The lives of a professional rider and a mother did not seem to be compatible, but numerous examples in recent years have undermined that position. What is it like to navigate the professional peloton as a mother? Sporza Daily is investigating. “It’s proof that women can really be strong.”
“As a cyclist, I know what suffering is, but this was far beyond everything. But once it was there, you immediately forgot everything.”
A month ago, Ellen van Dijk (36) achieved her greatest victory: she gave birth to a son Faas. The three-time world time trial champion is the next in the line of mothers in the peloton. A phenomenon that seems to be becoming increasingly common.
“I had so many sporting dreams, so I always thought that if we wanted children, I would have to stop cycling. But so much has changed in women’s cycling. And in my Lidl-Trek team I have the example of Elizabeth Deignan.”
The name of the pioneer has been mentioned. Cycling alone no longer made the British Deignan happy and deliberately paused her career twice to become a mother. She then won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, La Course and Paris-Roubaix.
“It’s proof that women can be really strong,” says Deignan. “We can brave the Hell of the North, but still be feminine. We can be a top rider and a mother.”
We can brave the Hell of the North, but still be feminine. We can be a top rider and a mother.
Deignan inspired Van Dijk to take on the same challenge. “I thought what she did was very cool, but I really didn’t like it at first,” she says. “But Deignan has completely changed the image around that.”
“My favorite thing to do was be a professional cyclist, but I really wanted to have children. I also presented this to our team manager. Ultimately, he said: We’ll give you a two-year contract, and then we’ll see. It’s great to have that support.”
Deignan soloed to victory in Paris-Roubaix in 2021.
But it wasn’t always like that. Jolien D’hoore put an end to her career in 2021 to start a new phase: that of motherhood.
“From a sporting point of view, it was just a great opportunity to stop after the Tokyo Games, but it was not certain that I would then have children. Due to private circumstances, it happened a little later,” says D’hoore.
While pregnancy was not really a topic of conversation in the peloton a few years ago, there are numerous examples today. D’hoore welcomes that. “It’s great that it is now possible, it is no longer a taboo. It is not so much about whether or not you can continue to exercise during a pregnancy.”
Still, the question arises: can you continue to participate in top-level sports during a pregnancy? According to sports gynecologist Luc Baeyens, yes. In the 1980s and 1990s he guided five-time Golden Spike and cross-country runner Lieve Slegers. “And she could become Belgian champion about three months after giving birth.”
Active mothers reduce the risk of breast cancer and dementia. Better neuromuscular scores can be noted in their children.
“A pregnant woman should exercise, so it is recommended to exercise moderately intensively for at least 150 minutes a week. This is gradually becoming the habit.”
There are many physical benefits for mother and child, says Baeyens. “The risk of breast cancer and dementia would be smaller in sporty mothers.”
“In their children, the Apgar score, a general health test for newborns, is on average better. These children often also have better neuromuscular scores later on.”
Of course there are also pitfalls. “Someone who has never exercised should not start training for a marathon. Everything should be considered according to their condition before pregnancy.”
Jolien D’hoore (right) became a mother after leaving the peloton.
Jolien D’hoore also felt the benefits of exercise during pregnancy. “Of course I no longer really did top sports, but I also found that exercising during my pregnancy gave me more energy. It makes you stronger, it is a kind of primal force.”
Conclusion: exercising during pregnancy is a win-win situation?
“Yes, but you also have to be able to combine it,” D’hoore adds. “The months and years afterwards, when you have to raise a child, are much harder as a racing mother than those nine months during pregnancy.”
For example, Van Dijk’s husband takes a year of unpaid leave. “Because if I live completely for my sport again, I will not be able to take care of my child 24/7. That is only possible because my team also supports it financially. An enormous privilege.”
In the meantime, Van Dijk is working towards her big goal: the Games in Paris. “I will go there in three weeks to explore the course. Then I will be away from home for the first night. Missing my son scares me the most, which will still be challenging at times.”