In the early 19th Century, the first bicycles were developed by men, for men. Until the turn of the 20th Century, bicycles were considered only suitable for men since they couldn’t be ridden effectively sidesaddle – which was felt to be the only way that delicate ladies could ride anything! To be fair, at the time, clothing issues lent a small amount of credibility to this notion.
However, even though bike design improved, and could accommodate voluminous fabrics of lady’s fashion, it was widely believed that a woman straddling something – in this case a bike saddle – would result in her being unable to control her sexual desires. The patriarchal society felt that the shocks and vibrations of the road would cause us to start having orgasms all over the place. These ‘facts’ were reported across journals and newspapers of the time, in order to suppress any thoughts that women should be seen to want to ride such an unfeminine contraption in public. The concept of ‘bicycle face’ as a medical condition was made up to scare us off, and apparently created a hard-clenched jaw, and bulging eyes, which could only be cured with the cessation of all cycling activity.
Thankfully, women at the turn of the century were a hardy bunch, and undeterred they started to adapt their clothing and embraced the humble bicycle as their route to freedom. It paid a key role in the rise of feminism and the suffragette movement and we owe a lot to those early female cycling mavericks.
And so, in this blog I want to pay homage to some of those early female pioneers that broke the mould and went on to spectacular achievements at a time when women were still not supposed to exerting themselves, due to it being considered too dangerous to health. Also to some of the stars of today, that still continue to inspire and break not only women’s records, but also some of those set by men. Who says women aren’t strong?
Born 1877 – Tournai, Belgium
1893 (aged 16) – broke the Women’s Hour Record
1896 & 1897 – Won the Women’s speed track world championships 2 years running.
Also, became a stunt woman, pilot and was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 1913.
Born 1875 – Sweden
Entered the Elgin-Aurora race, breaking the course record on her first try. She also broke the 100-mile record, riding the distance in six hours 57 minutes. She traveled the US taking part in 6-day races.
At 18 the League of American Wheelmen recognised her as the best female cyclist in the world
During her racing career, she won all bar 7 of the 130 races she competed in.
She retired in 1902 when the League of American Wheelmen banned women from racing!
In June 2000, 105 years later she was posthumously inducted into the US Bicycling Hall of Fame as an undisputed champion and pioneer in women’s athletics.
Born 1891 – Nr Modena, Italy
1904 (age 13) – won her first race.
Won most girls races and many boys races too.
1917 & 1918 – Giro di Lombardia, finishing 21st on 2nd attempt
1923 – Raced the men’s Giro d’Italia. The organisers mistook her for a man until the day before the event.
She battled through the opening stages before a crash during the seventh resulted in broken handlebars. With no mechanical assistance, she was waiting for some time before a spectator gave her the broken handle of a broom to use. It was too late, and she was excluded from the race for missing the time cut off by 25 minutes. Keen to capitalise on the publicity of a woman riding the race, the organisers allowed her to continue, but she was not counted in the overall classification. Although not an official finisher, she completed the race some 28 hours behind the winner.
1938 – Set the female world record for the hour at 32.58km. It was 1955 before this record was beaten.
Born 1920 – Bilston, UK
1952 – Broke Women’s Road Records Association Land’s End to London record with 287 miles in 17 hrs 13 mins 31 seconds
1953 – Broke further distance records including Holyhead to London, London to York, and then continued to Edinburgh going onto ride 422 miles in 24 hours. She took 3 records in the same ride and was the first woman to go beyond 400 miles in 24 hours.
She also set the first women’s amateur record for Land’s end to John O’Groats, beating the professional record by 4hrs 48 mins
Born 1933 – Garnich, Luxembourg
1958 – Winner of the first Women’s Road World Championship.
1958 – set new women’s hour record with a distance of 41.347km. This was unbeaten for 14 years
She is also a 15 times Luxembourg nationals road race champion. The Grand Prix Elsy Jacobs was named in her honour and has been held since 2008.
Born 1937 – Leeds, UK
1957-1973 – Dominated British women’s track and road racing and was world champion 5 times as well as silver and bronze in between
1963 – First woman to break the hour barrier for the 25 mile time trial.
1967 – Set a new 12 hr time trial record of 277.25 miles, beating the men’s record by 0.73 miles. This was unbeaten until 1969
She also set national records at multiple distances, with her 100 mile record lasting 28 years.
Burton is thought to be the most successful British female cyclist ever.
Born 1920 – London, UK
Gray was a latecomer to cycling, but she made up for it with the impact that she had on the sport.
She discovered cycling during the Second World War as damaged railway lines forced her to commute by bike.
1946 – competed in a woman’s race at Ordrup, Copenhagen in Britain’s first women’s international team.
She is remembered for her impact in gaining recognition for women’s cycling.
Between 1976 and 1986, she served as the president of the British Cycling Federation (now British Cycling) and she was instrumental in the inclusion of a women’s road race event at the 1984 Olympic Games. She was inducted into the British Cycling Hall of Fame in 2010.
Gray helped women to get their own road race at the Olympics, in Los Angeles in 1984 and was an Olympic torchbearer for the 2012 London Olympics
Born 1914 – London, UK
1938 – Created a women’s world record by riding the highest distance in 1 year without support. The record stood for 78 years at 29,604 miles
Current Day Hero’s
Women throughout recent history have been tearing down the barriers to cycling, but there is still a battle among the elite & professional female riders to be recognized as equal in terms of TV coverage, sponsorship and prize money. This is still true despite the success of British female riders at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Victoria Pendleton – Silver in Women’s sprint, & Gold in the Women’s Keirin
Dani King, Joanna Rowsell & Laura Trott – Gold in the women’s team pursuit
Laura Trott – Gold in Women’s omnium
Success continued in 2016, with medals again for Becky James, Katie Merchant, Katie Archibald, Elinor Barker, Joanna Rowsell & Laura Trott
A modern-day Beryl Burton, however, has been Nicole Cooke. Winning a host of major world titles since 2003, she also went on to win Gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, as well as the world title in the same year. She was awarded an MBE in 2009. During her career, and particularly since her retirement from racing, she has been very vocal about corruption, doping, and sexism in the sport. She campaigns for gender equality in sport and higher investigatory powers in order to promote clean sport.
In the world of ultra-endurance (and my personal cycling hero’s), the records and achievements keep on coming.
On December 31 2016 – beat Billie Flemings 78 year old Guinness World record by cycling 32,326 miles (52,025 km) in one year.
In June 2018 she set off to become the fastest female to ride unsupported around the work. On 18th October 2018, she completed her attempt in 124 days, 10 hours and 50 minutes. Guinness World records confirmed the record in June this year.
2015 – Lael set the women’s record for the fastest time on the Baja Divide route which runs from California to Mexico. She broke the men’s record as well
Also, in 2015, she broke the women’s record on the 2745 mile Tour Divide Race in 17 days, 1 hr and 51 minutes and this was despite a visit to the hospital to deal with a respiratory infection
In 2016 Lael, with very little road-racing experience took part in the Trans Am Bike Race, 4400 miles across the US from west to east. Averaging 235 miles a day for 18 days she became the first woman ever to win the race.
The Transcontinental Race is considered one of the world’s toughest unsupported ultra-endurance bike races, and this year the route was 2485 miles long. Fiona was the winner this year, beating a field of 224 men & 40 women. She was the first woman to ever win the race and then she went on a few days later to complete the Paris-Brest-Paris event just for fun.
It would seem that in the world of cycling, there is no limit to what women can achieve. Science has revealed that it could be in endurance events such as cycling and running, women may over time actually be superior in performance to men due to the way our bodies operate. As we age, our bodies become perfectly adapted to the pressures of being able to keep going. We may not always be able to go faster, but it’s possible we can go for longer. It seems that when it comes to ultra-endurance, being young may not be such an advantage, as we start to see older women now taking part in such events, and succeeding when others (including men) may fail.
The days we worried about ‘bicycle face’ are long past – the glory days are coming. This is the dawning of the female supercyclist.