Friday, February 04, 2005

Women in Cycling

The first American winner of a Tour de France was a woman named Marianne Martin. The event was the first Tour de France Feminine in 1984, 18 stages totaling 620 miles.

Men had to race the original version for almost 80 years before Greg LeMond scored the first American victory among men’s teams in 1986.

While athletic achievements tend to be separated by gender, the areas of accomplishment do overlap. When I started racing in the mid 1970s, Mary Jane Reoch was the dominant woman rider in the United States. She was reputed to like to ride and win the women’s event at a race and then hop in with the men and dust half of them. She also supposedly raced and won criterium races during her first trimester of pregnancy and rode to the hospital in labor, offering advice on riding position to a male rider en route before riding away.

Britain’s legendary rider Beryl Burton listed a lifetime of accomplishments in women’s and mixed competition. In 1967 she set a record in Britain for distance traveled in 12 hours, 277.25 miles, almost six miles more than the men’s record. In a 1969 attempt at a 24-hour distance trial she was ahead of the eventual men’s winner by 9 miles at 12 hours and at the 300-mile mark was 20 minutes faster than he was. Unfortunately, a combination of problems forced her to abandon the event just beyond 300 miles.

The man she was leading became the first British rider to surpass 500 miles in 24 hours.

She was hampered in mass-start competition by the shortness of the courses set for women. She liked to ride hard and had the endurance to ride long, so the tactical sprinters would simply ride behind her to the finish. A longer event would have allowed her to burn them off.

Burton raced from her late teens until her death at 58. This was in spite of health problems that challenged her early and late in life. She and her daughter Denise were both selected to represent Britain at the 1972 Wold Championships in Barcelona and raced a team time trial in club competition shortly before her death.

Women athletes are scary. Dr. Dawn Richardson writes in an April, 2003 VeloNews about competing as a Category 2 racer while maintaining a family and a full-time job. For a woman, that includes carrying the little bambinos around inside for nine months and then recovering from that. Gentlemen, care to line up to try it?

Richardson’s article actually deals with the practical aspects of mixing pregnancy and riding. She does not endorse the most aggressive plan of action, but she does report on the whole range of approaches, from the women who take a break from cycling to the ones who calculate their heart rate to determine how hard they can ride without diverting oxygen from the fetus.

Lest you fear there’s nothing more to women’s cycling than blood, guts and amniotic fluid, there’s also Jacquie Phelan, founder of WOMBATS, the Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society. Here’s a person determined to have fun and demonstrate and teach how fun can be had. But she’s also won national mountain bike championships, pulling down the NORBA title in 1983, 1984 and 1985. Credentials like this are important to counter critics like the anonymous little predator in lycra in a sport shoe ad who said, “the person who says winning isn’t everything never won anything.”

Find out more about WOMBATS at Phelan may have earned her medals as a mountain biker, but she’s an all-around cyclist. The site has good links for any cyclist, not just a woman.

More and more products designed for the female cyclist are coming on the market, but there’s still a long way to go. Women’s frames are designed to accommodate women’s proportions.
Women are often shorter than men, but they also tend to have longer legs and shorter torsos. Bike makers are beginning to design for this, but tall women often have to choose from the standard production frames because the women’s sizes don’t run tall enough.

A good shop can often adapt a standard bike to a tall woman. Find a shop with patient, knowledgeable staff who will take the time to make the adjustments.

The Terry company, founded by Georgena Terry, specializes in women’s cycling products. They do offer larger women’s sizes, but the geometry of the high-performance road model is the same as many standard road frames. The touring models have much shorter top tubes. This helps make the bike more comfortable at slower speeds. But the trend industry-wide is producing touring bikes like this. A knowledgeable shop can help you decide whether you can get the ride you’re looking for from a model they stock.

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