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Sept 27, 2015 – As I wrote these words on Saturday evening in Richmond, Virginia, the lobby of the Marriott Hotel, adjacent to the 2015 UCI world road championships finish line, was packed with cycling fans, team personnel and race officials. There was high energy in the animated conversations swirling around the room.
Words: John Wilcockson/Photos: Yuzuru Sunada
If I hadn’t known that all this excitement came after the elite women’s road race, I’d have sworn it was caused by worlds week’s traditional climax, the elite men’s event. But these fans were still buzzing from the sustained applause with which they greeted the entrance of women’s bronze medalist Megan Guarnier a few minutes earlier—greeted as a hero after taking third in the final nine-woman sprint, just beaten by a brilliant Lizzie Armistead of Great Britain and Anna van der Breggen of the Netherlands.
So has women’s road racing truly arrived?
Not quite; but this was another crack in the glass ceiling—three years after Armistead took silver behind Marianne Vos in the the road race at the 2012 Olympic Games, where an estimated one million spectators lined the streets of London. But that happened when the popularity of UK bike racing was at a zenith, right after Bradley Wiggins gave the Brits their first ever Tour de France victory, followed up by his winning gold in the Olympic time trial. In sharp contrast, this weekend’s racing is in the United States of America, in the capital of the former Confederacy, thousands of miles from the sport’s epicenter.
Saturday was an extraordinary day in Richmond. All around the 16.2-kilometer worlds’ course, and particularly on the cobblestone climbs and up the long, long finish straight on Broad Street, thousands of spectators rang cowbells, banged thunder sticks, shouted encouragement to every competitor and roared “U-S-A,” “U-S-A” whenever a member of the home country team came into sight. And this was the women’s race….
The first time I heard that “U-S-A” chant was in 1969 at the world amateur road championships in Brno, Czechoslovakia. But it wasn’t a chant coming from the mouths of thousands of American fans, but from a half-dozen Yanks working for the small U.S. contingent at those distant worlds. They were cheering Californian Audrey McElmury after she, incredibly, won the women’s road race against the powerful Russians and East Germans in a solo breakaway on a day of torrential rain.
There was speculation after that first-ever rainbow jersey for an American road cyclist, 46 years ago, that women’s cycling would begin to take off in the U.S. and elevate the status of women’s cycling around the world. That didn’t happen, but McElmury’s escapade was a significant step in the slow evolution of women’s road racing.
We all tend to forget that women’s cycling didn’t even achieve international status until it was introduced to the world championships in 1958—that’s 65 years after the first men’s worlds. Even then, it took a fight to achieve that recognition, and it was mainly thanks to the foresight and persistence of a pioneering English lady named Eileen Gray.
Most of today’s women racers have probably never heard of Gray, who died earlier this year at age 95, but they would have admired her feisty spirit. I was lucky to work with Mrs. Gray—as we used to address her—when we both sat on the committee of the British Cycling Federation’s South West London & Surrey Division in the 1970s. That’s where I was able to see her formidable organizational skills and learn about her fight to get women’s cycling on the world stage.
Although women have ridden and competed since the birth of bike racing (a “Miss America,” who was actually an Englishwoman, was 29th in a field of men at the world’s first road race, the 1869 Paris-Rouen), they never developed an international program of races. In Italy, Alfonsina Strada gained fame by twice finishing the men’s Tour of Lombardy and completing the 1924 Giro d’Italia as a lone wolf (despite finishing outside the time limit on several stages). And, in Britain, women competed in their own comprehensive schedule of road time trials, with their most successful competitor being Eileen Sheridan, who broke every possible distance record, including riding 237.62 miles for a 12-hour TT in 1949.
It was in the immediate postwar years that Eileen Gray competed, riding as an amateur for the Apollo Cycling Club in South London. In 1946, she was part of the first British women’s team invited to Europe for a track meet in Copenhagen, Denmark, an event that, as Gray said in a 2012 interview, gave women “a chance to show what we could do…and from that point on, something started that they couldn’t stop.”
In Britain, Gray helped establish the Women’s Track Racing Association—which became the Women’s Cycle Racing Association (WCRA) when women were first allowed to compete in road races in 1955. Gray’s group managed to persuade Britain’s National Cycling Union (later named the British Cycling Federation, today’s British Cycling) to get world records for women approved by the UCI, and British and Soviet riders set records at distances from 500 meters up to 100 kilometers in that first year.
On the road, Gray was the manager of a first WCRA team that traveled to France in 1955, and dominated a three-day race at Roanne, with Millie Robinson from the Isle of Man taking the overall title. Robinson also won a five-day Tour de France Féminin later that year and became the first British national road champion in 1956. Two years later, Gray was instrumental in getting women their first world championships: the track sprint, individual pursuit, and a 59-kilometer road race.
That was a huge breakthrough, but it was really just the start of tearing down sexism in cycling. As manager of the British women’s team to ride the 1960 worlds in Leipzig, East Germany, Gray was given a budget of only 100 pounds sterling (about $200 at the time) by the BCF to pay for all their expenses, The team had to go fundraising to buy equipment, and it borrowed a bus to drive there. And then, Gray said in the interview, a British male official “went home…and deliberately took all of our spare tubes and tires with him, leaving us with nothing. He just did it to harm our chances.” Despite the sabotage, Britain’s Beryl Burton—who went on to become the most successful woman cyclist in British history—won the world titles in the individual pursuit and road race. (Lizzie Armistead is only the third Brit to take the road race since Burton.)
The underhanded behavior of that male official bolstered Gray’s resolve to help women’s cycling gain more recognition, and she went on to get voted onto the BCF’s finance committee (“where I could get things going and say my bit for women”). And shortly after, when I was on that BCF division committee with her, Gray was elected as national president of the federation—another first for a woman. When she was in her 70s, Gray served a term as mayor of Kingston-upon-Thames, a London suburb adjacent to Richmond (after which this American city is named!). She was later named by Queen Elizabeth II as a Commander of the British Empire, and she was inducted into the British Cycling Hall of Fame—where she was described as “a champion of women’s racing and an administrator of vision and authority.”
Eileen Gray is no longer with us, nor is Beryl Burton or Audrey McElmury, but their spirit lives on, and in the upcoming decades of this 21st century, perhaps the women’s world championships will truly find parity with the men’s.
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You can follow John on Twitter @johnwilcockson