1985 Women's Tour de France
By Owen Mulholland
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Owen Mulholland was the first American journalist accredited to the Tour de France and he followed and reported on the big race for years. In 1985 he followed both the men's and women's editions.
For 83 years the Tour de France organizers have spared no effort to make their race the ultimate cycling challenge. In creating a women's Tour de France last year they expected it to be on the same level.
That debut was marred by a collision with the Los Angeles Olympics. Most countries sent the second string to the Tour. There was no such conflict this time, however, every one of the ten countries entered sent their best riders.
Except one. The U.S.. You have to scratch your head on this one. The U.S. is arguably the foremost women's cycling nation in the world. American rider Marianne Martin won the event last year, and as the defending champion the U.S. was invited to send two teams. What is the USCF [organization managing American cycling at the time] response? They advised our best riders not to go (poor dears can't handle the Tour and the Coors Classic in the same season), and guaranteed they wouldn't by scheduling the World Championship selection races during the Tour.
Only Janelle Parks, tenth in the Olympics, and Debra Shumway, third in the '84 Tour, were what you could call "elite" riders. They and four compatriots from the "Winning" club formed the "B" team.
The "A" team, so called so solicitations for its sponsorship might be more successful, was a last-minute throw-together job consisting of enthusiastic (They had to be; they paid their own way!) but woefully inexperienced riders. Many were in the first real year of racing.
Rather cavalier treatment of the world's greatest bike race by the world's greatest (female) cycling nation.
Yet these relative beginners provided some of the biggest surprises in an otherwise predictable race. The predictable part was that Jeannie Longo, the leading French rider, would control things on the flat days. But no matter how many bonus seconds she collected winning stages, not she nor anyone cold challenge Italy's Maria Canins. At age 36, the Italian maestra can't match Longo in the sprints, but just give her a little anti-gravity work and she's gone.
With three mountain-top finishes Canins showed she is in a category all by herself. Ten minutes, twenty minutes…she could write her own time gaps.
On the second mountain stage which finished above Longo's Alpine home town of Grenoble, Jeannie fought desperately to keep the flying Italian mama in sight. On the last climb Jeannie blew up spectacularly, even dismounting three times. Only her years of experience gave her the courage to continue.
She crawled in in fourteenth place. Ahead of her were Phyllis Hines (U.S. "B") and Carol Rogers-Dunning (U.S. "A"). Phyllis moved up to sixth overall, best American, and Carol soared up forty places on General Classification, from fifty-second to twelfth! Neither lady is especially well known, but the Georgian, Hines, has at least had the experience of having made the eastern circuit. Carol was a complete surprise. She is one of those natural talents the U.S. seems to have in droves. Currently residing in Las Cruces, N.M. while her husband works on his Ph.D., the 27 year old former runner almost literally stumbled into cycling after being sidelined by running injuries. One of her teammates described her as the resident "free spirit" on the squad. She isn't into following wheels closely or shaving her legs, but give her a first category climb and such refinements don't matter.
The "B" team, experienced enough to have reputations, but at time unsophisticated enough to act as though they didn't, added up to a sum less than its parts. On the emotional cutting edge after two days, tears and screams became endemic. One rider refused to assist her teammate get back to the peloton after a puncture, but a little later she dropped back to assist a French rider she knew.
Before the race even started the "B" team had two bikes and mechanic Steve Aldridge's tool kit stolen. That set the tone for things.
Out of the carnage emerged Phyllis Hines, the kind of rider Europeans never thought could exist. Now 22, she combines classic southern charm with world class talent and pit bull determination. Leavened with experience she could be come another Rebecca Twigg.
Redefining your limits is one of the foundations of Tour survival. Phyllis discovered this the hard way. On the big Pyrenean stage she attempted to match Canins. Even after that was a lost cause she continued to pound a big gear.
On the higher hairpins of the blasted moonscape that is the Tourmalet she began to weave. Refusing all assistance she wobbled on. "I still don't remember going over the top and down the other side," she recalled two days later. She didn't get far up the last hill. Her body had more wisdom than her mind. She slowly toppled over and was quickly scooped up by the ambulance. She shook for the next hour. Dizziness and fatigue were with her for another 48 hours. A lesson for all.
Janelle Parks picked up the baton, and in a measured ride that stayed just a breath away from overload she soared to the top of the American standings, finishing seventh.
The Tour was full of surprising talent. Who would have guessed that China could have produced such a super rider? Wang Li (8th) showed once again the marvelous international face of cycling. With 10,000 licensed women racers we can be sure that she will be followed by others.
West Germany's oldest rider was 19 year old Petra Stegherr. Eighth team overall, they can hardly do anything but get better.
Last March, Debbie Jensen, 20, escaped the frozen landscape of her native Calgary for her first serious racing at the Tour of Texas. Three months later she was doing the ride of her life to be team leader. Fans back in Calgary got so enthusiastic that the local radio station managed to pull strings to get an interview with her broadcast on the national radio network.
The Tour de France Féminin, 1985, showed women's racing to be in transition upward. Fears of too high and too far proved groundless. Nor will it turn slim lasses into chunky chargers. Tooling along at a steady 25 mph through crowds of cheering villagers, the race radio crackling with reports of attack and counter-attack, the Tour has put the sport in a spotlight as no other race could.
1985 Tour de France Féminin final General Classification
The race was broken into two parts, the first consisting of twelve stages and the second had five. At the end of the first part Maria Canins was first, Jeannie Longo second and Phyllis Hines was third. The organizers converted the riders' elapsed times into points.
1. Maria Canins (Italy) 17,141 points
2. Jeannie Longo (France) 15,810
3. Cécile Odin (France) 15,052
4. Imelda Chiappa (Italy) 14,906
5. Roberta Bonanomi (Italy) 14,821
6. Chantal Broca (France) 14,797
7. Janelle Parks (USA) 14,738
8. Wang Li (China) 14,737
9. Dominique Damiani (France) 14,732
10. Heleen Hage (Netherlands) 14,688