By Laura Howat –
As a cyclist, it was my greatest honor to participate in the women’s Tour De France in 1988. The women’s Tour was inaugurated in 1984. The women’s 15-day Tour joined the men’s race one week into their 3 week race. The men and women races would be run concurrently with both events culminating in the Champs-Elysees stage. Unfortunately, the logistics of running the races concurrently became too much for the French promoters when their riders stopped dominating the podium and in 1992 the women’s Tour was moved to its own schedule in August and renamed La Grande Boucle Feminine. Sadly, the Grande Boucle’s run seems to have ended as well as the race has not been held since 2003.
My invitation to the Tour de France in 1988 began a euphoric experience. It was an (almost) perfect several weeks. We circumnavigated a spectacular country, we were treated like royalty by the cycling fans, experienced dynamic racing, watched the men’s races and explored French villages and cities.
Michelin Tires, Peugeot automobiles and Tissot Swiss watches sent our American team of seven riders. Members were selected based on results and our ability to be a team rider. Our goal was to win stages. We came close. Our best sprinter, Linda Brenneman was second by a tire width once and she also had a fourth-place finish. I had more modest personal goals, to finish in the top half of general classification, and place in the top twenty in at least one stage.
The race started in the historic city of Strasbourg, along the German border, amid sunflower covered hills and rolling mountains. The international field contained riders from all over the globe. The racing was incredibly difficult during both the flat and mountainous stages. The flat stages wound through villages, over cobblestones and narrow roads. The “flat” stages always had several steep hills. The pace would be aggressive and hard since many more teams had an opportunity to win a flat stage rather than a mountainous stage. We would cruise along at 30 mph and fight for position in the pack the whole way. The mountainous stages were very steep and long and Jeannie Longo (France) and Maria Canins (Italy) would set the pace on these stages and burn riders off their wheel.
At first the aggressive European style of riding intimidated me. The pack would be twice as compact as in the U.S. The women often rode so close together they seemed to be leaning on each other. The Dutch were a good example of an aggressive team. Since they were last in the team standings, they were called to line up at the start line last each day. However, within the first mile of the race they would muscle their way to the front of the pack. The Dutch girls were very large; the smallest weighed about 160 lbs. I think they assumed if you didn’t get out of their way you would just bounce off them anyway. This style of riding assisted the Dutch with two stage wins.
The Dutch team was aggressive but it was Frenchwoman Jeannie Longo who dominated the race overall with five stage wins and the Tour de France title. If you follow women’s cycling, you know her career has been unparalleled but there were many controversies in the eighties. She had tested positive for banned substances several times. In 1987, she broke the women’s hour record but international authorities disallowed it after her drug testing came up positive. But the French seemed to care more about winning than playing by the rules. In fact, after the final 1988 Tour stage, the mayor of Paris gave Longo a decorative clock in celebration of her “hour record.”
I have many outstanding memories of my Tour de France trip. Here are a few of my experiences.
One of our hardest mountain stages was the Puy de Dome. The Puy is an extinct volcano with an even grade of 12% spiraling around the mountain for seven kilometers. The first 50k of the race wound through six villages and contained two 3rd category climbs. (1st category is the hardest but even a 4th category is difficult.) I had a gear of 42 x 25 for the 1st category Puy and could barely turn it over. As I was struggling up the climb, a man came running up on my right, pushing my teammate Betsy. Betsy King was a favorite with the spectators since she had raced in the Tour five years, was a former stage winner and spoke fluent French. When the man tired, another willing spectator took up the push. Soon she was out of sight. I looked back and saw one of the huge Dutch women gaining on me by the pushes of the numerous Dutch fans. I hadn’t been pushed yet but it seemed like a good time to get in on the action. I tried to make eye contact with Betsy’s willing pals since I was not brave enough to fake tears and cry “Poussez-moi!” like some others. Sure enough several spectators took the cue and gave me a push. It was still difficult to reach the finish, but the dedication of the 500,000 fans really helped. These spectators had climbed the mountain on foot before the road closure several hours earlier. They cheered enthusiastically for each cyclist and competed with each other to hand up drinking water and wet sponges.
One of the more touching moments of my Tour occurred while we were stopped for lunch. The police motorcycles had escorted the team cars and vans to a rest area so we could eat our prepared meal. I was sitting on the ground with a sandwich in hand when one of the team managers approached me. He knew I was American since I still had on my team jersey. He said, “Hello.” Communicating through the language barrier was difficult but he wanted to know how I liked the race. I asked him what team he managed. It turned out he was from the Russian team. (This was still the time of the Cold War!) He seemed so excited to talk with us. He said, “We are friends. Enemies for politicians only. We are friends.”
Another experience gave truth to the Andy Warhol prediction that everyone shall be famous for at least 15 minutes during their lifetime. I didn’t become famous for the honor of winning a stage but for a dramatic incident much less glorious. The 85k stage from La Clayette to Chalon sur Saone, in central France, had a steep 4th category climb within the first 20k. Maria Canins set a brutal pace up the climb which created a break. The fast pace continued during the flat kilometers after the summit. I couldn’t believe I had finally made the break! This was going to be a great day! However, I soon noticed that my front tire was going soft. I raised my hand to signal to the race commissaire who would radio my team car to come to the front of the caravan to change my wheel. Several minutes passed with no sign of my team car. I was riding on the rim when we began a twisty descent and was forced to drop off the race due to the danger of cornering on the rim. By now I was waving and yelling furiously. Obviously, my team car was still stuck behind the main field. A French team car offered to change my wheel. They pulled over and changed my wheel within seconds. As they were pushing me off, I heard a horn and screeching brakes behind me. Next thing I knew I was flying and tumbling through the air. Paula, our team manager finally made it through the traffic and was speeding trying to catch up to me. She was unable to stop the team car in time when she caught up to me and plowed into me and my bike from behind. I was dazed when they picked me up off the pavement but felt ok. My steel framed bike weathered the mishap fine except for the twisted handlebars. A camera crew who had stopped to film the wheel change got this bonus footage. The accident was shown on French national television ten times that day. The French people, who identify with suffering, gave me a special award for courage and extra attention during the remaining stages.
It was interesting to note that the French television narrator, who wanted a date with Paula, televised that it was the Italian team car that hit me to keep Paula out of trouble. He picked the Italians because they were ahead of the French in GC standings.
The Tour concluded on the historic Parisian boulevard, the Champs-Elysees. It was in this final stage that I finally cracked the top twenty during a stage and finished 14th. I was grateful to have finished the race (38th place GC) and fortunate to have participated in this storied Tour de France.