When people think of famous bicycle racers, most minds instantly jump to a few famous men – Tour de France powerhouses like Greg LeMond, Miguel Indurain, Jacques Anquetil, and the disgraced Lance Armstrong.
Unfortunately, many bicycle buffs can’t name many female cyclists, despite the fact that there are countless women bicyclists who are incredibly accomplished in their field. So let’s right that wrong, and take a look at some of the greatest gals on wheels, and the impressive feats that have taken them to the tops of the cycling world.
While the 1980s may have produced some questionable fads (shoulderpads, anyone?) it also birthed the Tour Cycliste Fémenin, later known as the Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale. While “grande boucle” literally means “big loop,” this race was popularized as the “Tour de France for women” and its first race was held in 1984.
The winner of that inaugural race was none other than America’s Marianne Martin. Born in Fenton, Michigan on November 1, 1957, Martin completed the 616 mile course in an impressive 29 hours. 39 minutes, and 2 seconds. Her win was all the more spectacular given that she had been struggling with anemia earlier in the year, causing her to start the race on shaky footings. But by the 14th stage, a grueling hill-climb, she took the lead, and never gave it back. Now that’s determination!
Here’s another woman who blazed a trail, in more ways than one. Annie Londonderry was an accomplished feminist icon, as well as the first woman to cycle across the globe. And while those feats may be impressive for just about anyone, the fact that she did it back in the 1800s makes it all the more astonishing.
Londonderry was born in Latvia in 1870, but emigrated to America as a child. Her fateful ride, sponsored by a spring water company, took place over 15 months in 1894 and 1895. Along the way she hit such notable spots as Boston, Paris, Jerusalem, Hong Kong, boomtown era San Francisco, Los Angeles when it was but a dusty farming village, and Chicago. Upon completing her amazing ride, she resumed her groundbreaking life as both a journalist and a “new woman” — advocating for the rights and abilities of her fellow women everywhere.
In a world where athletic records are shattered all the time, managing to hold a title for a few consecutive years is quite the accomplishment. Well imagine holding the Road Time Trials Council’s “British Best All-Rounder” for a whopping 25 years. That’s a quarter of a century that Beryl Burton (May 12, 1937 – May 5, 1996) was the greatest female cyclist in the entire United Kingdom.
But Beryl wasn’t just the top woman, she was the best cyclist PERIOD. When she broke the 12 hour time trial record with a showing of 277.25 miles, she bested both men and women, and held the record for two full years. Add in her 90+ domestic championships, seven world championships, and countless other records, and it’s clear that Beryl Burton was a cyclist without equal.
Looking for a more contemporary female racing champ? Well then look no further than France’s Jeannie Longo, born October 31st, 1958. Jeannie set records her entire career, continuing to race into this current decade, despite being in her 50s. Clearly age is just a number!
Along the way, Longo smashed records, including holding the Olympic Road Championship in 1996, 13 world championships, and 59 French championships. While Longo started her athletic career with an interest in skiing (how European of her!) she quickly moved to both track and road cycling, where she proved herself to be peerless. As of today, she is the second most decorated French female Olympian.
If you’re looking for an amazing female cyclist who is still competing today, start rooting for the amazing Marianne Vos. This Dutch phenom is amazing at just about every cycling event — road racing, track racing, mountain bike racing, and cyclo-cross — so much so that she’s been called “the finest cyclist of [her] generation” by The Guardian.
When Vos isn’t kicking butt at the Olympics, she’s racking up wins at the World Road Race and World Cyclocross Championship. Given that she’s only 28, we’re sure that Marianne’s accomplishments will only get more and more amazing, especially as she returns to the peloton this month. So be sure to follow her performance and root as she continues to make history!
Pedaling for a Fairer Future
While these five cyclists may be peerless in their field, there are countless other amazing women bicyclists, from both the past and present. So with so much talent, it’s a true shame that their names and accomplishments aren’t better known and celebrated.
As is sadly the case with many sports, the average bicycle fan seems to pay more attention to the male athletes. This creates a self-reinforcing problem where it’s hard for women’s biking tours to gain sponsorship or secure television rights. Without that sort of funding, it’s hard to support and grow a stable of talented next-generation athletes.
So, if you want to help stop this vicious cycle, the best thing you can do is support women’s cycling. Attend a local race, tune in to it when it’s on TV, and lobby your local athletic departments to make sure they include it in their competitive lineups. With your support, the future of women’s cycling will only get brighter!