“I didn’t even have a bike six years ago”: An ex-Sheffield student’s journey into professional cycling

No professional athlete will ever tell you that the road to the top is easy.

Athletes come from a myriad backgrounds and take many different paths to the elite level of their sport, but there is one thing they all have in common, a desire to win.

Lizzy Banks is no different in that regard, but her path to elite women’s cycling took a few different turns to most.

Just six years ago, while studying for her medical degree at the University of Sheffield, Lizzy was invited by a friend to take part in a Sportive event.

These events are amateur road cycling challenges which take place all over the UK, but there was just one problem.

“I didn’t even have a bike,” she said, “but I just fancied the challenge.”

She completed the 100-mile ride, but it was not until a couple of years later that she really got the cycling bug.

“I had a bike then, but I wasn’t using it that much until I decided to go on a little bike touring adventure, which gave me a lot of fitness. 

“From there I started using Strava [a social media platform for measuring and comparing exercise sessions] and realised I was actually quite fast on a bike.

“I’ve always been quite competitive, so then I just had this desire to compete, it went from one thing to the next and I started racing. The next thing I knew, I wanted to be a professional cyclist.”

Lizzy Banks on her experiences as a professional cyclist.

Lizzy dropped out of her medical degree not long after to commit full-time to cycling. She acknowledges it was a tough decision to make but she maintains it was the right one.

“It was really hard to leave my medical degree because there was a lot of outside pressure to continue – being a doctor is a very well-respected job, well paid, and being a professional cyclist was really quite unknown.

“I didn’t know if I would get a contract, I didn’t know if I would be good enough, but I had to try – at the end of the day I can go back to doing degrees, I can go back to education but I’m not getting any younger and I can’t go back to professional sport.”

Sadly, that was not the end of the adjustment. The financial state of cycling means it is tough to athletes, especially those just breaking into the elite level, to support themselves and make a decent living.

Lizzy accepts that she has been fortunate to have good support from her family but realises that it is still a tough situation for many others.

“I’m lucky that my husband has been able to help support me. Without him I wouldn’t have got here because I would have to have a part time job, which stops you concentrating fully on your training,” she said.

The financial problem in women’s cycling is mirrored in the imbalance of media coverage as compared to the men’s races.

Having just returned from a week of racing in the Ardennes, in which only one of the three races was televised, Lizzy thinks there needs to be an increase in the media coverage afforded to the sport.

“Honestly, these races were epic – but only one of those three races was televised, which actually doesn’t meet the minimum coverage requirements for the UCI.

“It’s really upsetting for me that these races, that are just so exciting and that the public really want to watch, are so inaccessible. People are just left with scrolling through a twitter feed trying to find scraps of information.”

However, she believes this is not down to lack of quality and that the situation is improving.

“We are getting there – races like the Tour de Yorkshire, the Women’s Tour of Britain, they have amazing coverage, as well as highlights shows on prime-time TV – but we’re not there yet.”

The 2019 Tour de Yorkshire begins in Doncaster tomorrow (2nd May) – see our preview of the first day here.