The 2020 season will be remembered as a campaign like no other but for Lizzy Banks the highs and lows have been taken to extremes.
Her victory on stage four of the Giro Rosa in September highlighted superb form once racing resumed, but within a month Banks found herself in limbo when her team folded with little warning – losing its sponsor for the second time in the space of a few months.
After a frantic few weeks, Banks has now secured a one-year deal with German team Ceratizit-WNT Pro Cycling for 2021, putting pen to paper with a mix of delight and relief.
“It’s been an incredibly challenging period,” Banks told the PA news agency. “You don’t expect your team to fold, but for it to happen twice in a year is a total disaster.”
📣 2021 Team Announcement 🤩
— CERATIZIT – WNT Pro Cycling (@ceratizit_wnt) November 11, 2020
Banks’ season looks like a microcosm of cycling as a whole this year – drama on the road matched by tension off it as the Covid-19 pandemic stretches the finances of teams to the limit.
She began the year riding in the colours of Bigla-Katusha but, after the season was suspended in March, news came in June that both sponsors were pulling out with immediate effect.
French fashion brand Paule Ka stepped in with a rescue package for the rest of the year and a verbal commitment to back the team until 2023, and Banks signed a contract extension in August.
All seemed well as the team secured a series of strong results – Banks was second to Lizzie Deignan at GP Plouay before her Giro win, while Leah Thomas was third at Strade Bianche and Mikayla Harvey was the best young rider at the Giro.
I've been chasing this feeling since last year's Giro! Something about the longest stage of the Tour seems to work out well for me 😸 Can't thank my whole team @equipe_pauleka enough for their support today and everyday 🥰 Our staff work so hard night and day. So happy right now 😁🍾 📷 @velofocus
A post shared by Lizzy Banks (@elizzybanks) on Sep 14, 2020 at 7:41am PDT
But behind the scenes team directors were dipping into their own pockets as sponsorship payments failed to show, and just days before the Tour of Flanders last month they announced an immediate cessation of racing. Paule Ka has since entered administration.
“It was a huge shock to us,” Banks said. “Suddenly the rug was pulled and your world collapses around you. You don’t know if you’re going to get paid next year, you don’t know if you’re going to get paid for the rest of this year, and you don’t know if you’re going to race next year.
“How do you get an Olympic spot if you don’t have a team?”
With seven riders unexpectedly on the market teams have dug deep to find extra room, and all those who had been under contract with Paule Ka for 2021 have found a new home or are in the process of finalising one.
Walking away from my teammates and writing this post hurts a lot but I want to explain to you all what is going on. The news is official that my team, @equipe_pauleka will close and that we will not be participating in any more races this season. No Flanders. No De Panne. As fans of the sport you all deserve to know what's going on. The truth is that this has been an incredibly difficult two weeks. We learned at the beginning of last week that @paulekaofficiel, who committed to three and a half years of sponsorship, only paid one instalment in July and as of this moment, the team is waiting for the rest, and because of this the team was simply unable to manage any further financial commitments of racing. That's pretty much the whole story that there is to tell. I really hope everyone from this talented group finds a new job and a new team that believes in them the same way that this project believed in all of us. I started my European career in January last year as a total nobody. I was so green, my knowledge of race craft was very limited. I can't believe how much I've progressed over the past 2 seasons, my highlights of course being 2 stage wins of the Giro Rosa, taking 2nd in Plouay WWT and another 24 top 10s. Results aside, my personal development in to the team captain and road captain is one of the things I'm most proud of and having played a role in the development of all the athletes on this team and played a part in creating a culture of succesful teamwork which has taken us to the 4th best team in the world. Another sad day but I am a fighter and I will fight again.
A post shared by Lizzy Banks (@elizzybanks) on Oct 16, 2020 at 4:55am PDT
But the experience speaks to bigger challenges facing a sport so heavily reliant on sponsors at a time when the pandemic has left companies feeling the pinch.
“It maybe shows women’s cycling isn’t in as good a place as it can be,” Banks said.
“If something seems too good to be true, maybe it is.”
Banks said there needed to be “repercussions” for sponsors if they do not pay up, but admitted it was a “very delicate balance” as the sport seeks to attract new investment.
📝La fin de l'Équipe Paule Ka
It is with great regret that Équipe Paule Ka announces the immediate closure of the team – currently ranked fourth in the world – due to the absence of sponsor payments since August.
— Équipe Paule Ka (@Equipe_PauleKa) October 16, 2020
Banks might be an ideal spokesperson. The effervescent 30-year-old has an ever-increasing presence on podcasts and in the media, and can concoct a pitch for a fly-on-the-wall documentary during the course of an interview.
But for now she does her best work on a bike, and is looking forward to her new role with Ceratizit-WNT next season.
“They came to us and talked about what they saw in me, what they saw as my role in the team and where I could go,” she said.
“Everything lined up with my ambitions and it’s not often that happens. When they’re thinking the same as you’re thinking, it’s really exciting so hopefully that’s a very good sign.”