When Lizzie Deignan broke away from the bunch ahead of the first of 17 cobbled sectors at the inaugural women’s Paris-Roubaix, and then soloed 82km to the finish, making light of the rain, the mud and her own blood-spattered hands, her performance was hailed as one for the ages. An inspiration to girls and women the world over.
Here was an athlete, one of the only mothers in the pro peloton, winning the first edition of the most iconic races in men’s cycling, a race so tough it is dubbed ‘The Hell of the North’.
One observer was even more inspired than most. “It couldn’t have come at a better time for me,” admits Elinor Barker. “It really felt like destiny; like Lizzie’s performance that day was speaking directly to me.”
Barker, the Olympic gold and silver medallist in team pursuit, went public earlier this week with news that she and her Danish partner Casper were expecting their first child.
The announcement, which she made on Instagram alongside a photo of the happy couple posing with their scan (below), prompted a wildly enthusiastic response from the cycling community. It was understandable. Not only is Barker one of the most popular and longstanding members of Britain’s track cycling team, she also publicly revealed in 2019 that she had, unknowingly, struggled for years with endometriosis, a condition which can cause pain, heavy periods, fatigue and even infertility.
Little wonder the last few weeks have been, as she describes it, “a bit of an emotional rollercoaster”.
When we speak, Barker is at Copenhagen airport, returning from a 10-day trip to see Casper’s family and friends. She is buzzing about the future, about the prospect of being a mum, about trying to return to elite-level cycling. But she admits it has taken her a while to get her head around her new circumstances.
The 27 year-old was in Tokyo preparing to defend her team pursuit crown with Laura Kenny, Katie Archibald and the rest of the gang when she first suspected she might be pregnant.
She was late with her period but had read something about the covid vaccine and how that could affect the menstrual cycle. Barker wondered whether that was it. But there was no way of knowing for sure. Stuck in a covid-secure bubble in the team hotel, and only allowed out to compete or train, she could hardly nip out to the nearest pharmacy to buy a test kit.
Unsure what to do, she went to see the team doctor and psychologist who advised her that they could order a kit in for her.
“Even then, I didn’t think I was really ready to know,” she says. “Because I think if I knew for sure that I was pregnant I would have found it really hard to have raced.”
The plan they devised was a novel one. They discussed what she could and could not safely ingest in terms of caffeine and supplements, but thereafter they agreed not to mention it again until after the team pursuit, Barker’s only event, was over.
It must have been torture, especially given doctors had warned her when she was diagnosed with endometriosis at 23 that it could make it difficult to conceive. “I had been told to prepare myself for that possibility,” she says. “That it could be really difficult, that we should plan for years. It was something Casper and I had discussed. So of course I was on tenterhooks.
“But actually I feel like I managed that period really really well. I felt focused the whole time.”
So much so she completely blanked it from her mind. “It was only really afterwards, I think I was watching the men’s team sprint podium and the psychologist, knowing that we’d managed to get hold of a [pregnancy] test and that as soon as I got back to the accommodation that night I was going to take it, asked me what I thought the result would be.
“I thought he was talking about the men’s race and I was like ‘Huh? It’s over. We’re watching the podium.’ And he was like ‘No, not that result!’”
The next few hours, Barker says, were “head spinning”. British Cycling’s coaches had made a tactical decision to rest her for the second round, but then decided to stick with her replacement Neah Evans for the final. It was a decision with which she did not agree and she was, by her own admission, “crushed”. Barker was not even allowed on to the podium to celebrate the team’s silver medal, even though, as part of the team in the qualifying round, she had qualified for one.
“I still can’t get my head around that IOC rule,” she says. “I am considered to be worthy of a medal by the IOC, and I was given a medal, but I just wasn’t allowed to have that moment, which was what I had trained for and worked so hard for? I think I’d rather have been able to go on the podium with my teammates and enjoy that moment together than have the medal if I’m honest. That was horrible. It really really sucked.”
At the same time she had a secret which only a handful of people in the world knew about and which could change her life forever. “That day was probably the biggest emotion of every kind that I’ve ever felt,” she says. “It was like the biggest moments of my life all happening at once.”
In the end, Barker returned to the hotel and did the test on her own. As she waited for the result, she got a text from her coach asking her to come to a meeting. “I knew they wanted to present me with my medal but it just wasn’t the right time. I had to send a message back saying, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t make it. I need some space. I hope you understand.’”
Even then there was further drama. “The result of the first test was void. Luckily it was a pack of two and I made sure to aim very carefully the second time.”
Looking back now, Barker can hardly describe the rawness of those first few hours; the mixture of emotions exploding inside her. Given what the doctors had told her about endometriosis, she was ecstatic. “I think that’s what made it such happy news immediately. As I say, it was a conversation we’d had. We had talked about maybe trying in a few years, way before my career would be over. Because the last thing I wanted was to retire from cycling and for that to be the next goal in my life, and to find that was unattainable. So that was a real worry. And I think because of that, it was far more of a shock than it maybe would otherwise have been. Because I thought it wasn’t possible.”
She rang Casper to tell him the news, then her sister Megan “about 25 seconds later – I don’t know how some people wait 12 weeks to tell their loved ones.”
She eventually did her ‘medal ceremony’ in a car park the following morning and says she was touched that so many of the GB team showed up. But by now she just wanted to get home.
“I posted a picture on Instagram of us all with our medals from my ceremony,” she recalls. “In that picture I actually have the test result in my pocket. I was literally carrying it around as if it was the actual child itself! I thought if I lose this, firstly someone might see it. But secondly, it wouldn’t have felt real. I needed that proof with me at all times. So yeah I just carried it around obsessively for the next day or two.”
Life since Tokyo has been a whirlwind, but in a good way. Barker had a two-year contract offer from Norwegian pro team Uno-X on the table when she got back from the Games, but had not yet put pen to paper. She felt it would be the “decent thing” to tell them her news.
“I wasn’t totally sure how they’d react,” she admits. “I kind of thought maybe they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s really good news, get back to us when you’re back riding again’. But they were absolutely phenomenal. It was as if we were a family already, even though I’d only ever dealt with them by phone and WhatsApp. That was unreal.”
British Cycling was, she says, also hugely supportive. And Barker knows who she has to thank for that. Sarah Storey, Kenny and Deignan were three high-profile athletes who went off to have babies and returned stronger than ever.
“If Uno-X and British Cycling hadn’t seen it done before, and hadn’t seen the opportunities, and what’s possible, they might have been far less likely to offer me such encouragement. So I thank those women who have gone before and blazed a trail.”
The Welsh rider also had Deignan to thank for settling a few personal nerves last weekend. That ride through Hell to win Paris-Roubaix was the ultimate validation.
“When I say it felt like ‘destiny’ watching that race, that probably sounds weird,” she says. “But even though there have been a lot of inspiring stories out there about mums returning to elite level sport, you still have doubts. I hadn’t told that many people yet [by last weekend]. I was asking myself questions like ‘What’s our future going to look like?’ and ‘How are we going to make this work?’ and ‘Is it really possible?’
“Watching Lizzie do that I just thought: ‘If she’s capable of doing that then I’ll be OK. I may not win Paris-Roubaix but I’ll be OK.’”
Barker hopes she will be able to return in similar fashion. She says she and Casper – a former track rider who also works in cycling, notably with Denmark’s team pursuit squad – will live in Manchester, at least initially. But they are likely to move abroad at some point. “I’m just excited about it all,” she concludes. “Having a bilingual baby. Living in a foreign country. I’m ready to embrace it all.
“I guess this [becoming a mum while being an elite athlete] was just something I never really considered. I don’t know. It always seemed like something ‘superhuman’ I suppose.
“I always remember hearing that Sarah Storey’s waters broke while she was on the turbo. I was told that when I must have been 19 or 20 and I remember being like ‘What! That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard!’ But now, I’m like ‘Wow, I hope that’s me.’ I would love to keep training until that point. That would be the dream.”