Sunday, January 3, 2010

Women of the World

Women of the World

Before his retirement, in all of the excitement of Armstrong’s remarkable achievements, did you pause to wonder what’s happening to women’s competitive cycling? Where are the heady days of Carpenter/Twigg when the U.S.A. took gold and silver in the 1984 Olympic road race? Rebecca Twigg took the lead in the race with only fifty meters to go, but Connie Carpenter pulled even, just three meters from the tape, then eased out of the saddle and threw her arms forward to propel her bike across the finish line less than half a wheel length ahead of Twigg. Truly awesome stuff.

They joined the long ranks of stellar American women competitive cyclists. Who are they? Margaret Gast who reigned as Woman's World Champion from 1890 to 1910 and who established world records for 500 miles, 1000 miles, 2000 miles and 2500 miles (295.55 hours). Tillie Anderson who, in 1895 at age 16, took part in the race over the Elgin-Aurora century course and broke the standing record. Anderson held records for practically every distance from sprinting to endurance. She remained the Champion of the World until retiring in 1902 when women were barred from racing due to the level of danger involved in the sport. After four decades in the cold, American women champions returned with Nancy Neiman who was National Woman's Champion in 1953, 1954, 1956 and 1957 and was the first American to compete in a European stage race. Audrey McElmury who won the 1969 world championship in Czechoslovakia and became the first American, man or woman, to win the world road title. Both Sheila Young and Sue Novara took national and international honors, including world championships, in the 1970s. Susan Notorangelo who in 1986, with partner Lon Haldeman, set a new mixed-tandem record for the trans-American distance in just over nine days and twenty hours. Lastly there are Juliana Furtado and Cindy Whitehead who both took numerous national and world mountain bike trophies from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties.

But then each year when the Tour de France comes around, the controversy “mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greatest (male racer) of them all?” is resurrected. Is it Lance Armstrong with his return to supremacy from his debilitating cancer and his astonishing Tour wins or is the all-rounder Eddy Merckx the Belgian “cannibal” total career race points way in excess of Armstrong? You can decide that one (though you are actually voting for either competitive cycling in the 1970s versus thirty years later .…. totally different sports). Why is it that the same argument is rarely fought out over the women? While not wanting to pursue a comprehensive analysis, it is worthwhile summarizing the lifetime achievements of the two riders who are arguably the primary contenders, Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli of France and Beryl Burton of England.

Born in 1958, Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli is the more “international” of the two and therefore the better known; she has competed in the USA on a number of occasions. Her fame is also more current; she is still winning today and is now approaching almost 600 career victories. She has won four Olympic medals, placed first or second in thirteen world road championships, won twelve world track championships, and won the Tour de France Feminine three times. Longo retains the women’s world hour record at just over 48 km (about 30 miles) which she took in 1996 at the age of 38. She held several other time trial records, some of which still stand today.

Longo-Ciprelli has been a sports enthusiast since her childhood, encouraged by her mother, a school and gym teacher, and her father, who also taught his three daughters to box and wrestle. As a child, she took up hiking, swimming, athletics, cross-country cycling, skiing and was on her university ski team. She first turned to cycling in 1979 because the 1980 World Cycling Championships were scheduled to be held virtually on her doorstep. Determined to compete on her home ground she got her license, took part in the France Championships, and promptly won, at age twenty-one.

By opting for cycling, Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli did not choose the easy option. Her path involved a great deal of suffering and a form of suffering traditionally reserved to men. Her answer for her detractors: "There are still people who don't like to see a woman get wrinkles through effort. Personally, I think certain wrinkles can be rather attractive. "

Not only did she have to compete against her rivals, she also had to fight hostility from the sponsorship establishment as well as the petty regulations of the cycling federation. And of course, she needed the willpower to train relentlessly, to push on, to suffer and then to start all over again. But each time she suffers a setback, she just gets back on the saddle.

Across the English Channel is the home of Beryl Burton, the other contender for the title of the greatest woman cyclist ever. In spite of her achievements, Burton, born in 1937, is now little recognized outside her Yorkshire homeland but she reigned over women's cycling on the international stage for more than a quarter of a century. She was World Pursuit Champion four times (taking 2nd or 3rd in six other years), World Road Champion three times and National Champion in various events no less than 73 times between 1959 and 1977. She held many national and world time trial records, most of which stood until the technology revolution of the 1990s and some of which even stand today. For example, her hundred-mile record was set in 1968 with a time of 3:55:05; this was not beaten until 1996 and then only by two minutes.

One incredible achievement took place in 1959 when Burton covered over 250 miles in a twelve-hour time trial. That alone was truly astonishing, especially considering the road surfaces and the equipment she was using but it was also remarkably close to the men's record. Thus, in 1967, she took the leap that she knew she could. She set off two minutes behind the men's national champion, catching him around the ten-hour mark and went on to cover 277 miles in the twelve hours ..... beating the men's existing record by nearly six miles. Cycling folklore has it that as she passed the leading man she offered him a stick of liquorice candy, as "the poor dear seemed to be struggling a bit".

Like Longo-Ciprelli after her, Beryl Burton had to constantly fight the hostility of the male-dominated cycling establishment both at the World’s and Olympic level. Had women's cycling been an Olympic event during her career it seems inconceivable that she would not have added Olympic Games medals to her other trophies. Furthermore, it is relatively recent that the individual time trial has been added to World Championship cycling. If Burton had been given that opportunity, her haul of seven World Championships would probably have been increased two or three fold.

Beryl Burton died in 1996, probably from a heart attack, near her home while out cycling. She was just a few days short of her 59th birthday. Her last race was in a local time trial on her beloved Yorkshire roads eight days beforehand in which her daughter, Denise, was also competing. Ironically, twenty years earlier, Denise took first place in the National Road Championship relegating her mother into second place! There is a wonderful little vignette of Beryl Burton at

In making comparisons between Longo-Ciprelli, Burton and other women cyclists, one can, of course, invoke technology improvements, the competition they had at the time and a whole host of other factors. But, the fact remains that both women dominated the sport on the world stage from the time they were about 20 years old until they were both well into their forties.

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