Fastest Female on Two Wheels

Photographic portrait of Lizzie Deignan leaning on a railing, looking out to sea and smiling

A lot can happen in 4 years. When I photographed champion racing cyclist Lizzie Deignan in 2017, commissioned to take her portrait for the cover of Guardian Weekend magazine, her surname was brand new (many still knew her by her pre-married name Lizzie Armistead). She had no children and, despite tarnishes to her reputation following a doping test storm, was launching her autobiography. A year later, Lizzie had a baby and was considering hanging up her Lycra and retiring. The year after that, though, she decided against it. Now, not only is Lizzie Deignan still racing professionally, but last year was her best yet: she became the top ranked rider in the world.

Double page spread from magazine showing portrait of Lizzie Deignan sitting on a wall, right

Opening spread of Cyclist’s 8-page feature about Lizzie

Women’s cycling on the up and up

Not only has Lizzie’s life changed, the profile of women’s cycling itself has undergone a transformation. Take-up of the sport has grown considerably, spectator numbers have swelled and opportunities for female professional cyclists have blossomed. Next month, if Covid measures allow, the first ever women’s edition of the legendary Paris-Roubaix race will make history and British rider Lizzie – a strong spokesperson for females in the sport – is the favourite to win it.

A few weeks ago, Cyclist magazine asked me to photograph Lizzie, near her home in Monaco, for an 8-page profile feature. The editor wanted a range of natural portraits, in different settings, to give a day-in-the-life feel – but he was in some consternation as Lizzie could only grant the photographer 10 minutes. I told him to leave it with me and called her. Lizzie sounded delighted that I was the photographer and said that she could start earlier so we’d have more time.

Photographic portrait of Lizzie Deignan leaning on a railing, looking out to sea and smiling

Lizzie Deignan

Portrait photography during Covid

The Covid context doesn’t make life easy for a portrait photographer. Covid prevention measures in Monaco differ from those in France (as do many laws – see my post about photographer permissions in Monaco), yet although the principality was not in strict lockdown, to get there I had to drive across the French Riviera and Nice – which was. A form, a letter from the magazine, proof of my professional status and ID had to be ready for road checks in France, and again on the border.

The wearing of a mask, too, presents challenges to the portrait process. Obviously the subject has to remove theirs (ready to whip it back on if police are spotted nearby, as happened at the start of my shoot with Lizzie). Yet much quiet communication, both verbal and non-verbal, happens during a portrait session and many of a photographer’s subtle signals that set the tone of a shoot are lost behind a mask. I can no longer approach my subject to show them a position, or re-arrange clothing, either. And bad weather is much more of a threat to an editorial photoshoot than it ever was. If it rains, portraits can no longer be taken in a quiet café instead, or at the subject’s home.

I applaud the few editorial clients of mine who have added a modest Covid fee on to the day rate they pay freelance photographers at the moment, in consideration of the extra time, added cost of PPE equipment, risk of fines and ingenuity required to do the job.

Photograph of the back of a woman sitting on a harbour wall looking out to sea

Looking away from Monaco

Yorkshirewoman in Monaco

That day, rain had started falling as I drove into Monaco and I did a nervous recce of the locations from the shelter of an umbrella. Fortunately, the shower stopped just as Lizzie arrived. We met outside the Beef Bar (a suprisingly posh venue for its name), opposite a parked Rolls Royce and a Lamborghini. Lizzie didn’t step out of either: she was on foot and unassuming, though her hair had been styled for the shoot (“a once in a blue moon thing. It’s normally squashed under a helmet“).

Born and bred in Yorkshire (northern England), Lizzie has not lost her salt-of-the-earth roots – something of a rarity in Monaco. She may live there, but says Monaco definitely doesn’t feel like home. Monegasque society and its values couldn’t be further from Yorkshire’s, and Lizzie is more embarrassed than proud to say she lives in the principality. Nevertheless, for now this is her home and so the ‘day-in-the-life portraits’ I made were set in and around the port which nestles under the royal palace, and the park next to the Monaco heliport, where Lizzie brings daughter Orla to play.

Double page spread from magazine showing portrait of Lizzie Deignan in a park, right

Last of 4 double-page spreads in Cyclist

My last photoshoot with Lizzie had been on International Women’s Day 2017. This time, it wasn’t until I saw gardeners putting finishing touches to an extravagant, pink, floral display that I realised it would be International Women’s Day again two days later. It felt fitting, as a female photographer, to be marking the event by capturing this figurehead for professional women’s cycling again.

> See Portrait portfolio

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