Tuesday 17 March 2020

52 Cycling Voices - 28: Maria Canins

For those who are into cycling history the name, Maria Canins may well be of note to you. She was one of the stand-out acts in women's cycling during the 1980s. La mamma volante (the flying mum), as she was affectionately known by her Italian compatriots, won 20 races between 1982 and 1995. Bear in mind that this was at a time when there weren't many women's international races.

Apart from the World Championships, the big international races in those days were the Tour de France, Giro Femminile (Tour of Italy), Coors Classic (Tour of Colorado), Norwegian Post Giro, and Trofeo Alfredo Binda. Maria won the Trofeo Alfredo Binda four times - a feat that has only been matched by Marianne Vos - and the women's Tour de France twice.

The modern-day calendar still includes those races (apart from the Tour de France) as well as many other international professional races. The women's Tour de France was originally held as a subsidiary race concurrently with the men's professional event, (over a short section of selected stages of the men's race) between 1984 and 1989. Thereafter the event was spun off into a separate stand-alone women's stage race under various names, most recently La Grande Boucle Feminine, until it was last held in 2009.

Now in her 70s, Maria enjoys the good life in the Italian Dolomites, where she has lived all her life. I caught up with Maria Canins recently and she reminisced about her racing days, and talked about her cycling today.

Maria Canins, 
aged 70

Lives: La Villa, Italy

Women's Tour de France Winner (1985 and 1986); Cycle tour guide in the Dolomites

I got into cycling when I was a competitive cross-country skier, and I would sometimes ride a bike as part of my training. 

What got me into cycle racing was the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics where they had the first women’s road race. 

In 1982 the Italian Cycling Federation was looking for athletes who were good enough climbers to tackle the hilly course at the upcoming Olympics. 

There was a lack of good climbers in the Italian cycle squad, so a coach came to the cross-country teams and presented the idea of trying cycle racing with a view to competing in the Olympics.  

No one in my team wanted to do it, but I was quite enthusiastic and decided to have a go – it sounded great. They sent me a training programme and a racing schedule that included a few hilly races. At my first race in June 1982 I came 7th, in my second race I came second, and I won my third race. I found I was quite strong in the hills and was able to stay with the select group, and be in the final sprint for the line with the few remaining riders. 

So based on my strength I was able to compete in the 1982 World Championships in England at Goodwood. There, I came second behind Mandy Jones. And so I became so enthusiastic about cycling and things just continued from there. 

I enjoyed cycle racing so much more than skiing because it gave me the opportunity to travel, and see lots of places. Cycling allows you to go out in the streets, look around and get to see different places.

The 1980s saw a growth in women's cycling, generally led by the Americans. The first women’s Olympic road race was held in Los Angeles, and that was of huge interest to everyone as well as the media. The race was won by Connie Carpenter, and Rebecca Twigg got silver - two American racers. 

America was always a good place to launch something new. I did the Tour of Colorado a few times, and when I did it we were treated the same as professional male cyclists, with television coverage, journalists and the public who were interested. 

The Europeans were like "wow"; they wanted to copy what the Americans were doing. This gave a boost to women's cycle racing.

I didn't do the first women's Tour de France in 1984 because I was at the Olympics, so my first one was in 1985. 
Canins on the col d'Izoard (1986) ( Rene Boulay)

The women's Tour de France was a wonderful new experience for me. I didn’t know France very well so it was great to see more of the country.

I have great memories of us racing for many days in many different places. We were constantly packing our suitcases to go to the different parts of France.

Having the Tour de France on television made it like a big party. There were loads of people in the street. We did our race before the men's – the professional race. 

When we raced it was more like a hobby as women's cycle racing wasn't professional, but we still had a lot of spectators. 

There was a lot of press and interest from the French. Around Grenoble there were many Italians fans too. They were Italian immigrants, nostalgic for their former country and so they really enjoyed watching Italian riders in the women’s race. 

There was a male Italian rider called Vesantini who was quite strong, but during the Tour de France he was a bit slow, so the Italian journalists focused more on my results than on his. I was riding well and was also a novelty in every sense - being a woman, not very young - aged 35, having my daughter, Concetta [now a journalist and lawyer] with me. I had only recently started cycle racing having done cross-country skiing and had won championships in that sport a few years before. I even made the cover of Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper.  

It was great to be on the podium with the men's winners. I shared the podium with Greg Lemond and after with Pedro Delgado, and Stephen Roche.

I retired from cycle racing because when I was at the top I didn't feel I could get any stronger. The cycle of preparing myself psychologically for a race, getting to the start line, talking to journalists got really demanding. I was no longer enjoying it and I realised it was time to get out. 

Nowadays there are international stage races of eight or ten days, but it is not like the Tour de France that we had in our day which took place at the same time as the men's race. 

I think the fact that it was possible to hold a Tour de France in the 1980s means that it would surely be possible to do that today . All that’s needed is the wish to do it, and it would be wonderful. Nowadays there are massive sponsors, so it’s only fair that there be a women’s event. They just need to allocate a bit of television time for women’s professional cycling.  

Sometimes you have stages in the men’s race where there isn't anything interesting happening. So during that time you could do a quarter of an hour of the women’s race – a type of round-up in which you show highlights of the women's race including the winner, and then return to broadcasting the men’s race. 

All that is needed is a quarter of an hour out of a three- or four-hour long men's race. This wouldn’t need to be so much extra work, in my opinion. It’s important to give more broadcasting time to women’s cycling, and also give the spectators something else to see. 

Women's Tour de France attracted a lot of public interest (Rene Boulay)
I know there are many logistics involved and the organisers mention that, but when you don’t want to do something it’s natural that you will find a reason to not do it and say that the logistics make it impossible. 

In short, the organisers have a budget for the Tour de France, but it seems that they’re not prepared to add much else, like a women's stage race, to the event.

I must say I prefer the racing from the 1980s rather than what it is today. When I raced I never had to use an earpiece. I didn't have anyone saying to me “now you have to attack” “now you have to go in the breakaway” “attack on the climb." I think this is absolutely wrong. 

In my opinion an athlete should be strong, and also be able to read the race and race intelligently. Yeah, losing out because of a tactical error is part and parcel of racing, and if you don’t win you learn something and think about how you will do better next time. I don’t understand how a person can race with an earpiece. A racer is not a machine. 

Cycle racing was a lot more raw back in those days. When you watch someone attack on a climb for 5km or 10km you don't know if they will stay ahead of the bunch or if they will get caught. This sort of thing is what makes cycling wonderful, and a great spectacle on TV. 

Yes, I sometimes I got it right - sometimes I got it wrong. It's like when playing a game of cards, and you have to decide when to play or not play an Ace or a Joker. Whatever the outcome I still enjoyed the race. 

Cycling needs moments where people can improvise and get things right or wrong. That’s what makes cycling great. Riders don’t have radios during the World Championships, but then suddenly people don’t know how to race – even those who have been racing for 20 years - because they're so used to using earpieces. How miserable is that! No, I don’t like earpieces.

Of course, sponsorship has a lot to do with the way cycling has gone. We didn't have so much sponsorship in my day. It's only fair that sponsors want something back after spending so much money. For sure, cycle racing needs money, but when there’s too much it spoils cycling – the races, the athletes, sometimes taking a psychological toll on them.  

Also women’s professional cycling is a bit strange nowadays because although there is more money, there is less coverage compared to the 1980s. People don't seem that interested in women’s cycling, unless a woman does something particularly impressive. I think that applies to all women’s sport, not just cycling. 

Women's cycling is seen very much as a minority sport with a lot fewer fans than men's professional cycling. In the area where I live, in Alta Badia there are many women cyclists who cycle as a hobby, but no women’s professional cycle racing. 

Often when I look on the internet to find out about, say the Giro Rosa (Women’s Tour of Italy) to know when or where the stage starts, who won, etc I can’t find anything so - I just don’t know what has happened in the race! Nothing is reported in the local paper unless the race starts or finishes right in that town. 

Maratona dles Dolomiti (By Maratona dles Dolomiti organisers)
It just seems like women’s professional cycling is snubbed around here. Women's professional cycling is invisible.

Nowadays I still ride - usually about four times a week. I am also a cycle tour guide and do rides during the week of the Maratona dles Dolomites

We have around 20 or 30 people in the group and we ride at a leisurely pace. I enjoy these rides, showing the people the area, talking about the local culture and history, and taking photos.

We get a lot of young women who join the rides too. They look so elegant in their chic jerseys and shorts on stylish bikes. Sometimes they worry about not being able to manage the Passo Gardena or the Passo Pordoi. But then they only need to look at me and how old I am, and they think to themselves "if she is doing it at her age then I should be capable too!" I usually ride the Maratona too, with my daughter and a friend.

With the current situation with Coronavirus things aren't going well in Italy. The tourists have left and there is no one in the streets. In this area of Alta Badia there are only a few people infected compared to other regions, but we still have to follow the measures in place.This is not the time to be selfish.

Dolomites viewed from Passo di Sella
It's not easy to stay at home all the time, but I prefer to go out as little as possible, and be safe. 

It’s a difficult situation, but we are staying calm. People aren’t panicking but they’re scared for the future.

I normally go out and do  activities like walking, cycling and skiing, but with the Coronavirus I am finding other things to do at home. People are having to learn to change their lifestyles.

At times like this I feel lucky to be blessed with beautiful countryside in Alta Badia. But I realise that life isn’t always beautiful. Life also has things that aren't so good and we have to know how to deal with that. As an old lady that's how I see things at least! 

But overall, when I look out of the window at the beautiful landscape, the animals and breathe in the clean air of the Dolomites I feel grateful to still have these lovely things to appreciate. 

Other Cycling Voices
Janet Birkmyre

Monica and Paola Santini

Jenni Gwiazdowski/Bike Kitchen

Judith Worrall

Helen Wyman

Rochelle Gilmore

Gema Fernandez Hernando

Giorgia Bronzini

Tracy Moseley

Lucy and Grace Garner

Carolyn Hewett-Maessen

Maria David

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