Lizzy Banks was just coming to the end of another hugely encouraging season when the bombshell dropped last month that her team Équipe Paule Ka was folding with immediate effect.
It turned out Paule Ka, the French fashion label who entered the sport in a blaze of glory and positive PR this summer, rescuing Bigla from oblivion after the Covid-19 pandemic struck, were not quite the shining knights they had made themselves out to be.
Despite committing to three-and-a-half-years of sponsorship, they only paid one instalment in July before going very quiet.
“The whole thing was an absolute disaster,” says Banks. “When your team folds in October, in a year where there's been a global pandemic, and we're on the brink of a huge global recession, and every other team have filled their roster [for 2021]… absolutely horrendous. At that point, frankly, we were all screwed.”
Fortunately, Banks was not quite as screwed as she thought. The 30-year-old, who only began racing in 2015, quitting medical school to chase her cycling dream, is a growing force in the women’s peloton as she demonstrated when racing resumed in August.
It was Banks who instigated the winning move at GP de Plouay in August, eventually finishing second behind compatriot Lizzie Deignan. Weeks later, she won the 170km fourth stage at the Giro Rosa, riding the last 90km in the company of one other rider.
Various options emerged with Banks confirming on Wednesday that she will ride for Ceratizit-WNT in 2021.
While they are a UCI Continental outfit rather than part of the Women's WorldTour, Banks says she is thrilled to be joining a team with former world champion Lisa Brennauer and Dutch powerhouse Kirsten Wild on their books. “It’s a brilliant team,” she says. “Obviously, you have the star names. We saw last weekend that Lisa Brennauer won the Madrid Challenge by La Vuelta. But what was notable was that it was a fantastic team performance. I think there's so much talent there. It's just bubbling and waiting to come through.”
“Also, with Boels-Dolmans moving up to the WorldTour, we'll actually be the top-ranked Continental team. So we’ll get entry to all the Women’s WorldTour races off the back of that. It's a great position to be in. At all the big races, but you don't have the responsibility to chase things down like you would if you were at Trek-Segafredo or Boels-Dolmans for instance.”
Banks says she feels she and Brennauer, in particular, can work well together. “I think that combination is something that is very exciting, very dynamic, and very dangerous,” she says. “I feel funny comparing myself to somebody who has won so much and is such a prolific racer, but I do feel that our styles are quite similar; that the areas where one of us is slightly weaker, perhaps the other one makes up for it.
“I think you're going to have two tactically smart riders across all terrain who, especially with the backing of a really, really strong dynamic team can really create some fireworks and hopefully get some really big results next year.” Banks should get plenty of opportunities to do so. She says the team “absolutely mirror” her ambitions and given her ambitions are pretty lofty, that must mean leadership opportunities. The Sheffield-based rider is certainly not afraid to aim high.
“I truly believe that I can be a world champion one day,” says Banks who believes age is no barrier. “Maybe it won’t be next year or the one after but I believe I can get there and I can be one of the best riders in the world. I've only been racing for five years. I've only just finished in my second year racing in Europe. It’s quite unbelievable when you think about how far I've come. To think Ronde van Drenthe was my first women’s WorldTour race in 2019.
“I had no idea what I was doing. I learned how to ride crosswinds in the middle of that race. I don't want children at the moment, and probably not in the future either. So yeah, I really see no barrier.
“Plus,” she adds, “if somebody tells me that I can't do something, I will do my bloody hardest to make sure I can do it. Look at Annemiek [van Vleuten]. She is 38.”
In the immediate future, Banks’s focus will be on knuckling down to a winter of hard training. But her thoughts are already turning to next year.
She had designs on the Tour de Yorkshire only for it to be postponed on Wednesday due to Covid. But she is still targeting the Women’s Tour in June (“To get a podium there would be a dream”) as well as the spring classics, particularly the elusive Tour of Flanders.
“I didn’t get to ride it last year because I got concussion and then this spring it was cancelled because of Covid, and then this autumn my team couldn’t race because of folding. I just feel like it is one of those races that, you know, would probably really suit me.” Banks is also hoping to be named in Britain’s Olympic team. Most of all, though, she is just excited to bed into her new team after a period of huge uncertainty, which left her stressed and struggling to sleep.
Banks feels the women’s side of cycling is “definitely going in the right direction” even if it was a sad reflection of the times that she and her fellow Équipe Paule Ka riders were scrabbling around for contracts worth a fraction of what the top men earn.
A survey of riders published by the Cyclists’ Alliance last week found that only a quarter of respondents were making more than €30,000 a year. There is a minimum salary of €15,000 for riders employed by their team and €24,600 for self-employed riders, but these standards apply only to the nine Women's WorldTour teams.
“The amounts that we're looking at are a drop in the ocean compared to how much how much men's teams are run with. If I said to Chris Froome, ‘Can I have one per cent of your salary?’ That'd be a pretty good salary for a woman. He wouldn't even notice. Not to pick on Froome who has obviously won seven grand tours, but still, yeah…”
“Last month was a really f------ s--- situation. I've not been that stressed for a really, really long time. I wasn't sleeping. I mean, we've committed to doing major building works on our house. I was supposed to be the main breadwinner. Suddenly, it put massive pressure on my husband. It’s all worked out quite well in the end but I would never wish that stress upon anyone.”