Isabel Best is the author of 'Queens of Pain: Legends and Rebels of Cycling', and has contributed to Cyclingnews with feature stories 'Vital Statistics' and 'Can women race a three-week Grand Tour?' You can follow more of Best's historical writing on Cyclingnews during the 2019 season.
In September 2017, I sat down to research and write Queens of Pain – a book that sought to celebrate some of the great female champions of cycling history. While some riders, like Alfonsina Strada and Beryl Burton, have entered cycling mythology, I wasn't confident about the history of women's cycling as a whole, or whether I might even find a narrative that tied riders' stories together. Was it possible to trace an evolution in the women's sport, just as there's a very clear, chronological history for the men? Or did women's cycling history consist of isolated pockets of excellence from different countries and eras?
I was surprised to discover that there's pretty much an unbroken thread in the history of women's racing from the 1880s to the present day, and that most of the riders' stories overlapped – sometimes in surprising ways. For example, in Australia in the 1930s, there emerged a generation of formidable women who set about creating and breaking ultra-distance records. Although they were mainly competing against each other on specific place-to-place challenges, they also read about and were inspired by the latest records set by Marguerite Wilson on the other side of the globe.
What follows is not so much a selection of the greatest champions, but a celebration of great – and often forgotten – riders who have marked key milestones in cycling history and helped the sport become what it is today.
Tillie Anderson was one of the first truly 'badass' female cyclists. She won just about every race she took part in and dominated a brilliant generation of riders who were feted in the press. The most remarkable thing about her story is that she was doing Six-Day races in the 1890s, on very small and technically challenging indoor velodromes where riders covered anything between 17 and 21 laps to the mile. They took their racing very seriously indeed, did strength training, and had coaches and managers, and in no time at all dispensed with restrictive mutton-sleeve jackets and knickerbockers, favouring figure-hugging tights and jerseys instead. They were onto the notion of 'marginal gains' 100 years before Team Sky came up with that term.
Tillie was not necessarily the fastest of the top riders who were known as 'The Big Five', but she was as tough as nails, and could always grind down her rivals through persistence and continually upping the pressure.
Anderson realised how remarkable her achievements were, not just on a sporting level, but in terms of challenging people's perceptions of women and their capabilities. She had a devoted husband who was also her coach and manager. He collected all of her press clippings, and she saved them in two trunks, along with other racing memorabilia, which have all been passed down to her great niece, Alice Roepke. Reading some of Anderson's handwritten notes, written in distinctive looping cursive on scraps of paper, feels as if she's talking to us directly, saying, "Look at this! Look at what we did here! Look at these records I set!"
If anyone incarnates the word 'chutzpah', it's Strada, who never questioned whether it was appropriate for a woman to race bikes. She came of age during the early 20th century, when Italian race organisers were developing some of the great, classic races that continue to define Italian cycling today. What we do know is that she twice persuaded Gazzetta dello Sport to let her take part in their race, the Giro di Lombardia. Racing with the great male stars of the day, like Costante Girardengo and Henri Pélissier, she acquitted herself honourably, coming in with the second (and last) group of riders, which was a triumph in its own way, considering the large numbers of riders who abandoned.
Her most famous achievement was taking part in the 1924 Giro d'Italia. A bad crash on stage 8, in which she broke her handlebars and famously made use of a broom to cobble together a solution that would allow her to continue riding, lost her several hours, and she was eliminated from the GC. She was allowed to continue in the race, however, and had become an Italian celebrity by the time she finally reached Milan. To this day, she is the only woman ever to have officially taken part in a men's Grand Tour, and she did this during an era when individual stages could be more than 400km long.
Wilson is probably unheard of outside the UK, where she's also largely forgotten apart from by older members of the time trialling community. She played an important role in the history of women's cycling, however, and was part of a tremendous generation who helped make Britain one of the most progressive nations for women's cycling.
A powerful rider, she was unbeatable in time trials and broke swathes of long-distance records. Perhaps her greatest achievement was setting a new Land's End to John O'Groats record, in the most unpromising circumstances: she set out into a headwind and lost so much time riding through Cornwall that her support crew urged her to give up. Instead, she stopped for a cup of tea in the village of Sticklepath in Devon and forged on courageously. Unbeknownst to her, Britain declared war on Germany in the middle of her record attempt, which included extending the ride to the 1,000-mile record, too. She didn't realise she'd reached her final destination at Wick until police stopped her: she'd arrived in the middle of a blackout.
Wilson was capable of making endearingly human mistakes, such as oversleeping on the morning of a record attempt, setting off without breakfast or any food, and still setting a new record, some 200 miles later. She was always breaking spokes, often during a time trial, presumably because she rode with so much force. She was also very witty, an entertaining writer, and beautiful, becoming known as the 'Blonde Bombshell from Bournemouth', with quite a few hearts skipping a beat in her company.
She was the perfect weapon in the arsenal of women's cycling campaigners and became one of the first female riders in Britain to be commercially sponsored. Her legacy was to normalise the idea of women racing and create a culture that allowed Beryl Burton and many other great female champions to emerge.
Millie Robinson won the first women's Tour de France, in 1955. A few years later she set a new hour record. For a brief period, Robinson was the rider to beat, both at home and abroad.
The Tour Féminin Cycliste was created by Jean Leulliot, who ran Paris-Nice amongst other races. It was actually more of a Tour of Normandy and was five stages long. A few months previously, another French race organiser, Marcel Léotot, created what, as far as I can tell, was the first women's stage race – the Circuit Lyonnais-Auvergne, which ran to three stages. Robinson took all three stages and the overall of that race, too.
Those early stage races might sound modest, but they were a big deal at the time. British racing journalist Jock Wadley, who reported on the race, noted "quite a strong public feeling against it, largely promoted by a small section of the press", many of whom disapproved of it as a "stunt race".
Two years later, when a motion to introduce a women's World Championships was defeated in a vote by UCI member countries, L'Equipe showed what female racing cyclists were up against when it declared: "Good sense has triumphed," adding that women "should be content with existing races and with cyclotourism, which corresponds much better to their muscular abilities".
In fact, L'Equipe was on the wrong side of progress. While Leulliot's Tour de France was never repeated, the Circuit Lyonnais-Auvergne jumped up to an eight-day race the following year and featured teams from America and East Germany. Other stage races also started to emerge. Over the next few years, other countries started organising national road race championships, and by the early 1960s there was a very competitive international women's racing scene.
Robinson is almost completely forgotten now, but her success in those early races made her an important ambassador for women's racing – a job that she lived up to with a cheerful disposition, a warm sense of humour and fierce determination on the bike.
Millie Robinson's story is closely linked to that of Eileen Gray, who managed Millie's team when she won the Tour de France. Gray plays an important role in cycling history as the driving force that got the UCI to introduce a women's World Championships, and, later, a women's road race at the Olympics.
Gray became a cyclist as a way of commuting to work during the Blitz. She later recalled: "It was the one thing that changed me from a shy young woman into the confident person that I became... I don't think I really realised quite the impact it made until much later on."
In 1946, Gray was invited to a women's track meet in Copenhagen with two other British riders, and the British team won. They later found out their rivals were actually part of a theatre troupe that used bikes as part of their performance. Modest though its ambitions were, that race marked a turning point for Eileen. "It sounds daft now, but being allowed was a big thing," she later said. "People today would laugh at even the suggestion that permission had to be given by half of society to the other half to do something that they did as part of everyday life, but that's the way it was back then."
Gray didn't race for long: she hung up her racing wheels when she became a mother but directed her talents instead into campaigning for women's cycling.
"If it had not been for the sheer guts and determination of that lady we would still be just time-trialling up and down A roads," says Bernadette Malvern (née Swinnerton), who came second at the 1969 World Championship road race. "She organised events, meetings, sat on national committees, and pushed and pushed for years for women to be taken seriously on the road and track scene."
Gray set up the Women's Track Racing Association (WTRA) in 1949, and, later, the Women's Cycle Racing Association (WCRA). She invited international teams to British races and would take teams abroad to race in WCRA jerseys. "Her WCRA teams were the first national teams we had, and the British Cycling Federation had to be dragged along to take its lead from her," Malvern recalls.
Gray was clearly adept at finding friends and allies within foreign federations. She developed close links with East Germany, where cycling was a very popular sport, and she also found an ally in Jos de Stobbeleire – a Belgian race organiser who in the 1930s had created an unofficial women's World Championships. She made friends with the Russian delegation, too, who promised to support her petition for a women's World Championships.
It is thanks to her efforts that the UCI finally agreed to officially register women's records on the track, in 1955, and that women finally got to take part in the World Championships, starting in 1958. Gray eventually became head of the British Cycling Federation, where she continued to do great things for women's sport. She was equally instrumental in persuading the Olympic Committee to introduce the first women's road race, in 1984.
"She was like a battleship, in that if you sailed with her, you knew you would be looked after, and she would protect you to the death," says Malvern.
Elsy Jacobs was the first rider to win the inaugural women's World Championship road race in 1958. The cycling press was mostly... relieved. There had been a worry that the race would offer a shocking spectacle of broken and exhausted women. Instead, they got an exuberant Jacobs, bursting with life, who, after savouring her victory, ran back to the race finish to cheer in her rivals.
Thanks to this achievement, the cycling federation in her native Luxembourg finally agreed to start a women's National Championships, which Jacobs would end up winning 13 times in the course of her career.
Jacobs was a fitting winner. A passionate racing cyclist, she was an excellent tactician, but she also had a Jens Voigt-like appetite for going on the attack, which was how she won that particular race. The race took part on a circuit featuring a hard hill, which is where she attacked. She knew the British and Russian riders – the race favourites – would be too busy watching each other to really give chase, and she was right. By the time they got their act together, she was off and away.
"I felt so free and happy on the hills," she later told her sister. "I knew just how much the others would be suffering."
Jacobs was the match who would set races alight. As a result, she was very popular with race organisers who knew she would always be a draw for spectators. Jacobs was also smart with money, and, as a farmer's daughter, I suspect she knew a thing or two about striking deals.
She was also one of the rare female riders who could not only demand a healthy appearance fee, but she could even live off racing this way – something that was unheard of for other female riders of the time. At one point, she was also sponsored by the great Raphael Géminiani, whose men's team included Tour de France champions Jacques Anquetil and Roger Walkowiak.
Like Beryl Burton, one of her great rivals, and more recently Jeannie Longo, Jacobs had a very long career in racing and struggled to retire from the sport. She ended up taking French citizenship after a dispute with the Luxembourg federation, and settled in Brittany, where she died in 1998, aged 64.
The Elsy Jacobs women's stage race is held in Garnich, around her village, every year. It's part of an Elsy Jacobs festival, which includes a cyclosportive for amateurs.
Marianne Martin's story is like a shot of pure 1980s disco euphoria. She may not have had the palmarès of Connie Carpenter-Phinney, who won the first women's road race at the Olympic Games, or Rebecca Twigg, a multiple-time world champion and Olympic medallist, but she won the biggest race of all: the first-ever women's Tour de France. Even though that honour arguably goes to Millie Robinson, Martin's Tour de France was effectively the real thing: organised by the same race organisers, on the same roads, albeit with shorter stages, and scaling the same mountains. With 18 stages, it was the longest women's stage race ever held.
The women's Tour de France caught a lot of women's imagination and brought many great riders into the sport. This was certainly the case for Inga Thompson, who would eventually twice finish third at the Tour, and for Thompson's friend and sometimes teammate, Marion Clignet, who, as a teenager on holiday in France, persuaded her family to watch the women's race.
The Tour had, likewise, caught Martin's imagination. She was a big fan of Jonathan Boyer, the first American rider to take part in the men's race, and she wanted to be part of the American women's vanguard.
She nearly didn't get to race, however. She'd struggled with health problems through the spring, with a bout of recurring anaemia. She was given the last place on the team, and that was only due to the fact that she'd driven down to Colorado Springs and spent two hours waiting for Eddie Borysewicz, the American national coach, to beg him to give her the last slot.
She got it, together with firm instructions to look after the team's captain, Betsy King.
Martin duly went and did what was expected of her, but when the race reached the mountains, an idea to prove to a friend back home that she was a good climber turned – almost accidentally – into one of those blowing-the-race-apart moves. After that, she continued to attack in the mountains and then maintain her overall lead until the end.
It was an extraordinary moment in women's racing. With the women riding on the same day as, but ahead of, the men's peloton, they were cheered on by fans who had primarily come to the men's race, but who were just as enthusiastic about the women. "I couldn't see the road that I was supposed to ride on until, like, 10 feet before they moved away," Martin recalls.
Martin never got to defend her title: health issues caught up with her, and it wasn't long after that that she retired from racing. But her victory helped move women's cycling forward again, by proving women were perfectly capable of racing Grand Tour-style stage races.
"The Tour really taught me that we can do so much more than we think we can," Martin told me.
Ironically these days, it's not the women who underestimate what they are capable of, but the race organisers themselves and the UCI, which limits women's stage races to six days of racing – except for the 10-day Giro Rosa.
But the history is there, for anyone who cares to sift through the archive footage, and it cannot be taken away.
Watch an interview with Martin in the InCycle video below.
Isabel Best is the author of 'Queens of Pain: Legends and Rebels of Cycling (opens in new tab)', and has contributed to Cyclingnews with feature stories 'Vital Statistics' and 'Can women race a three-week Grand Tour?' You can follow more of Best's historical writing on Cyclingnews during the 2019 season.
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