While riders in today’s women’s peloton enjoy more live race broadcasts and media coverage than ever before, female cycling figures of the past are often criminally underreported while their male contemporaries are mythologized. However, the history of women’s racing is replete with legendary figures and even heated rivalries over the years. Here are some of those racers and rivalries you should know about.
Tillie Anderson and ‘Lisette’
For a brief period in the late 1800s, track cycling was one of the most important sports in the United States, and women received as much attention as men. One of the main stars of the scene was Tillie Anderson, who was part of a group known as “The Big Five” alongside Lizzie Glaw, Helen Baldwin, May Allen and Dottie Farnsworth.
Born in Sweden in 1875, Anderson grew up on a farm before emigrating to Chicago at age 16. Having noticed the popularity of bicycles in her adopted city, she saved money by working in a laundry during the day and as a seamstress at night to buy her own bicycle. . It was not long before she took on challenges such as the record of the century. Shortly after, she met her future husband, the Swedish cyclist J. Phillip Shoberg who introduced her to track racing and became her trainer.
In 1896 Anderson ran his first Six-Day and won. That year, she won six of the seven competitions she entered and achieved great fame through her exploits, earning her the nickname “Tillie the Terrible Swede”.
With the success of track racing, lucrative deals and bets have created additional drama and competition. The popularity and financial potential of six-day races in the United States were such that they drew the enigmatic French rider Amélie le Gall – who went by the mononym ‘Lisette’ – onto the scene.
Anderson had gone largely unchallenged on the Six Days stage, but Lisette had expressed her intentions of upsetting her crown. In the race, however, Lisette failed to win a six-day race amid accusations that Tillie and her fellow Americans blocked her and rumors that Tillie paid other runners to sabotage races. by Lisetta.
The reduction in sponsorship and the decisions made by the League of American Wheelmen (the American cycling federation at the time) meant that there was little room for women at the top of the sport, which added additional heat to Tillie and Lisette’s rivalry. The press, who reveled in the drama, escalated the rivalry and the pair had a battle of words as well as newspaper wheels.
Unfortunately, around the turn of the century, as motorcycles replaced bicycles in the public speed mania, the popularity of dirt track racing died out and the reign of Tillie and his colleagues came to an abrupt end.
Yvonne Reynders and Beryl Burton
Although Beryl Burton is relatively well known compared to other historical figures in women’s cycling, her exploits were such that she now deserves the same respect as her male contemporaries.
The sensible Yorkshirewoman is iconic for her incredible tally of track, road and time trial victories and records for almost three decades between the mid-1950s and the 1980s. She frequently beat men as well as women in distance records. Indeed, a story by Beryl Burton suggests that during one such event, she offered one of her male contestants an Allsort Liquorice candy as she effortlessly passed him.
Burton has won Britain’s Best All Rounder time trial accolade for 25 consecutive years alongside 72 individual national time trial titles. She was twice world champion on the road, in 1960 and 1967, and five times world champion in the individual pursuit on the track.
With such a long career, Burton faced many rivals in her time, but one of her main opponents was Belgium’s Yvonne Reynders, who won the world road racing title in 1959, a year before the first title. by Burton. In 1961 Burton and Reynders battled for world titles with Reynders taking the rainbow jersey both on the road and in the individual pursuit with Burton second. Reynders won two more road titles, in 1963 and 1966.
It was a well-matched rivalry that dominated the women’s side of the sport, something a forerunner of Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten. In his book Queens of pain, cycling legends and rebelsauthor Isabel Best says of Reynders:
“Perhaps the greatest road racer of her generation, the rare woman in whom Burton met his match at the world championships in both the road race and the track individual pursuit. They were perfect rivals, winning each seven gold medals. Born the same year, they were titans of their sport and largely undefeated in their own country. The gold medal went back and forth between them from year to year, each pushing the other in its entrenchments.
Like all good rivalries, the competition between Burton and Reynders encouraged them to strive to improve themselves and each other.
Connie Carpenter-Phinney and Rebecca Twigg
In 1984, Marianne Martin became the first American to win the Women’s Tour de France. A week later in Los Angeles, Connie Carpenter-Phinney became the first American to win the Olympic road race in the first-ever women’s road race at the Games.
A former speed skater, Carpenter-Phinney remains to this day the youngest woman to compete in the Winter Olympics after competing at the Sapporo Games at just 14 years old. Her speed skating career came to an end, however, after an ankle injury forced her out of the 1976 Winter Games after which she turned to cycling – the sport she had used to cross training.
A six-year-old Carpenter-Phinney junior, Rebecca Twigg was also precocious, attending the University of Washington at age 14 to study biology. It was at university that Twigg was introduced to cycling and it wasn’t long before she racked up results that led to her being selected for the national team at the age of 17. Between 1979 and 1984, Twigg won 10 national track and road titles.
The rivalry between Carpenter-Phinney and Twigg began on the track. At the World Track Championships in 1982, the duo faced off in the final with Twigg as the winner. The following year, the same final gave the opposite result, then a year later, Twigg beat Carpenter-Phinney again. The pair also became rivals on the road that year, with Twigg winning the Coors Classic (one of the biggest races on the American calendar) after Carpenter-Phinney crashed.
Both clearly in good shape, they each made the team to compete in the first ever women’s Olympic road race in Los Angeles the following year. Like Six-Day stars before them, Carpenter-Phinney and Twigg argued via the press ahead of the Games, with Carpenter-Phinney telling the LA Times “I have more experience and want to win more than anyone.”
That day, around 200,000 people lined the course for what was the opening event of the Games. The course was only 79 km long, but it featured steep climbs, making it a selective race. On lap three, Twigg broke away on a steep climb that had a tight group following, including Carpenter-Phinney. Twigg was brought back and as they came to the finish they looked like they would win the sprint, but a very last minute bike throw from Carpenter-Phinney sealed victory at the line.
Despite their rivalry, the pair embraced beyond the line, celebrating a 1-2 USA in the first women’s Olympic road race.
Maria Canins and Jeannie Longo
Maria Canins and Jeannie Longo both grew up in the high mountains, Canins in the Dolomites in Italy and Longo in Sallanches in the French Alps. Canins started her sports career as a cross-country skier in which she was Italian national champion no less than 15 times between 1969 and 1988. She then started mountain biking where she won the world championships and Italian national titles in twice before turning to the road in 1982 at the age of 32. In that first season, she won the Italian national title and came second in the world championships.
Longo, who is the Canins’ nine-year-old junior, also started her career as a skier before switching to cycling with immediate success. She won the French road racing championship in 1979, aged 21, and would go on to win 24 more national titles in her career as well as 13 world titles.
In the first Olympic women’s road race in 1984, the pair found themselves in a select group before reaching the finish. Canins, aware that she was no match for Longo and the others in a sprint, went ahead. Subsequently, however, the two collided and Canins’ pedal snapped Longo’s chain, knocking them both out of action, with the French rider having to swing her bike over the line.
The following year at the Tour de France – the Canins’ first at the age of 36 – the Italian beat race favorite Longo in the mountains to take the overall victory. Longo got her revenge later that season when she beat Canins in the Dolomites, her own backyard, to claim the world road racing title.
The following year, Canins repeated their Tour de France victory, fending off both Longo and American Inga Thompson. In 1987, however, after three years of trying, Longo finally took the yellow jersey.
The two continued their rivalry until Canins retired in 1990. Longo, however, continued to race and hoped to compete in the 2012 London Olympics – although she was not selected. Her last professional race was the French time trial championships in 2016 where she placed 13th.
The history books might not give them the justice they deserved, but for every Coppi and Bartali there was a Burton and a Reynders; while Hinault and LeMond faced off, Longo and Canins faced off for a yellow jersey. These women were the forerunners of the rivalry between Annemiek van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen, and they are legends of the sport themselves.