When I decided to choose the subject of women in cycling for this week’s column, I didn’t realize I’d be writing it on International Women’s Day. I chose the subject because I was thinking about all the recent comments in the media about women’s bike racing: Should there be equal prize money for women? Should every UCI ProTeam be obliged to sponsor a women’s squad too? Should all UCI WorldTour events add a women’s race to their roster, as the Tour of Flanders and Flèche Wallonne have done? And should women pros be guaranteed a minimum wage?
When UCI president Pat McQuaid was asked that last question during a press conference at the 2011 road worlds in Copenhagen, Denmark, he replied, “We have an agreement in men’s sport, but women’s cycling has not developed enough that we are at that level yet.” That set off a storm of protest among the sport’s top female cyclists, and led to Australian pro racer Chloe Hosking infamously referring to McQuaid as “a dick” for what she considered a put-down of women’s cycling. She later apologized for her language but was pleased that her remarks “got the world talking about women’s cycling.”
(As I’m writing these words, Hosking just won her first major European race at the Drenthe World Cup weekend in the Netherlands!)
McQuaid was really referring to the actual situation in women’s cycling, which is at a crossroads. Whereas women have achieved a sort of parity in track racing—at this year’s London Olympics, for the first time, they will have the same number of medal events as men—they still have a long way to go in road racing. There may be a record number of UCI-registered women’s road teams in 2012, but their low-ball sponsorships can’t sustain high salaries, and organizers of women’s races have had a hard time funding them.
What we all tend to forget is that women’s racing (track and road) didn’t even achieve international status until it was first 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 one feisty English lady: Eileen Gray.
Most of today’s women racers have probably never heard of Gray, now 92 years old, but they’ll get a chance to meet her at this year’s Olympics where she’ll be one of the torch bearers. 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 map.
Although women have ridden and competed since the birth of bike racing (a “Miss America,” who was actually an Englishwoman, was 29th against a field of men in 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 (despite finishing outside the time limit on some 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, an event that, as Gray said in a recent 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 or BCF) 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 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 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 (about $200 at the time) by the BCF to pay for all their expenses, The team had to go fundraising to buy equipment, and borrowed a bus to drive there. And then, Gray said in her recent 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 world titles in the road race and individual pursuit.
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 I was on that BCF division committee with her, Gray was elected as national president of the federation—another first for a woman.
In her 70s, Gray served a term as mayor of Kingston-upon-Thames, a London suburb. She has since been 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.”
So when the world’s best women cyclists come to London in late July for the Olympic road race, time trial and a full program of track racing, they should seek out Mrs. Gray to say thanks. For sure, women’s cycling has a lot more to achieve, but because of women like Eileen Gray, it’s come a very long way.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson