IT would be appropriate to declare that the ‘world and his wife’ will be watching Otley’s Lizzie Armitstead in her bid for a women’s road race Olympic gold on Sunday.
Just one month before the athlete marries fellow cyclist Philip Deignan, a turbulent week has magnified the focus on an already very well-documented chase for gold.
The Yorkshire star was only denied by Marianne Vos at London 2012 and has improved since, a point exemplified by last September’s maiden world title triumph in Richmond, USA. Few, if any, can have more obvious claims on paper. Yet Armitstead says a climbing course far removed from a terrain that suits her normal style has presented the ultimate challenge.
Armitstead is one of Yorkshire and Team GB’s brightest medal hopes but the route to this weekend’s women’s road race has been anything but smooth. It was only on Monday evening that news emerged that Armitstead had missed three consecutive drugs test – throwing her place in Rio in doubt – only for the rider to win an appeal against an anti-doping rule violation over whereabouts, at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
“It hurts me to consider anybody questioning my performances,” said Armitstead. “Integrity is something I strive for in every part of my life. I hate dopers and what they have done to sport.”
Emotionally speaking, the cyclist has been put through the wringer en route to a bid for Olympic gold. The 27-year-old says she also faces an enormous challenge with the specialist nature of the course meaning the rider would regard the concept of winning Olympic gold an even more incredible feat than meets the naked eye.
“It is unlike any course that I have ever ridden on before,” warned Armitstead.
“In women’s cycling, I count myself quite lucky that I am a bit of an all-rounder because the majority of races suit me.
“We only really do mountain races in the Giro and I would say this represents a stage of a tour like that. It’s a very difficult course. It’s a pure climber’s course really. There is a section down the bottom end which has got cobbled short steep climbs which will suit me and put the climbers on the back foot, hopefully, but essentially the main part of the course and that last climb is incredibly steep and long.
“So to win this race for me would be an epic achievement. The way the race will pan out in the mountains – if I am able to win a race like that it would be an incredible achievement really. I would be absolutely delighted.”
That said, Armitstead remains quietly confident thanks to a pain-staking training routine that has seen her face even more time than usual training in the mountains near her Monaco home.
“I’ve been up there, suffering in the mountains, day in, day out,” she said. “I’ve basically been riding mountains to get better at riding through them more. There’s a climb which I am very familiar with which is near the first town on the Italian side of Monaco and when I first started it would take me about 20 minutes. I have got it down to about 16 now. I have taken a fair wedge off that and I have spent quite a bit more time with Team Sky.
“I have been doing a lot of similar climbs to what Geraint Thomas would have been preparing on I suppose.”
Nikki Harris and Emma Pooley present two more pieces in the jigsaw aimed at securing Armitstead an Olympic gold, and the Otley ace is delighted to have her team-mates’ support in her status of lead GB rider. Armitstead reasoned: “It is a team sport so Nikki and Emma will be very valuable. It is a sacrifice for them but that’s sport and it’s not just about the Olympic road race. You have to put yourself in a position throughout the qualifying period to be the leader in that race and I think my results have justified me being the leader.
“I’m pretty confident and I am the fittest I’ve ever been. I am the leanest I have ever been so all the things I can control are in place. I’m as confident as I can be.”