Roubaix or in the showers after Roubaix. It’s become iconic. And so why wouldn’t you want a part of something like that? I think she’s shown a lot of people what is possible.”

In 2021, the UCI introduced a maternity clause to Women’s WorldTour contracts for the first time, ​​which allowed women to take three months’ leave while being entitled to 100 per cent of their salary, followed by an additional five months at 50 per cent of their salary. “Things like that didn’t exist in cycling before I had Orla,” explains Deignan. “It makes it impossible for teams to turn their back on a rider.”

A complex journey

Allowing riders to go on maternity leave is just one part of the support network required to assist athletes in juggling the demands of motherhood and professional sport. Since the ability to train during a pregnancy differs from person to person, the return to competition is also a fragile process that needs to be approached carefully. Deignan explains that her morning sickness has hindered her ability to train during this pregnancy, meaning the road back to fitness after she gives birth could be more difficult than the first time round.

“I think about my comeback every day when I’m hauling myself up these mountains,” she says. “I’m still very much a professional athlete, I’m still being paid, it still is my job and my focus.”

It goes without saying that focus is an integral part of the life of a professional athlete. I wonder if Deignan’s shifted when she became a mother, or if her perspective changed on the importance of racing in terms of priorities in her life. “I think my mindset has changed to the fact that I don’t have time to dwell on a bad race or a bad training session, my life moves very quickly when you’ve got children,” she says. “I’m not as selfish as I once was. That would be impossible.”

Barker, who gave birth to her son, Nico, in March, has noticed a shift in mentality since becoming a mother, too. “Now I don’t think I’ve got four hours today. Instead, it’s like, I've got an opportunity to go out and do four hours. How many mums get the opportunity to have that much time to themselves three months after having a baby?”

“I’m never going to think I just need to get through this race,” she explains. “If I’m going to take three or four days away from my son, it’s got to count for something. Every single race I’m going to race it like it’s a world championship because there’s no point in going away to just make up the numbers.”

Team Uno-X has allowed Barker to kickstart her comeback to the sport earlier than she had hoped by letting the British rider attend a recent training camp with her parents, her partner and baby Nico all in tow. “It was a relatively small thing for them to allow me to come and bring the baby and most of the time people probably wouldn’t even have known he was there. But it was massive for me,” she says.

Barker will race for Wales at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in August, with Nico just five months old. I ask her why she’s decided to return to a competitive level so quickly.  “I wish there was a more in-depth reason, but I just really want to be back at a bike race,” she says.

And that’s simply it. Women like Barker and Deignan are bike racers, they want to be competitive athletes and have children, and they’re paving the way to proving that there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be possible.

They’re two of the most high-profile examples of women who are professional road cyclists and mothers, but they’re not alone in today’s peloton. Jesse Vandenbulcke, a rider for British team Le Col-Wahoo, has a five-year-old son, Fabian. She became Belgian Champion while working a full-time job in a bakery and training just seven hours per week, but Vandenbulcke rarely speaks about the challenges she faces juggling motherhood and racing.

“I don’t want to have any privileges because I’m a mum. I’m also just a cyclist, and I just need to do my job. I’m not really asking for other things,” she says. “I think it should become normal.”

Deignan is in agreement with the Belgian. “I think it would be great if it became normal but I think it’s healthy, actually, that it’s celebrated.

“It should also be celebrated more on the men’s side. There’s no paternity clause in cycling. That’s ridiculous and outdated,” she explains. “So many men are under pressure to go straight back into racing when they’ve just had a baby and even missed the birth of their child. I think it would be great if it was normal for more women to have babies, but also normal for a bloke to say: I won’t be racing for the next four weeks because I’ve just had a baby.”

It takes a village

With that famous win in the Hell of the North, Lizzie Deignan became a trailblazer, a living example of what can be possible if female cyclists are given the support to race and be a mother, with no compromises. To Barker, she was a reminder of the chances the Uno-X rider still has when she restarts her career. And, when the Welsh athlete enters the peloton at the Commonwealth Games, she’ll likely be an inspiration to other women, as Deignan was to her. But such an accolade leaves Barker with mixed feelings.

“If I was watching Lizzie win Roubaix, having just had my contract revoked because I was pregnant, what’s the use of being inspired myself?” she says. “I think being inspired, wanting it and being willing to work hard at both is maybe the first 25 per cent. There’s so much pressure on new mums to be everything and to bounce back and to have it all in a very short space of time. I suppose I don’t want to be part of a narrative that just says it’s all down to hard work and determination. Because mostly it’s down to support.”

Barker doesn’t downplay how lucky she feels that Uno-X are allowing her to return to the sport without pressure. She tells me they are working with her towards her goals, each step of the way. The Norwegian team hasn’t reduced her maternity pay, which she explains makes it easier to pay for babysitting, convenient travel plans and other costs that come with having a newborn.

“I know that not everybody has the kind of support that I’ve got,” she says. “I love that people might be inspired, and people can see what’s possible and try to push those boundaries. I think what I really want is for people to actually see, okay, this is what’s possible when you really support a mother. I think if you’re going to have those expectations of somebody, you need to be providing support that exceeds that. There’s no way I could do this on my own.”

With the growth of women’s cycling, the introduction of events like the Tour de France Femmes and Paris-Roubaix and the requirements the UCI are putting on teams to improve working conditions with minimum wages and maternity clauses, Barker is hopeful that this support will become more widespread.

While both she and Deignan are aware of the fortune of their respective situations, they both take confidence from the development of the sport in recent years. “Imagine telling me 10 years ago that I’ll be attempting to go to the Tour de France when my son is one year old. I would have said, obviously, that’s not true. Because none of those things were an option then,” says Barker.

It’s fair to say that those options have come about due to women like Deignan, who have had the confidence to break through barriers without fear of backlash. October 02, 2021 was the first time a woman won Paris-Roubaix Femmes and that day had consequences that were perhaps far more significant than any of us imagined at the time.

“The win itself was bigger than me,” says Deignan. “Elisa Longo Borghini said to me after, ‘you’re the best person to have won it’. I didn’t know what she meant until she said, ‘because you’re a mother’. And that’s it.”

*Cover illustration by Enric Adell 

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