It was a rider from tiny Luxembourg who first earned the right to the world champion’s rainbow Jersey. Elsy Jacobs beat a pair of Russian riders to be crowned the first queen of the road and the event founded in her honour now forms part of the extensive UCI calendar of women’s races – 102 events will be ridden in 2016. Yet despite women cyclists’ obvious appetite for and ability in road cycling events, outmoded concerns about a woman’s physical capacity for endurance sports remained. It took until the 1996 World Road Race Championships in Lugano, Switzerland, for the route to pass the 100km mark.
The Queens of Continental Cycling
But the world championships was the trigger the sport needed. When Audrey McElmury won the rainbow bands in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1969 she opened the door to the world stage for American women riders. Connie Carpenter would become the first ever Olympic road race champion in Los Angeles, in 1984. That same year her compatriot Marianne Martin won the first Grand Boucle Feminine Internationale. This woman’s equivalent of the Tour de France ran until 2009, and one woman would rise to dominate both the Grand Boucle and the World Championships. That woman was Jeannie Longo.
Despite the doping controversy that has clouded her reputation in recent years, Longo was an indomitable rider, winning every major title available in her heyday and competing in seven Olympics. In her final Games, in 2008, she was a mere two seconds shy of a time trial Bronze. The woman who took the road race title, Britain’s Nicole Cooke, was only a year old when Longo competed in her first Olympics. Utterly indefatigable, Longo is still riding, competing in the French National Championships earlier this year at the age of 57.
Longo also traded the Hour Record with Dutchwoman Leontien van Moorsel, another of the continental queens of cycling. Van Moorsel was capable of winning on the road and the track, scooping multiple Golds in both disciplines. Her comeback at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, after retiring from the sport with an eating disorder, was one of the greatest ever seen – she broke the world record in the individual pursuit on the track before taking Gold, fought to a Silver in the points race, took road time trial Gold and then outsprinted the pack on the rain slicked Sydney streets to take Gold in the road race.
Olympic Gold Rush
Women’s cycling has long been wedded to the four-year Olympic cycle, which traditionally offered the greatest exposure for the sport’s best riders. And it’s at the Olympics that Britain’s Golden Girls have ridden to dominance on the track and road. That medal rush started with Yvonne McGregor in 2000 – at nearly 40, the veteran pursuiter took Bronze before riding to world championship glory. Lottery funding had enabled her to swap the dark and frozen roads of a Yorkshire winter for the warm weather training camps she had never enjoyed.
Then in 2008 it was the turn of Nicole Cooke. The Welsh rider, who has been such a prominent campaigner for equality in the sport, rode the season of her life. In one golden summer she became National, Olympic and World champion.
The Road Ahead
It’s extraordinary to think, now that we can enjoy the UCI Women’s WorldTour – featuring races that give the men’s sport a run for its money in terms of depth of talent and attacking panache – that women and men only competed with full parity after the introduction of the World and Olympics time trial events in the mid 1990s.
The Giro Rosa, the pre-eminent women’s stage race, has led the way in challenging the women’s peloton, introducing the fearsome climb of the Monte Zoncolan in 1997 a full six years before it was first used in the Giro d’Italia.
This weekend the cream of the women’s peloton will once again take over the cobbles of the Champs-Élysées – one of the most hallowed places in world cycling – for a race intended as a first step towards a new women’s Tour de France. Inspired by the high profile success of riders like Nicole Cooke, and the sheer spectacle of Marianne Vos and Lizzie Armitstead fighting for Gold on the rain soaked Mall in the Olympic Road Race of 2012, more women than ever are hitting the roads. For the champions of the future a bright tarmac ribbon now stretches ahead but let us not forget that before them is a rich history of inspiring women who paved the way for the women cyclists of today.