Sportswomen of the year: Lizzie Deignan reflects on an incredible year for Britain’s female cyclists

It was a bumper year for British women's cyclists in many disciplines, from the track to the road to BMX

What a year 2021 was for British women on bikes. All kinds of bikes. All kinds of terrain. From Lizzie Deignan’s astonishing victory in the first ever Paris-Roubaix Femmes, to Katie Archibald’s superhuman efforts on the track alongside Laura Kenny, Sarah Storey’s history-making exploits winning a 17th gold medal at the Paralympics, and BMX brilliance from Charlotte Worthington and Beth Shriever.

Trying to pick a rider of the year out of that lot is no mean feat. Each in their own way was remarkable.

Deignan began the year beset by illness and injury. Unfortunately for her, she did not manage to hit top form in time for Tokyo – her major goal. But she made up for it in stunning fashion, ending the season as the first winner of the women’s Paris-Roubaix, the iconic cobbled classic in northern France which has been running for well over 100 years for the men.

Deignan provided a suitably historic script for what was an historic race, launching her winning move, improbably, 79 kilometres from the finish, building a gap, and then holding off her long-time rival Marianne Vos, who tried desperately to reel her in. It was a performance for the ages.

As she wrote in The Road Book 2021, the cycling almanack edited by Ned Boulting: “I genuinely felt like the moment was bigger than me. I really felt like I was part of history. I said afterwards that I had felt the power of generations of women.”

Images of Deignan’s hands, bloodied from battle with the pavé, and her red-painted nails peering out from the steam in Roubaix’s famous concrete showerblocks as she took a post-race shower, immortalised the occasion.

Deignan's bloodied hands after her thrilling Paris-Roubaix victory

“I have non-cycling friends who wonder what on earth that’s all about!” Deignan added. “They can’t believe there’s a picture of me in the showers being auctioned off for charity. But it is an iconic image – you’re washing off the mud of the battle.” 

From Deignan’s bloodied hands to Archibald’s sheer bloody-mindedness and restless search for perfection, which has arguably made her the world’s most dominant track rider. What a season the Scot enjoyed. 

We are better accustomed to seeing Kenny in the headlines for Team GB – and with good reason given that Britain’s “golden girl”, now a mum to four-year-old Albie, won a fifth Olympic gold medal out in Japan, plus a silver to add to her groaning collection making her the most decorated female Olympic cyclist of all time. 

But Archibald was undoubtedly the stronger performer for Team GB in Japan. And afterwards, too. The Scot swept the board this year, winning Olympic, world and European titles. Her famous spreadsheets, which Kenny credited as a major factor in their astonishingly dominant win in the inaugural Olympic women’s Madison, added to the impression of a rider at the very top of her game. 

It will be fascinating to see what she does in Paris as she targets the omnium spot, which has long been Kenny’s domain. Storey – the third in a trio of supermums, alongside Kenny and Deignan – has no threat to her hegemony. Since picking up her first two gold medals as a swimmer at the Barcelona Games in 1992, she has been in a class of her own.

Archibald (L) and Kenny (R) in action during this year's Olympic Madison

Credit: REUTERS

Utterly brilliant. Storey’s victory in the C4-5 road race in Japan this summer, in appalling conditions, was one of her best. But she is not planning on stopping there. 

“I said even before Tokyo that, regardless of results, I couldn’t imagine stopping in an empty stadium and with no crowd,” Storey wrote in another end-of-year essay in The Road Book. “There are so many reasons to keep going. And fewer reasons to stop.” 

There were so many other great stories, and encouraging performances; Evie Richards, after a brave seventh-place finish in Tokyo, taking world mountain bike gold in Val di Sole; Zoe Backstedt, still just 17, winning the junior world road race and becoming the youngest winner of an elite women’s cyclocross race in Belgium; 21-year-old Pfeiffer Georgi winning the national road race title having been marked out by Deignan at the worlds as “probably the best team GB team-mate I’ve ever had”. 

And that’s not even to mention Britain’s BMX bandits Worthington and Shriever. It was glorious. Cycling, like so many professional sports, has traditionally been run by men for men. And there remains a huge gender gap. But Britain is leading the way in terms of redressing the balance, investing in new disciplines and driving standards. 

The sight of Mark Cavendish, the Tour green jersey winner, standing roadside in Essex during the Women’s Tour to cheer on the peloton was an apt metaphor for a year when Britain’s female cyclists drew the crowds and shone brighter than ever on every stage.

Sportswomen of the year

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