Sunday 8 March 2015

Female Cycling Legends

For International Women's Day a couple of years ago I saluted a few outstanding women in sport. I still salute them, as well as a few more like Serena Williams (tennis), Joanna Rowsell (cycling), Lizzy Yarnold (skeleton), Katie Taylor (boxing), Katie Walsh (jockey), Charlotte Dujardin (dressage) and Sarah Storey (cycling).

This year I also wanted to mention a few more women who were legends in their day.

When it comes to cycling Beryl Burton (who I profiled a couple of years ago) is the standout performer for me. Her prowess went to places no one else's went then, or since. Taking various British records some of which took a number of years to be beaten even by male cycle racers, Burton is arguably the greatest female cycle racer in Britain.

Another legend is Leontien van Moorsel. Her name has been mentioned recently as Sarah Storey recently tried unsuccessfully to break her world hour record. The record that she set of 46.065km in 2003 has become a high bar for women racers, especially given this Dutch racer's brilliant pedigree. She won a number of titles in the 1990s and noughties on the road and on the track, including battles with one of her then rivals Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli during the women's Tour de France.

Van Moorsel won gold medals in the road race, the time trial and on the track, plus a silver on the track at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, as well as a gold and a bronze medal at Athens in 2004 in the time trial and on the track. This makes her the most decorated female cyclist in the Olympics. And she managed this after having battled with anorexia nervosa some years before. Today, Leontien van Moorsel is a coach and motivational speaker.

Further back in time was the so-named "Miss America" from the late 1860s when cycle racing first began. Women were not encouraged to take part in sport as it was assumed they would stick to doing household duties! But it was later found that sport may benefit women's as well as men's health so they were encouraged to do light exercise. Cycle racing in France was becoming popular, with many cities up and down the country hosting cycle races, usually in conjunction with festivals - watching the men race on velocipedes provided a lot of entertainment, especially as these machines weren't easy to ride, the races contained obstacles to run or jump over and crashes occurred.

Although organisers welcomed women taking part, few or none signed up as their large skirts made it impractical for them to ride. Cycle friendly women's clothing was only in its infancy and many women did not possess the new garments advocated by Amelia Bloomer. Furthermore, many women didn't know how to ride and would not want to embarrass themselves in front of large crowds. Then "Miss America" turned up. She hitched up her revolutionary bloomers and took up the contests held in 1868 in the suburbs of Paris, winning a number of races.

Fortunately for her, the few other women who turned out were still mastering how to ride a velocipede so her wins were quite convincing. Her performances proved a spectacle and her appearance at the races was a crowd puller. What really impressed people was when she competed in the very first cycle race in 1869 - the Paris-Rouen. 

At 7.30 am on 7th November under torrential rain the one hundred competitors, which included Miss America and one other woman set out from the Arc de Triomphe. Only 34 riders completed the race, many abandoning due to mechanical failure, fatigue in the difficult conditions or missing the 24-hour cut-off. Miss America finished in 29th place around 6 o'clock the following morning - some 12 hours after the winner, a British man called James Moore who completed the 123km in 10hours 40 minutes.

Completing the race was quite a feat, and Miss America, as the only woman to have withstood all the rigours and challenges was seen as an instant heroine. It is not known what her real name was. She was the wife of a cycle racer, but she raced under a pseudonym, like other women who competed. Society frowned at the idea of women doing such unladylike things as riding velocipedes, still less, racing. Their participation was seen more as a novel spectacle as an aside to the real races contested by the men - women couldn't possible engage in serious competition! How times have changed!

Related articles

Women's Cycling just got Strongher

Interviewing a few good women

Beryl Burton on the BBC

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