It’s now been a year since Lizzie Deignan’s (née Armitstead) whereabouts controversy sparked a media frenzy just days before the Rio Olympics.
Unbeknownst to the press, Deignan had been placed under provisional suspension in July of 2016, after being charged by the UK Anti-Doping agency for three alleged whereabouts violations, dating back to 2015. The news broke when Deignan and a legal team funded by British Cycling appealed UKAD’s charge at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The appeal was successful and the first of the three violations was removed from her record, thereby lifting her suspension and escaping a potential four-year ban.
Since then, Deignan’s world champion stripes have changed hands, her Boels-Dolmans team has gained a new queen, and all seems quiet on the whereabouts front.
Still, at a time when the overall faith among the British about the integrity of sport is already low, the whole ordeal has left some mistrust among the fans of one-time darling of British cycling. It’s also left a bitter taste in the mouth of Boels-Dolmans Director Sportif Danny Stam.
“Plain and simple, it was a shit period, especially for Lizzie who suffered from it the most,” Danny Stam told Ella CyclingTips earlier this year. “It’s not something you want to be associated with as a team, but it’s been resolved as good as was possible.”
For Stam, the alleged missed test in Vargarda, Sweden, was a particularly sore spot.
“It wasn’t a missed test. We were present,” he stated firmly.
Stam had provided a room listing to the receptionist at the team hotel. But when the doping control officer didn’t clarify who he was or why he wanted the rider’s room number, the receptionist refused to give him Deignan’s room number out of respect of her privacy. In court, CAS ruled in favour of Deignan, stating that the tester didn’t make sufficient efforts to contact her.
“For me, it’s been a harsh learning lesson,” commented Stam. “I had never experienced anything like this before, and it’s not like we have an office of lawyers to advise us.”
While it’s each athlete’s responsibility to update their whereabouts and make themselves available, Stam said he now documents everything in case they ever find themselves in a situation like this again.
“Previously, providing a room list to the front desk was sufficient. Now, I hang the list on my door and take a picture of it for good measure. You have to go to these extremes or no one will believe you, and that’s a shame,” he said.
Deignan meanwhile has become a wary of the press. In her biography – which was published six months after its projected release date to include a new chapter about the whearbouts saga – Deignan shares her frustration and disappointment with the media.
“Unfortunately, the events of the summer definitely affects the way I feel about the media. If I’m honest, I don’t like doing interviews and media; I like winning and I like bike racing. My whole experience has made me question this aspect of my job as a modern sportsperson,” she pens.
“[My reputation] as it is now, it’s damaged, but I am not a banned athlete. I am not, never have been and never will be, a cheat, and it hurts that people might think of me as one no matter what I say or do now because of an administrative error.”
“From our perspective, there were no balanced articles; there was no balanced approach or representation for me in the media…The truth is, it is one filing failure and one missed test, plus one alleged missed test, which was overruled. As a member of the public reading that headline, you would believe it, why wouldn’t you? I had always assumed that the newspapers relayed full facts, but now I realise that is not the case, and that as an individual I feel that you have no way of stopping it unless you have endless resources to employ expensive lawyers.
“So many of the stories implied that I might have been doping, which was scary because that wasn’t the story. The story wasn’t doping; I can see why people conflate the two, but there was no doping. I think I was a victim of my own success – ‘Oh, that makes sense, that’s why she won so much.’
In that position you just have to take it. You can’t reply to it or do anything. It was very difficult … I was surprised by the abuse I received after the Mail story came out. It was partly the online comments, but also things like walking into a room and knowing that people are looking at you and saying, ‘That’s the girl who got three strikes.’
Before her suspension, Deignan’s performances were, simply put, dominant. Defeating the so-called rainbow curse, Deignan reigned in the world championships stripes, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche, Trofeo Alfredo Binda, the Tour of Flanders and the Aviva Womens Tour.
With Rio in sight, she was a definite race favourite.
But her whole world came crashing down when she was notified about her three missed whereabouts. The court case, the media frenzy and the stress that came with it all took its toll. She was unable to defend her medal at the Olympic Games or her world title in Qatar.
“I wanted to race because I had earned the right to be there and I needed to do it for my family and friends and all those that had supported me. Pulling out of the race would almost have felt like an admission of guilt. I’d qualified the team, I’d put four years of work into it; mine and Phil’s family had been to hell and back; I had to race for them. We had been through too much for me to give up at the last hurdle. But perhaps subconsciously I just didn’t have the will to win anymore,” Deignan explains in her book.
And while she did manage a top-five finish at both the Olympics and the world championships, it seems like we haven’t seen quite the same Lizzie since.
Her championship stripes were passed on to her teammate Amalie Dideriksen and the dominant Dutch squad has found a new leader in Olympic and European road champion Anna van der Breggen, who signed with Boels-Dolmans ahead of the Rio Olympics last year.
Still, Deignan has persevered. Since Rio, she got married to Team Sky’s Philip Deignan, published her biography, and has had steady results. She came in second to teammate Van der Breggen at all the Ardennes races, and won Tour de Yorkshire in front of a hometown crowd.
And with her victory at the British national road championships and an impressive performance up the Izoard last week, Deignan showed that she’s still plenty capable of being the team lead.
Second to the top of the Col d’Izoard on Thursday’s La Course, Deignan started the race as domestique. But after setting a blistering pace at the start of the climb, she ended up riding at the pointy end of the race for herself.
“I maybe should have been a little bit more confident going into this race and have said that I was good enough to be a leader here as well,” Deignan commented after the race. “We came into the race with Megan [Guarnier] as a leader and perhaps it was a mistake just to have one – but that’s my mistake, not to be more confident.”
The British champ followed up her performance in the second stage on Saturday, where she again took second to Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-Scott) in the pursuit.
The UCI Women’s WorldTour continues on Saturday, July 29, with Prudential RideLondon. Now that we are in the latter part of the season, cyclists are eying the world championships in Bergen, and with the British national champion’s jersey freshly draped over her shoulders, look to Deignan to make her bid for Bergen in the coming races.
It’s unlikely that she will ever be able to put the whole whereabouts affair completely behind her, but Deignan is moving forward with a new passion.
“There is your reputation, which you will never get back; as it is now, it’s damaged, but I am not a banned athlete. I am not, never have been and never will be, a cheat, and it hurts that people might think of me as one no matter what I say or do now because of an administrative error,” Deignan penned.
“The summer of 2016 made me realise that I love riding my bike even more than I thought I did, and it made me aware of the reasons I’m doing it. I love bike racing, the actual race; it’s like chess, the focus you have, the fact it’s controllable, it’s fun. There is nothing else like it.”