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Steadfast, by Lizzie Armitstead

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The inspiring story of a girl from Otley who skipped a maths lesson and won a world championships

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Ponferrada
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Steadfast, by Lizzie Armitstead Title: Steadfast - My Story
Author: Lizzie Armitstead (with William Fotheringham)
Publisher: Blink Publishing
Year: 2017
Pages: 284
Order: Blink
What it is: The inspiring story of a girl from Otley who skipped a maths lesson and won a world championships
Strengths: It skips between being just another generic British-Cycling-And-My-Part-In-Its-Rise-And-Rise-Rise chamoir and a contribution to the less populist and more recent British-Cycling-And-My-Part-In-Its-Downfall genre, elegantly keeping a foot in both camps
Weaknesses: It's a rather bland affair that mistakes chronological progression for a narrative arc capable of sustaining your interest

There are three sides to every story:
your side, my side, and the truth.
~ Bob Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture

On the final Saturday of September in 2015, Lizzie Armitstead - now Lizzie Deignan - won the World Championships in Richmond, Virginia, becoming only the sixth Briton to win an elite road race rainbow jerseyi. It was, to say the least, the crowning glory of a season that had already seen her win the GP Plouay, the Philly Classic, and the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, along with the Tour of Qatar and the season-long World Cup. With the rainbow jersey on her back Deignan again won the Trofeo Alfredo Binda in 2016, along with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche and the Ronde van Vlaanderen, before adding victory in her home tour, the Aviva Women's Tour.

Were any man to pull off a string victories like that - in particular winning the Ronde while wearing the rainbow jersey - and then publish an autobiography I think it's a fair bet that the stories of those races would take up a substantial portion of the book. In Deignan's autobiography, Steadfast - My Story, they take up barely 30 pages: not even one tenth of the book's total.

* * * * *

One month before she  became World Champion in 2015 Lizzie Deignan missed an out of competition anti-doping test. A month after winning the World Championships she was informed that she had incurred a second whereabouts failure, a discrepancy having been discovered in information she had filed. This put Deignan one strike away from an anti-doping violation and the possibility of having to spend a not inconsiderable period of time on the naughty step.

That third strike came in June of 2016 when a doping control officer turned up at Deignan's home in Monaco to perform an out of competition test: the World Champion was not there, having decamped to Ireland. She had failed to update her whereabouts on ADAMS to record this fact. The following month Deignan was provisionally suspended. She appealed to CAS. Her appeal was successful. Until news of her suspension and appeal was leaked to the media the whole thing was a secret known only to a few. The story of that secret suspension and appeal takes up the better part of 50 pages in Steadfast.

* * * * *

Lizzie Deignan joined the British Cycling production line in 2004, when she was 15. For the first five years she was primarily on the track programme, where she won a rainbow jersey in 2009 as part of the Team Pursuit squadii. Over the next couple of years she mixed road and track, finally exiting the track programme completely in 2011.

In the summer of 2012, after winning a silver medal in the road race at the London Olympics, Deignan spoke out for the first time about the inequalities she faced as a female athlete: the sexism, the pay differential, the lack of media attention. For the next few months that, obviously, became a key part of interviews. But by 2014 - when British Cycling faced criticism after adding two mountain bikers to the road squad at the World Championships in Ponferada and decided not to send any women to compete in the time trial - critical comment had to be coaxed out of Deignan.

Now, in Steadfast, Deignan is being reborn as the Nicole Cooke des nos jours, fearless in her criticism of the organisation that has, since the advent of Lottery funding in 1998, bought national pride with armfuls of bangles and baubles from the Olympics and more rainbow jumpers than you would find in your local branch of Benetton.

* * * * *

Every now and again you can learn something valuable from the things other people choose to tell you about their childhood. Consider this tale told by the 28-year-old Lizzie Deignan in Steadfast:

"At GCSE I had managed two A-stars, four As and two Bs. I had hit a good standard, but I had been slipping back a little, even then, starting out in set one in maths, then dropping to set two, and the same thing happened in science. I probably wasn't working as hard as I had when I first started school, and when A-levels came around I simply didn't want to be there. I started out doing English, biology, PE and history, but then I dropped English and biology and changed to business, PE and history. I quit English as early as the second lesson, when we were asked to analyse a poem and find the metaphors in it. I was arguing about the poem from a logical standpoint, while the other students spent an hour describing metaphors, which all seemed a bit too obvious."

Deignan is a person who firmly believes that she is right and that if other people don't agree with her well sod it, she'll just go off and do it herself. She is resolute in her beliefs. Unwavering. Steadfast, even. She is also fiercely independent. She has - famously - little or no contact with British Cycling, basing herself in the Principality of Monaco. She is - famously - a self-coached cyclist, having been unable to form a working relationship with coaches made available to her by British Cycling. She is, despite being a product of the British Cycling production line - it was British Cycling's Talent Team scouting programme that discovered her and it was at the medal factory in Manchester that Deignan was initially coached - almost a throwback to another era, the era of the Pioneers and the Foreign Legion, the era of riders who found success on their own terms, the era of riders who succeeded in spite of the system and not because of it.

If one word were to define Deignan it would not be steadfast, it would be control, a word that crops up more than a few times throughout Steadfast, such as here, where she is talking about the track programme:

"At British Cycling I felt like I was just a cog in a system. I didn't feel like a valued member of a team. I felt trust from my road team [Cervélo], whereas on the track it was a bit different. As long as you were performing you were fine, but when you were not, then things changed. It seemed as if you were disposable.

"I didn't like the lack of personal control. I wasn't happy with the teacher-student relationship I had with people there and I wasn't one for the politics of it, the frictions between the different tiers within the coaching staff. There just didn't seem to be respect between the coaching staff; it was as if everybody was ducking and diving and having to watch their own back. It didn't feel like a team to me. What's more, I began to realise it had always felt like that.

"It was a more limited world. The track involved spending so much time in Manchester, always with the same people. Day to day when I was on the track I was constantly analysed. Every single thing I did was recorded. There was no chance of simply riding your bike for enjoyment. I could sense from rubbing shoulders with Beijing gold medallists like Vicky Pendleton and Rebecca Romero that they had clearly been unhappy on the way to winning their medals, and it also seemed that once they had actually won them, that didn't change their lives in the way they had expected. None of this struck me overnight: the feeling grew on me in the years after I struck out on my own and began to forge a career for myself."

For many people, the big takeaway from Steadfast is going to be Deignan's criticism of British Cycling. Some - the bargain basement Malcolm Gladwells profiting by preaching the business applications of sport's management techniques - will dismiss this criticism, all of it, by pointing to the national pride purchased with all the bangles and the baubles that the system has brought home since the advent of Lottery funding at the turn of the millennium. Because, of course, Machiavelli was right: the end justifies the means. And the end in the case of British Cycling since the influx of Lottery cash in 1998 has been 46 pieces of Olympic shrapnel (25 gold, 12 silver, 9 bronze), 72 pieces of Paralympic metalwork (40 gold, 19 silver, 13 bronze) and more than 500 rainbow jerseysiii. Look at all those dreams come true, you'll be told, as if the Manchester medal factory were a branch of the Make-A-Wish foundation.

Others, though, will be only too willing to seize on every criticism Deignan has to make. All of which can be boiled down to one simple and powerful argument:

"The question that always crossed our minds concerned the funding from UK Sport. If the cash they put in was based on medals won, in what way did the money from the world championships medals won by Nicole [Cooke] and Emma [Pooley] during that [2012] Olympic cycle go towards furthering women's road racing? I don't know the answer. In terms of what was spent on me personally, I went on one training camp to Majorca and that was that for 2012."

Looking just at the road, at the Olympics the women have brought home two medals in the road race (one gold, one silver) and one in the time trial (silver) compared to the three in the time trial won by the men (one gold, two bronze). At the World Championships the men have brought home three rainbow jerseys (two in the TT, one on the road) compared with three won by women (two on the road and one in the TT). Never has British Cycling put the resources behind a women's World Championships like those thrown at Mark Cavendish's successful tilt at the title in Copenhagen. And as Deignan noted in 2012 and again notes in Steadfast, at the London Olympics she had to supply her own time trial bike and borrow a helmet from Team Sky while the men had everything laid on for them.

What will be lost on many though is that Deignan's argument is not that British Cycling's failures have stymied individuals, it is not that such an unfair division of resources has held people back. In fact, she opposes that notion totally:

"I would never put any weight behind a rider giving British Cycling's lack of support as a reason for a failed career; you need to want it so much more than that."

And for all of British Cycling's faults that she points out, Deignan is quick to pay credit where credit is due:

"British Cycling is where I started my career. There have been moments in my career where I have felt that their support hasn't been good enough, but the truth is that the organisation is full of committed and talented individuals who have made essential contributions to my career."

One of the problems Deignan has in criticising those moments when British Cycling's support has not been good enough is that, for most of them, she has been only too willing to sit back and accept it: rarely, if ever, does she show herself being proactive in demanding support in the way other riders have done in the past. In fact Deignan seems to enjoy not having to deal with the organisation: time and again you see her retreat into her own personal bubble, only engaging with British Cycling immediately prior to key invents.

Allied to that, there is all that British Cycling has actually done for Deignan, from Dave Brailsford offering to set up a national programme for her when she was having troubles with her trade team ("it was a sign they recognised what I was capable of and they certainly didn't want to see me left high and dry. My thinking was I didn't want to walk away from all the control I had been able to gain, and then go back into something I had left") through to all the times Shane Sutton chose her over other riders, from Copenhagen in 2011 to London in 2012 and on to Rio in 2016.

And then there are the marketing opportunities. Despite participating in a branch of cycle sport where half a million pounds will comfortably keep a team of a dozen riders and their associated support staff on the road for a season (meaning rider salaries are in the very low tens of thousands) Deignan - even before she hit the highs of the 2015/2016 seasons - is able to afford to live in Monaco, where the current minimum salary for a male rider would barely cover the rent alone. Deignan, though, does have other income, such as an Adidas contract she briefly mentions. As other riders have noted in the past, many marketing requests are funnelled through British Cycling and the people in charge there have been accused of favouring some riders over others when it comes to choosing who gets a lucrative contract such as the BP ambassador gig. No matter how much Deignan criticises British Cycling in Steadfast, it is hard not to see her as having been one of the organisation's chosen ones, receiving benefits not bestowed on other riders.

* * * * *

If Deignan's criticisms of British Cycling are, by necessity, somewhat neutered there are two people for whom she holds little back in Steadfast, one named, one unnamed: Nicole Cooke and Jonathan Vaughters.

Deignan's problems with Cooke are such that she feels the need to attempt to pour cold water on the story of the 2010 national championships, where Emma Pooley, Sharon Laws and Deignan are alleged to have allowed their status as Cervélo team-mates to infringe on the rules that forbid teamwork. It's a tale told by Cooke in her autobiography, The Breakaway, and supported by a pre-race interview Deignan gave the Evening Standard in which she had the following to say:

"Next up for me is the British Road Race Championships on 27 June where myself, Emma and another team-mate, Sharon Laws, will be going for the win. I have no idea how that's going to unfold but a Cervelo 1-2-3 with me at the front would be nice. The main thing is that we work together to beat Nicole Cooke, who's the big threat."

From that tale we move on to the real bone of contention Deignan has with Cooke: the Copenhagen World Championships. In the finale of that there were several crashes and in one of them Deignan found herself behind a fallen rider and so lost position. Cooke didn't:

"This was the moment where Nicole should have been looking out for me; she had been told that morning that she was to lead me out, but she had gone into that last corner in fourth position, on Marianne Vos's wheel; that was the position where she eventually finished in the sprint. She should have been there to pull me to the final metres instead I had to do it all by myself, but I still managed to find the speed and momentum to end up seventh in spite of coming from a standstill and finding my way through the traffic with no teammate to help me. Bearing in mind how fast the other riders would have been travelling in that final kilometre, if I could get back in the mix in that way, I have to say I had a real chance at a medal. A real chance. It was one of those rare days when you feel like you were floating."

Despite Britain having qualified seven riders for that race - "as big as we'd ever qualified for a world road-race championship" - the only rider Deignan faults is the one who was better positioned to avoid the crash: none of her other team-mates, and not herself for not being on Cooke's wheel.

Deignan's criticism of Vaughters is also based on two incidents. The first has been much reported - erroneously, in one key fact - and concerns a pre-season training camp in 2011, where the male and female Garmin-Cervélo teams came together. On one evening the 22-year-old Deignan was woken in her hotel room after eleven:

"It was one of the management, saying 'You need to come downstairs - there is a party for one of the male riders.' My reaction was 'Fine. Why? OK.'

"I went down to the bar and discovered that I was the only girl in the room. I was left with no choice but to take part in a dance competition with the birthday boy in front of everybody, with all the other male riders sitting on bar stools in a line watching the two of us. It was a sort of Wii game where you follow the moves on a computer screen and you have to stand on a mat with your feet at the right spots; that was it, and then I was allowed to go to bed."

You can understand the offence that this must have caused. Until you learn that the person responsible for that knock on Deignan's door was Louise Donald, who has this to say of the incident:

"I was in charge of the team camps in the 2011 season, and I was present at both team camps in Spain in 2011. That was the year we had a professional women's team joining us, and I wanted to make sure they were included in various team activities, including birthday parties. Regarding the incident Lizzie has described in her book, I can honestly say I only wanted the women to be included in Dave Zabriskie's birthday party."

The other part of Deignan's criticism of Vaughters concerns the collapse of the Garmin-Cervélo women's team at the end of 2011, after FDJ gazumped Vaughters in signing BigMat as a sponsor. In Deignan's telling AA Drinks stepping in to rescue the riders was all down to Cervélo. Vaughters disputes that now and even reports at the time were clear that the Garmin setup - Slipstream Sports - was ponying up the riders' 2012 salaries while they rode for AA Drinks. Oddly, Deignan has a lot less to say when, a year after taking Slipstream's money, AA Drinks pulled the plug on the women's team.

* * * * *

Steadfast is landing at an opportune time for Deignan, with the British media packing away the pom poms and willing to listen to those criticising the price of all those bangles and baubles British Cycling and others sports have been bringing home in recent years. Many will happily hear her criticisms here and ignore the praise, ignore the fact that what she is really telling her readers is that such complaints shouldn't matter:

"If there is a message in my story, it is that you should concentrate on what makes you happy [...]. It is about being the best version of yourself that you can manage, and having the confidence to refuse to let your light be dimmed by social pressure or the environment that you end up in. I feel that I flourished at every stage of my life when I took control".

In the same way that Deignan will forever race with the rainbow stripes discreetly displayed on the sleeves of her jerseys she will never be able to escape the cloud of suspicion that will hang over her in consequence of her secret suspension and CAS appeal. But she is now, at least, attempting to control the narrative, to distract from past mistakes by offering herself as a champion of the cause for equality in women's sport. It is therefore wholly regrettable that she says so little about actual sport itself in the pages of Steadfast, has so little to say about actual races, and instead uses the book to settle some petty scores and engage in an exercise in reinvention. For too many people - even participants - women's sport is, sadly, rarely about the actual sport, and too often about something else entirely.

i After Mark Cavendish (2011), Nicole Cooke (2008), Mandy Jones (1982), Beryl Burton (1960 and 1967), and Tom Simpson (1965)

ii Along with Wendy Houvenaghel and Joanna Rowsell

iii The actual number is hard to pin down. The UCI doesn't have all the results on its website. British Cycling has a list but that suffers from errors and omissions. My best attempt at a tally found 79 Elite (six road, 55 track, 12 MTB, six BMX), 42 Junior (six road, 19 track, one cyclo-cross, 15 MTB, one BMX), one U23 (one cyclo-cross), 83 Para (20 road, 63 track) and 295 Masters (271 track, 24 cyclo-cross). I have not been able to tally the totals for masters road or MTB.