Navigating Motherhood as a Pro Cyclist: How Policies Are Changing

By Megan Flottorp

Throughout the exhilarating journey of professional cycling, female riders are immersed in a dynamic sport that continually evolves. Among the myriad challenges they navigate — one of the most transformative experiences for many is pregnancy. This pivotal life event not only reshapes a woman’s body, introducing profound shifts in her fitness journey, but marks a huge change in available time, energy, and priorities.

In this exploration, we want to look at the changing landscape within the world of professional cycling as it relates to motherhood, highlighting the evolving policies and attitudes that empower female athletes to intertwine the two roles. As we acknowledge that there is still much work to be done, we illuminate a path where newfound support and unwavering determination are steering more pro women cyclists towards successfully integrating both facets of their lives.

Historical context

In the world of professional cycling, the likes of Marta Bastianelli and Lizzie Deignan stand out as examples of top-tier athletes who were among the first to embrace both racing and motherhood. Their successes, reminiscent of icons like Serena Williams and Jessica Ennis-Hill in tennis and athletics, showcase the resilience and strength of female athletes post-pregnancy. However, these stories also underscore the challenges within the cycling and sports community that make the journey of motherhood a complex one for female professionals.

Marta Bastianelli, the lone professional road racer who was a mother at the time, faced the struggle of returning to competitive cycling after childbirth. Lizzie Deignan has also highlighted the importance of team support and financial stability in easing the transition back to racing post-motherhood. The experiences of these athletes underscore the need for a more supportive system in cycling and sports, recognising and facilitating the unique journey of women who choose to balance both career and motherhood.

Changing attitudes

While success stories like the ones mentioned above, or Kristin Armstrong’s Olympic victories (she retired in 2009 to give birth after winning her first Olympic title the year before, then came back to win gold again in London in 2012 and took victory in Rio four years later) inspire, it’s evident that such examples used to be relatively scarce in professional road cycling. Other disciplines, such as track cycling, mountain biking, and cyclo-cross, also saw athletes like Laura Kenny, Sarah Storey, Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå, Loes Sels, Denise Betsema, and Kim Van de Steene successfully combining motherhood with competitive cycling — but their experiences were by no means the norm. Until relatively recently, most pro women athletes struggled to see a way to bridge the two roles.

Thankfully, some hugely impactful policy work is being done to ensure that more women athletes have the opportunity to combine their passion for sport and family as a viable option. The introduction of a maternity clause by the UCI in 2020, championed and spearheaded by The Cyclists’ Alliance, marked a positive step towards supporting female athletes during and after pregnancy.

This regulation ensures riders receive three months of full pay and an additional five months at 50 per cent pay, albeit with some variations based on team commitments and the Women’s WorldTour system. Of course, riders are also entitled to state-mandated maternity benefits, but this varies wildly from country to country.

Maternity leave: An evolving policy

Yet, despite the fact that the right to paid and protected maternity leave was introduced several years ago, it is still finding its footing in the cycling landscape. Deignan, for one, has acknowledged the cultural variations in expectations, citing the stark differences between the UK’s generous maternity leave policies and the limited allowances in some other countries.

While progress is evident, there’s a recognition that more can be done. Recent changes allowing teams to hire replacement riders during maternity leave demonstrate a positive shift. Still, the journey toward establishing comprehensive policies supporting female and male athletes remains ongoing. Deignan has also pointed out the need for paternity clauses in men’s contracts, underlining the early stages of understanding and implementing measures that accommodate the diverse needs of athletes navigating family planning and professional cycling careers.

Success stories: Inspiring journeys of motherhood in professional cycling

These policies are already having an impact, though. In addition to the remarkable athletes mentioned earlier, many women are successfully navigating the delicate balance between professional cycling and motherhood, challenging traditional norms and proving that pursuing both dreams is not only feasible but empowering.

Taking a leap of faith: Elinor Barker

One athlete profoundly influenced by Lizzie Deignan’s path is Elinor Barker, a five-time world champion and professional cyclist for Team Uno-X. Barker discovered her pregnancy immediately after the team pursuit in Tokyo, prompting a moment of uncertainty about her cycling career. Reflecting on her options during a long flight home, Barker decided she wasn’t ready to retire and wanted to continue cycling, depending on the available support.

The Uno-X team, notably supportive of Barker’s situation, played a pivotal role in her decision to pursue motherhood and cycling. “The Uno-X bosses were actually among the first people I spoke to about it,” says Barker. “They were incredibly supportive. The message that Jens Haugland [Uno-X team manager] sent me once he found out I was pregnant was one of the nicest things I’ve ever read. It was so lovely, so supportive. It really just made me think actually, I can do this.” The open-minded support from teams like Uno-X reflects a positive trend in the last three years, influencing perceptions and showcasing the possibilities for women in professional cycling.

Finding a new normal to continue excelling while pregnant: Joss Lowden

Pregnancy periods undoubtedly challenge female athletes, as many are forced to relinquish control over their bodies and fitness. While childbearing introduces an element of unpredictability, it impacts the cyclists who thrive on meticulously planned training regimens. Joss Lowden, a 35-year-old also riding for Uno-X, was committed to combining cycling and motherhood from the start, but faced the physical challenge. Acknowledging the unpredictability introduced by childbearing, Lowden defied expectations by showcasing her efficiency in cycling through her pregnancy. She astonishingly returned from a two-and-a-half-hour ride in Andorra three weeks before her due date.

Tackling challenging terrains and setting personal records, Lowden’s daring ventures, even in the eighth month of pregnancy, underscore her determination to prove that motherhood is not a halt but a new chapter in her cycling journey.

Going pro for the first time post-pregnancy: Antri Christoforou

Antri Christoforou, a Cypriot national road race champion, faced an unexpected turn in her cycling career when she discovered her pregnancy just before joining a UK-based squad in 2015. Despite initial uncertainty, Christoforou embraced motherhood, temporarily putting her cycling career on hold. However, an opportunity with the national team in 2016 marked her return to competitive cycling.

Before the invitation, she wasn’t sure what her cycling future looked like, but the decision to go would ultimately springboard her into the professional ranks.

“We received an invitation from Israel for some races, UCI races, or points for Olympic qualification. I was lacking because I was out for one year. They invited us, and I said let’s see,” Christoforou said. “We went with the national team, and I won these races, so I got a lot of points. It was first the invitation, then the motivation for me to get back on my bike.

Christoforou got a contract with the Italian Servetto-Footon team for the remainder of the season, her first pro deal.

Comeback Queens: Chantal Van Den Broek-Blaak and Ellen van Dijk

Two more recent examples, from former World Champion Chantal Van Den Broek-Blaak and Ellen van Dijk, also exemplify the spirit of comebacks post-motherhood in professional cycling. Chantal, after a year-long hiatus enjoying the responsibilities of motherhood, is back in the saddle with the SD Worx-Protime cycling team. The 34-year-old cyclist is gearing up for a remarkable return, setting her sights on the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.

Likewise, Ellen van Dijk gave birth to her first child in October 2023 and is poised to return to the pro peloton in 2024. The three-time World Champion in the time trial credits the example set by teammate Lizzie Deignan regarding balancing professional careers and family life. Despite acknowledging the importance of family, van Dijk remains committed to extending her cycling career at least until 2025.

A bright road ahead

Ultimately, these success stories illuminate the evolving landscape of professional cycling, where women do have the option to integrate motherhood with their athletic pursuits. While challenges persist, the increasing recognition of maternity rights and evolving attitudes within the cycling community paint a promising picture. As we celebrate the triumphs of these athletes, we acknowledge the ongoing journey to create a more inclusive and supportive environment for female cyclists to pursue their passions unapologetically, on and off the saddle.