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When we entered the European season at Omloop het Nieuwsblad at the end of February, all eyes were on 27-year-old Lizzie Armitstead.
She had an incredible 2015 season, with a dozen wins including the Great Britain national road race title, the overall UCI Women’s World Cup and, of course, the world championship road race in Richmond. Outspoken about her Olympic dreams, everyone wanted to know how the peloton’s new leader would fare and if she’d struggle under the so-called rainbow curse.
“I do not believe in the rainbow curse”
The performances of world champions have varied in women’s cycling. Some women –like 2014 winner Pauline Ferrand-Prevot—have struggled, unable able to win while wearing the rainbow jersey. Others have thrived.
Multiple world champion Marianne Vos for example has seen great success in the rainbow stripes. Following her golden 2012 year, in which she won the Olympic and World Championship road race, Vos went on a winning streak. The start of the 2013 season saw her on the top step of the podium at Drentse 8, Ronde van Drenthe, Ronde van Vlaanderen and La Flèche Wallonne Féminine. In fact, that whole 2013 year was a good one for Vos, who would defend her rainbow jersey in Italy that summer. Armitstead seems to be well on her way to do the same.
“I do not believe in the rainbow curse,” Armitstead told Ella CyclingTips at the start of the season. “But I know where it comes from.”
“It’s really difficult to manage being a world champion,” said Armitstead, who first got a taste of what it’s like to keep up with media and sponsor demands while also staying in form after earning a silver medal at the London Olympics. “After 2012, it did affect my performance. Being a British athlete getting a medal, that winter was so busy and my next season was terrible. So I learned from that experience and I kept a good balance this winter.”
This time around, Armitstead was not letting a busy schedule keep her from being at the top.
She was quick to put any talk about a rainbow curse to rest when, at her first appearance of the season at Omloop het Nieuwsblad, Armitstead proudly pointed to the rainbow stripes on her torso as she crossed the finish line solo.
And this was just the start for Armitstead and her dominant Boels-Dolmans team, who thus far have won all of the inaugural UCI Women’s WorldTour events. Armitstead herself has netted three wins already –at Omloop het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianchi and Trofeo Binda.
One more win before Rio
Now, Armitstead has her eyes set on one more win, the Tour of Flanders, before she changes course and starts preparing for the Rio Olympics.
“Flanders has always been a dream race,” said Armitstead. “It would be nice to win Flanders because I won’t know if I’ll win so much in the rest of the season focusing so much on my training for Rio.”
It’s not that we won’t see her as much in the races, but rather that her races will serve as training for the season’s ultimate goal: the gold medal at the Olympic road race in July.
“I’m basically splitting my season in two,” Armitstead had told Ella CyclingTips at the beginning of the season. “The spring classic and then I’ll switch my focus totally on Rio.”
The switch, Armitstead explained, will be spending more time in the mountains in preparation of the hilly Olympic courses.
“But even with this being an Olympic year, I try not to change too much. I think that’s a mistake I see a lot of athletes making,” said Armitstead. “The formula I’ve had works, so I’m not going to change too much but I’m generally doing more climbing.”
Self-coached and personal accountability
What’s interesting about Armitstead is that “the formula” she mentioned is her own. Unlike many of her peers, Armitstead is self-coached and has been for most of her career.
When she made the switch from being a track rider to a road racer, Armitstead started coaching herself out of necessity. At the time, there was no coach available through British Cycling road program and she simply couldn’t afford one on her own. Nowadays, however, being self-coached is a conscious decision.
Sure, she works with team manger Danny Stam to set a race program and relies on her masseuse to tell her when her body needs a break, but the rest is all her.
“I plan my training at the start of each week and I’m flexible based on how I’m feeling so it changes a lot,” revealed Armitstead. “I analyse my own power data, race data, that sort of thing. I studied physical education and physiology, and I still read a lot on the internet. It’s such a fashionable thing these days — exercise and sport and healthy eating. I’m always reading up on stuff and always getting ideas.”
Over the years, various people have suggested coaching options to her but Armitstead said it was “more stressful than helpful.”
“It’s probably my weakness in that I am not a very good communicator. In order for me to have the kind of relationship that you need with a coach, it needs to be very close and you need to know the person very well,” she said. “I don’t think I’m very good at building that kind of relationship on paper or over phone so I would need someone I’d see every single day or it would have to be somebody I know very well and there hasn’t been somebody like that.”
Plus, making a shift in training is risky and it’s not a risk Armitstead is willing to take in the height of her career.
“Going into an Olympic year, I didn’t want to try something new,” she said. “I’d already been successful so why change something good?”
Being self-coached doesn’t work for everyone, or for most athletes in fact, but it does work for Armitstead because of one simple reason: her sense of accountability.
“Accountability is important in our job. If I don’t train properly, the only person I’m letting down is myself. It’s my results that I need to stand behind and I can’t blame somebody else,” she said.
It’s that same personal accountability that has helped her enter this season with confidence, and race unaffected by pressure or external expectations.
“I don’t feel more pressure [being world champion],” said Armitstead. “I always ride for myself and to prove to myself that I’m good. I’m not really bothered about the media or expectations to be honest. I’m always doing it for me, and I’ve proved to myself that I can be the best in the world, so the pressure is actually off a little bit, I think.”
Learn more about her self-coaching here: