"I'll be back soon. Count on me" – Changing perceptions of motherhood in cycling
Laura Meseguer analyses the pace of change in attitudes towards pregnancy in sport and explains why motherhood should be normalised
It took one hundred and twenty-five years for women to have the opportunity to race Paris-Roubaix. History had to be written many times before we finally saw that army of female cyclists riding over the muddy cobblestones. The winner that day was Britain's Lizzie Deignan, a double world champion on the track and road and one of the greatest cyclists of the last decade.
A few months after that historic Paris-Roubaix race in October, the thirty-three year old cyclist, pregnant with her second child, announced that she was temporarily retiring from cycling. In the same communiqué, the Trek-Segafredo team announced that she would extend her contract until 2024. And this, which one would wish was the norm, was a huge announcement. There are very few cases of elite sportswomen who decide to have children without giving up competition, but there are even fewer who do so a second time, often due to a lack of support from the team, federations or sponsors, depending on the sport.
Let's look at a few examples. When the American athlete and Olympic champion Allyson Felix became pregnant, her main sponsor, Nike, forced her to break her contract by offering her 70% of her salary without guaranteeing that she would not be financially punished if she did not reach her pre-pregnancy sporting level.
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Felix spent months hiding her pregnancy, even training at night, in order to get as much coverage as possible from her sponsors. The multinational company also broke its contract with athlete Kara Goucher during her pregnancy and "until she could compete again". Financial pressure led Goucher to start training a week after giving birth and to run a half marathon three months later.
Allyson Felix with her child after the trials for the Tokyo Games (Image: Getty)
Meanwhile, middle-distance runner Alysia Montaño, who will be remembered as the "pregnant athlete" for being eight months pregnant while competing in the US championships, said in The New York Times: "Nike told me to dream wildly until I wanted a baby". Breaking her confidentiality contracts, she also publicly denounced Asics, another of her sponsors.
The whistleblowing had an effect and Nike reacted by changing its policy towards pregnant athletes to guarantee their contract for eighteen months: eight months during pregnancy and ten months after delivery. In August 2021, it launched its campaign “The Toughest Athletes” with pregnant women doing sport as the protagonists of its campaign. Standing out in a cast of unknown women was the face of the tennis player Serena Williams, who, it should be noted, was never turned away by the company during her pregnancy.
The former professional Basque cyclist and Olympic medallist Leire Olabarria says that when she decided to become a mother, she had the support of her sponsors at all times and, on her return to competition, that of her team Gipuzkoa-Ogi Berri.
She regrets that this was not the case with the RFEC (Royal Spanish Cycling Federation), though, who apparently not only did not make things easy for her but also discriminated against her. "I had so many duties and very few rights myself.” Among other things, she was summoned nine months after giving birth to a forty-day schedule away from home which involved travelling the world from one end to the other. She missed out on the support to travel with her child, something that the US Womens NBA does provide, for example.
Leire Olaberria at a meeting with women cyclists at the Anoeta velodrome / Photo: Unai Gómez
Lizzie Deignan's first pregnancy was a key moment for the future of women's cycling in maternity politics. In March 2018, when Deignan announced her pregnancy, she was racing for the Boels-Dolmans team, the current SD Worx, with which she ended up breaking her contract due to "very different visions of what my return to competition should look like", in Deignan's own words. Six months pregnant, Trek offered her a contract as a brand ambassador while the Trek-Segafredo women's team was taking shape. The US team has proved to be a true game-changer in cycling, with a clear policy of equality and protection for its athletes.
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The situation is evolving, and in 2020 a measure designed by the UCI came into force whereby World Tour teams must include contracts with three months' maternity leave at 100% pay, plus five months at 50% pay. Perhaps as a result of this development, the 2017 world champion from the Netherlands, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, rider of SD-Worx, is not hiding her desire to become a mother, for which she now has the full support of the team, with whom she has renewed her contract until 2024.
Catalan Olympic swimmer Ona Carbonell became a mother in 2020 and went on to prepare thoroughly for the 2021 Games in Tokyo. Her story can be seen in the documentary “Empezar de nuevo” (translating to “starting again” in English). During her promotion for the film, she acknowledged that confidence in the work environment is key to deciding to become a mother and this can be extrapolated to all professions.
Ona Carbonell at the Tokyo Olympics / Photo: Getty Images
With the conversations I have had to write this article, I’ve come to realise that motherhood in top-level sport is still not yet an issue which is on the table. Even in women’s cycling, it is hardly a topic of conversation. This could be because of fears and uncertainties that still exist around it, whether it is about losing status in the team in a highly competitive sector, reconciling top-level competition with family life, economic issues or not returning to the desired sporting level.
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I am not an elite athlete, but I am a mother and I recognise some of these fears. Fear of losing the place I have achieved through so many years of hard work. Fears that also led me to hide my first pregnancy for as long as possible. Although no one turned their back on me, I found myself announcing my second pregnancy accompanied again by the message: "I'll be back soon. Count on me".
This sentence I read on the Sports Illustrated website reflected my feelings: "They want to make out that they never left, that they have never been mothers and that they don't have to carry the immense weight of responsibility that comes with this role".
All this so as not to lose everything that has been achieved, all the while seeking to reconcile the contradictions of wanting to work, which means spending time away from home, and the suffering of not being able to be with your children.
Let us hope that Lizzie's case, like those of Dame Laura Kenny, Dame Sarah Storey or Kristin Armstrong, among others, will cease to be seen as something extraordinary.
Let's stop seeing mothers as heroines even though they are tremendously admirable. Let's normalise motherhood and protect it. How society treats sportswomen who are mothers is important, because sport is still a reflection of our society, and that is why these women are such fundamental and powerful agents for change.
Cover image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix