By chance, I heard last week’s edition of the BBC radio program, “Afternoon Theatre.” It was a drama based on the life of Beryl Burton, who, when she died of a heart attack while riding her bike in 1996 at age 58, was regarded as the world’s greatest ever woman cyclist. Two other female champions have since laid claim to Burton’s throne: Jeannie Longo of France and Marianne Vos of the Netherlands.
These extraordinary athletes have variously been called the Eddy Merckx of women’s racing, but it’s hard to compare riders from very different eras: Burton had her heyday in the 1960s, Longo in the ’80s and ’90s, and Vos in this current century. The Dutch wunderkind has deserved her cyclist-of-the-year accolades this season thanks to her world and Olympic road titles, and her repeat victories in the UCI World Cup, women’s Giro, and cyclocross worlds. Before Vos’s recent emergence, Longo dominated women’s racing on road and track for the best part of 15 years—and that was well before her latter career was stained by doping allegations and her husband and coach Patrice Ciprelli being sanctioned for importing doping products.
No such shadows linger over Burton, whose mantra was hard work, dedication and having fun with cycling. Even though she was told as a child fighting rheumatic fever that she would never be an athlete, she went on to become a legend in British cycling. That status was earned over several decades of dominance, but it was one event that put Burton on a pedestal as a one-of-a-kind champion. That race was featured in the radio play that also included interviews with Burton’s widower Charlie and daughter Denise. The event was the 1967 Otley Cycling Club’s 12-hour time trial.
By that point in her career, when “our Beryl” was age 30, Burton was Britain’s undisputed queen of time trialing. She had already won the first eight of an eventual 25 consecutive British Best All-Rounder titles, based on average speeds in 25-, 50- and 100-mile TTs, and that day in 1967 she was determined to improve on her own national 12-hour TT record of 250.37 miles that she had set eight years earlier. The course for that time trial in her native Yorkshire followed an out-and-back route on the so-called Great North Road, finishing on a circuit that the riders reached after about 200 miles.
The women’s field started after the men, with the men’s favorite and final starter, Mike McNamara, setting out two minutes before Burton. Her way of relaxing before a big race like this was to sit down and do some knitting, rather than anxiously circling on her bike. No one seriously thought that she could challenge McNamara, a tough competitor from South Yorkshire who was the reigning national champion at 12 hours; but for hour after hour that day she matched his pace. Amazingly, the gap between them was still two minutes at the 156-mile marker. That was astonishing enough, but what happened next was unprecedented: Burton started to close on McNamara!
After another three hours of effort, she eventually had her male rival in her sights on the finishing circuit. And the unthinkable took place at mile 236 when Burton finally rolled up to McNamara’s back wheel. What happened next is the stuff of legends. Putting a hand in her jersey pocket, she pulled out some candy and as she drew level she matter-of-factly asked him, “Would you like a liquorice allsort?” McNamara rose honorably to the moment, taking the licorice from Burton and thanking her with a “Ta, love.”
By the end of that time trial, almost two hours later, Burton completed her 12-hour ride with a distance of 277.25 miles—it not only topped McNamara by almost a mile but also broke the men’s nine-year-old men’s national record, and, 45 years later, still remains the longest distance any woman has ridden in an authentic 12-hour time trial.
Besides her sheer longevity and competitiveness from distances as short as the 3000-meter track pursuit or as long as the 24-hour time trial, Burton was a pure amateur athlete. She fitted in training between time spent as a mother and housewife and working at a smallholding farm, planting and harvesting beets and rhubarb, often in harsh winter weather. And she had virtually no financial support for overseas trips.
When Burton and husband Charlie traveled to the 1960 world championships in East Germany, they missed their train connection in Berlin and walked the streets for hours seeking affordable accommodations. Weary and hungry, they eventually went to a police station at two in the morning—where the officer on duty recognized the name on her passport, called a friend at the sports ministry and got them a hotel room, courtesy of the state. The next day, after catching the train to Leipzig, Burton raced the qualifying rounds of the individual pursuit. She went on to take the gold medal in that event, and capped her worlds’ appearance by winning the women’s road race. A double world champion at 23!
In a down-home speech to her colleagues gathered at her Morley Cycling Club’s annual dinner the following winter, Burton said this about her worlds experience and competing against state-subsidized athletes: “I was envious at first of the Germans and the Russians, and the support they received from their government, while we had to dig deep into our own pockets to compete. But then Charlie reminded me of you lot, my cycling friends and family, and the support, inspiration and encouragement I get from you, the laughs and the commiseration. So from now on, if I start to feel a little hard done to, I shall think of you rabble … and I will say to myself, ‘Smile when you lose, and laugh like hell when you win!’”
A phenomenal champion, Beryl Burton never forgot her homespun roots and she remained a fierce competitor all her life—even against her own daughter, who also became a fine cyclist. Mother, 41, and daughter, 21, both took part in the 1976 British national road race championship. Beryl did most of the work in establishing a four-woman breakaway, with Denise sitting in her wake. But when the daughter came through at the finish two win the sprint ahead of her mother, Beryl was furious. In fact, Denise Burton said on the radio program, “She wouldn’t let me in the car,” and told her to ride her bike home.
Sounds just like Merckx, the Cannibal, who also was convinced that he would win every race he started.
COMPARING THE TITLES EARNED BY BURTON, LONGO AND VOS
This summary does not include Olympic medals because women cyclists were not awarded any events until 1984, so Burton never had chance to ride at the Olympic Games. It should also be noted that a women’s time trial was not included at the worlds until 1994; otherwise Burton would likely have won many more rainbow jerseys. The “other” events listed here include track races and cyclo-cross.
Rider Years World Championships National Championships
RR Other RR TT Other
Burton (GB) 30 2 5 12 72 12
Longo (F) 33 5 8 15 10 34
Vos (Nl) 7 2 7 5 2 4
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Last week, I began this review of 2012 with the first half of my A-to -Z reflections. Here’s the second half, including some amazing performances by three 22-year-old pros, and an almost perfect sets of results by the women’s Eddy Merckx. But let’s start with one remarkable ’cross racer….
N for Nys. It’s being said that Belgian cyclo-cross star Sven Nys, 36, could be his discipline’s greatest-ever athlete. He has already won nine events in the current season to go with his more than 300 career ’cross victories. Though he’s only won a single world title (2005), Nys has taken six World Cup championships (and is headed for a seventh crown), 11 Superprestige titles and eight Belgian national championships in his 15 pro seasons.
O for Olympics. The Games of the 30th Olympiad in London saw cycling become one of the most popular sports, with estimated crowds of a million spectators watching the men’s and women’s road races on separate days, while the track, mountain-bike and BMX events all played to full houses. The home fans were rewarded by the British team winning eight gold medals, while no other country took more than one.
P for Phinney. In 2012 at age 22, BMC Racing’s Taylor Phinney shed his image as just the son of Olympic-medalist parents, and began building his own pro road palmarès. At the top of the list was his winning the opening time trial at the Giro d’Italia and defending the pink jersey until stage 4, while he came close at the London Olympics with fourth place in both the road race and time trial, before winning the final stage of the USA Pro Challenge and then taking silver medals at the worlds’ time trials (both team and individual). A sign for Phinney’s future was a promising 15th place in his debut Paris-Roubaix after working hard all day for his team leader, Alessandro Ballan, who placed third.
Q for Quintana. Another 22-year-old, Nairo Quintana, enjoyed a remarkable debut season with Movistar in the UCI WorldTour. This Colombian climber scored half a dozen wins. They included a significant stage victory in the Dauphiné at Morzine after dropping Cadel Evans, Brad Wiggins and the Team Sky armada on the Col de Joux-Plane; and a brilliant solo success in the Italian semi-classic, the Giro dell’Emilia, which finishes on the famed San Luca climb in Bologna.
R for Rodriguez. At age 33, Spanish climber Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha Team had his best-ever season, ending as No. 1 in the UCI WorldTour rankings for the second time in three years. His season was book-ended by classics victories at the Flèche Wallonne and Il Lombardia, while he won two stages and finished second overall at the Giro, and won three stages and placed third overall at the Vuelta.
S for Sagan. Many observers have compared Slovak prodigy Peter Sagan of Liquigas-Cannondale, still only 22, with the young Eddy Merckx. He won 16 times this year, starting with a stage of the Tour of Oman in February, and going on to win singles stages at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Three Days of De Panne, five stages at the Tour of California, four stages at the Tour of Switzerland and three stages of the Tour de France (along with the green jersey). Perhaps just as significant was the promise he showed in the spring classics, including fourth place at Milan-San Remo, second at Ghent-Wevelgem, fifth at the Tour of Flanders and third at the Amstel Gold Race.
T for Tiernan-Locke. Despite riding for a ProContinental team (Endura Racing) and missing several weeks of racing because of injury, Britain’s latest discovery, Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, won four European stages races this year: the Mediterranean Tour and Tour du Haut Var in February, the Tour Alsace in July, and the Tour of Britain in September. All this at age 27 after missing three complete seasons because of the Epstein-Barr virus. His reward is a contract with Team Sky for 2013.
U for USADA. What could never be proven by hundreds of anti-doping tests was revealed in the testimonies of a dozen former U.S. Postal Service teammates in an investigation conducted by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency: Lance Armstrong used banned drugs and blood-doped for a decade when he was clocking up all those Tour de France wins. The investigation was masterminded by USADA CEO Travis Tygart, an attorney, who homed in on America’s iconic champion after May 2010, when Armstrong’s one-time colleague Floyd Landis began to spill the beans about doping within the former U.S. team.
V for Vos. Still only 25, Dutch phenom Marianne Vos carried all before her in 2012. Not only did she win the world cyclo-cross championship for the fourth consecutive year, but she also won the UCI World Cup for a fourth time (along with three rounds of the premier women’s competition), retained her title in the women’s Giro d’Italia (including five stage wins), and then won gold in a brilliantly exciting edition of the Olympic road race. Vos capped her season with a solo victory in the world road championship—after five consecutive years of silver medals!
W for Wiggins. Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins became the first British rider to win the Tour de France, and he did it in the style of five-time champions Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Induráin: by winning the long time trials and defending the yellow jersey in the mountains. But the 32-year-old Brit’s 2012 season wasn’t just about the Tour. He preceded it by becoming the first man to win Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné stage races in the same year, and he capped it by winning the Olympic time trial to add to the three pursuit golds he won at previous Games and his six world track titles from his pre-road career.
X for Xu. Winner of the Chinese national road championship, the Champion System team’s Xu Gang, 28, raced from February to November in his first season as a ProContinental team rider. Besides winning his national title, Xu finished no less than 11 international stage races: the Tours of Qatar, Oman, Taiwan, Japan, Qinghai Lake, Utah, China I and China II, Beijing, Hainan and Taihu Lake! He cracked the top 20 in Taiwan, Japan and China I.
Y for Yates. British cycling Hall-of-Famer Sean Yates crowned his management career by leading Wiggins and Chris Froome to their unprecedented 1-2 finish at the Tour de France. That added to his own Tour career as a rider when he won a time trial stage in 1988 and wore the yellow jersey for a day in 1994. Yates, 52, announced his retirement from cycling in October because of health problems (he has suffered from heart irregularities for several years) and not because of Team Sky’s new zero-tolerance policy (Yates had an A-sample test positive after a Belgian race in 1989, but the B-sample was negative).
Z for Zabel. No, not Erik Zabel, the winner of six Tour de France green jerseys, four editions of Milan-San Remo and three Paris-Tours, but his 18-year-old son Rick Zabel who began his under-23 career this year with the Rabobank Continental squad. His 2012 highlights were winning the German national U23 road title and placing second to Belgian pro Kevin Claeys in the Ronde van Limburg, a 190-kilometer Belgian semi-classic with a 1.2 rating in the UCI Europe Tour.
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Olympic image: Surrey County Council
Sagan & Wiggins images: Photoreporter Sirotti
Is it just me? It felt like the Tour (grand as it always is) was somehow lessened by these Olympics. Riders who might have gone harder in France saved themselves for London. Tom Boonen comes to mind immediately. Even Mark Cavendish, who was always going to take a back seat with Team Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins in yellow, used the Tour as training for the road race in his home country, rather than going full gas for another green jersey. A further cadre of riders pulled out of the Tour consoling themselves that the Olympics might still define their season, Thor Hushovd (he missed both races in the end) among them.
So what do we think of that? Has the Olympics, the road race and time trial, been worth it? Did you care when Alexandre Vinokourov rode off with the gold medal? Was Wiggins’ ride in the TT a valedictory, a simple victory lap or a true coronation? Did the Olympics turn you on?
I will say that I was tremendously disappointed in the road race. Team GB didn’t execute the plan for Cavendish. In fact, having watched Wiggins and Chris Froome both medal in the time trial, you have to ask if they were even the right guys to have in the road race. Were they saving themselves for their own event at Cav’s expense?
And then watching Vinokourov, one of the enduring faces of the sport’s doping past, cross the line, arms aloft, turned my stomach. Here is a guy who hasn’t won a race all year, but suddenly he has the legs to take a gold medal. When Rigoberto Uran turned to look over his right shoulder I immediately thought, “NO!NO!NO!” And it was over.
On the flip side of the coin, Marianne Vos’ road race win over Lizzie Armitstead was nail-bitingly dramatic, and certainly helped the pro women get some much deserved camera time. Kristin Armstrong’s gold in the TT a few days later was also good. Watching her with her son, on the podium, made me all emotional. And I abhor time trials.
So this week’s Group Ride asks: Was it worth it? Was Olympic cycling (and yes, I know the track events are still in progress) a worthy distraction from our normal program? Did London 2012 lessen the Tour, or was it another marquis event that will bring lasting attention to the sport? My British friends are thinking the latter, but how does this all look from your corner of the globe?
Photo: © Surrey County Council
Perhaps the most amazing fact to emerge from the first week of the London Olympics was the size of the crowds watching the cycling road races. Last Saturday, the men’s event drew upwards of a million people. That’s said to be the largest number of spectators for any Olympic event ever—which may not be so surprising for an event starring Britain’s top two sports personalities, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, a matter of days after their crowning achievements on the Champs-Élysées. But what about the women’s race on Sunday? If you were cognizant of cycling’s history, you wouldn’t expect too many fans to show up for a stand-alone women’s race. But what happened? Despite no Tour de France stars being on the start line, and despite the race being held in mostly pouring rain, another million people showed up. Incredible!
From the British perspective, the men’s race was a disaster. Cavendish was widely heralded as a shoo-in to win gold after five-star assistance from Wiggins and their three powerful teammates, Tour runner-up Chris Froome, Tour stage winner David Millar and national champ Ian Stannard. But trying to control a race that was as long as Paris-Roubaix with just four riders, however strong they were, was always going to be a near-impossible task. And so it proved.
The GB boys boxed themselves into a corner with their all-for-Cav strategy. An early, powerful breakaway forced them to ride too high of a tempo for hour after hour to keep the break’s lead to bridgeable proportions, and they didn’t have enough gas left to stop three waves of riders making that bridge to the front over the final two laps of the demanding Box Hill circuit. Perhaps it would have been smart to let Cavendish surf one of those waves; he said he had the legs to do it.
In the end, it was extraordinary to see the 2012 Tour de France’s top two finishers, first Froome then Wiggins, ride themselves into total exhaustion trying to bring back the 26-strong breakaway group. That they didn’t succeed was disappointing for Cavendish and his supporters, but the Brits were heroic in defeat. The ultimate victory of anti-hero Alexander Vinokourov bemused the British public (and their media!), but the men’s race did make it to the front page of at least one major newspaper, The Independent on Sunday, which ran a huge photo of a solo, head-down Wiggins trailing in to the finish 1:17 behind the winner, with the headline: “Never mind, Bradley! There’s another gold medal chance on Wednesday.”
Perhaps the Tour champ would recover in time for Wednesday’s Olympic time trial, but a gold medal then would not change the public’s disappointment in the result of the road race. An inkling into just how the British media would have reacted had the gold gone to Cavendish came the next day when the women’s silver medal was claimed by Lizzie Armistead, an iron-strong Yorkshire lady from the same cycling club as the late Beryl Burton, who was probably England’s greatest-ever cycling champion. As the home country’s first medalist of these Games, Armistead’s photo graced page one of every national newspaper in Britain, with the most spectacular one being a double-page shot of the finish appearing in The Times—the iconic 227-year-old newspaper affectionately known as The Thunderer.
The Times headline read “Elizabeth the Second”—an allusion to Queen Elizabeth II, whose palace was the backdrop to the road-race finish, and to the fact that Armistead placed second. Not much play was given to winner Marianne Vos, the Eddy Merckx of women’s cycling. The Dutch woman’s victory salute was cleverly hidden on the back of the wraparound cover, with Armistead on the front page, smiling through the rain as she crossed the line. On this occasion, the British media and public came through for women cyclists; but the racers’ oft-heard cries of being treated like second-class citizens were borne out by the coverage in mainstream Europe. The Continent’s leading sports daily, L’Équipe of Paris, didn’t even report the women’s Olympic road race. It just printed the result in small type, deep inside the broadsheet’s cavernous pages.
But the women did get an unprecedented chance to show the quality and excitement of their racing in hours of live television around the world. And, after a slow start, they put on a great show of aggressive racing, particularly Vos, Armistead and sprinter Shelley Olds—whose ill-timed puncture when in the winning break robbed her of the chance to become the first American woman to medal in an Olympic road race since Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg placed 1-2 in the 1984 inaugural women’s event. Perhaps, almost three decades later, the excellence of the women’s racing at the 2012 Olympics will help them take a major step in their quest for equality.
We’ve heard a lot in the past year about the lack of parity between the men’s and women’s branches of professional cycling. Female racers have expressed their frustration that while, relatively speaking, money pours into the men’s side through multi-million-dollar sponsorships of teams and events (albeit with exceptions in austerity-ravaged economies such as Spain’s), women’s racing has stagnated, with even the top teams existing on shoestring budgets.
At the center of the parity storm is the world’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, even though the UCI willingly acceded to IOC demands that there be the same number of events for men and women cyclists at the London Olympics.
When UCI president Pat McQuaid was asked at last October’s road worlds whether there were plans to legislate a minimum wage for women racers, he said, “We have an agreement in men’s sport, but women’s cycling has not developed enough that we are at that level yet.” When his words were shared with the top three finishers in the women’s road race in Copenhagen, world champ Georgia Bronzini politely disagreed. Runner-up Vos said, “Of course, it’s a younger sport than the men’s sport but…with a minimum salary it can only be more professional.” And bronze medalist Ina Teutenberg added, “I don’t know why guys would deserve a minimum salary and women don’t.”
The debate heated up this past weekend, when Armistead, Britain’s brand-new Olympic silver medalist, said the things that bugged her about the inequality of the sexes were salary and media coverage, “but certainly I think we could get more help from the top—which is the UCI.” For now, let’s just hope that the dignified and delightful performances by Armistead, Vos and company in London makes the world of cycling, especially the media and the UCI, pay far more attention to women’s racing. At least, for the million or so Brits who stood in the rain last Sunday, the women’s race was just as much a spectacle as the men’s. And that can only turn up the volume in the women pro cyclists’ call for a minimum salary.
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Have you heard about the Rêve Tour? Six women are riding the entire route of the 2012 Tour de France, one day in advance of the actual race, to raise money for Bikes Belong. The ride is sponsored and supported, but my understanding is that they’ll be cleaning and maintaining their own bikes. Given that there are six of them, and not 198, they’ll have to really stick together and take care of each other to make it. I think it is fair to say that for the women involved it will be easily as massive an undertaking as it will be for the men who will race it, for money, in their wake.
The Rêve Tour will not be televised. You can expect Heidi Swift, who writes for a certain magazine Padraig also writes for, to pen some compelling prose about it, but otherwise we will have very little window into what they’re doing day-to-day, and that’s too bad. I think it takes what a small cadre of men did during Stoepid Week and goes one louder.
The Rêve Tour ladies are already accomplishing part of what they set out do, because they’ve got me thinking about the disparities in our sport. Some years ago, when I was editing a soccer magazine, I ran up against a common feeling among our readership, which was that women’s soccer was inferior to men’s. It was slower, they complained. It was different.
My actual experience was that, while slower than the men’s game and less dependent on power, the women’s game was really good to watch. The women, at least at the time, were more tactical in their play, more cooperative. There were fewer cynical fouls and far less play-acting. It was different, yes, but still very good, and the pros, though paid far less than the men, were more open, giving of their time, and encouraging to young players.
Female cyclists at the very top of our sport will be slower than their male counterparts, but I can’t see that that has any impact on my enjoyment of a race. Since the advent of modern doping controls, including EPO testing and the biological passport, the men’s races have slowed as well. We are not enjoying those races less, are we?
A group of top racers going hammer-and-tongs at a grueling mountain stage is thrilling, no matter the, um, base equipment under them. The tactics are the same. The personalities will run the same gamut. It will be the same story, but different. Better in some ways.
I don’t want to go all soap-boxy about this, because I hope that I am preaching to a sympathetic choir. There is already elite women’s racing. Ina Yoko-Teutenberg, Kristen Armstrong, Evelyn Stevens, Emma Pooley, Marianne Vos, Claudia Hausler, Georgia Bronzini, Chloe Hosking, these are names you’ve probably heard. They are stars, even if the UCI and ASO don’t treat them as such.
To me, the Rêve Tour won’t prove any points about what women can and can’t do. We already know they can race the same races as the men, and most of us believe those races would be just as compelling as the ones we get to see on television. What the Rêve Tour does, I think, is ask the question, “Why are things the way they are now, with unequal prize money and inadequate support from the sport’s governing body?”
And it’s a fair question.
In pro tennis, at the top level, the prize money is equal. The women get as much, and sometimes more, media ink than the men. It’s an example of two subtly different forms of the same game, offering equal entertainment value, and equal opportunity. How is cycling different?
When Chloe Hosking called Pat McQuaid a dick for his comment that professional female cyclists did not deserve a minimum wage, she was made to back down and apologize. But for what? How can the head of the UCI pretend to be interested in the growth of the sport when he won’t give even the most cursory backing to equal opportunities for women?
I have no answers. I know it’s easy to write these words, to put on an air of moral indignation. It is much harder to set out with six teammates to conquer the Tour de France and make your point with your legs, as a cyclist should.
Image: Robertson, VeloDramatic