Women’s cycling in the 1980s: We’ve come a long way, baby!
Former US pro Nan Deardorff-McClain gives us a grippingly honest account of the reality of being a bike racer in the 1980s. Spoiler: it was not the decade that solved women’s cycling — that’s what is happening right now.
Throughout 2021, we witnessed the very first women’s Paris-Roubaix held, certain teams began offering salaries that match their male counterparts, and certain races made efforts to match prize money between males and females. That was big. And it’s only going to get better as 2022 goes on, from the Spring Classics to Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift and the re-entrance of the Giro d’Italia Femminile Internazionale.
In this exclusive story from Nan Deardorff-McClain, a Tour de France Feminin participant in the 80’s turned mosaicist and urban art activist and NGNM ambassador, she opens up about aspects that you would probably never see on Instagram, had it existed back then.
Text: Nan Deardorff-McClain
When NGNM founder, Milly de Mori, introduced me on Facebook as an ex-pro team US rider, I cringed. This description sounded rather generous. It’s true that I raced road bikes at the highest level from 1982 to 1989, but, well…things were different back then.
I was not technically professional. Everyone who was bicycle road racing at that level aspired to be chosen for the Olympic team, but to compete in the Olympic games at that time in history, you had to be classified as an ‘amateur’ to qualify. While I attended winter training camps at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and raced the 1986 Olympic Sports Festival, I considered myself more of an Olympic doubtful than an Olympic hopeful. Being a less generously sponsored athlete – a sort of second-tier rider on the elite circuit of National Prestige Classics, which were the races that attracted the best racers in the country – I was mostly ‘pack filler’. I made it to the winner’s podium once in an elite event even though I consistently placed in the top 25 percent of the field of around 50 women racers. Of course, I had equipment sponsors but unlike some racers on the handful of elite teams, who received salaries and travel funds in addition to gear, I worked part time and saved my money to support my racing endeavors. The amateur rule was that you could earn no more than 1,000 dollars per day in order not to be classified as a pro. No problem there! The prize money we won rarely reached such an astronomic level!
I credit my time as a bike racer for teaching me how to get the most out of a dollar.
High power, low wages
I credit my time as a bike racer for teaching me how to get the most out of a dollar. I believe anyone who raced bikes in this era had thriftiness ingrained in their genes. For most of us, it was the only way to make it to the selection races. We would spend long hours driving all sorts of vehicles to get to a race. We stayed in cheap motels, sneaking 4 additional people into a room meant for 2 people, flipping a coin to see who would have to sleep on the box springs. [editor’s note: American beds have these support structures underneath the soft mattress.]
We were always eating, so thriftiness with our nutrition was a big part of our frugality. Finding the all-you-can-eat restaurants only to make the management wish that cyclists were excluded from the offer. I once ate 5 plates of pasta for $1.99, feeling proud about setting my team’s women’s record, albeit terribly bloated. Another extreme example: a teammate of mine would hang out at the grocery store with bulk food containers that you’re meant to fill yourself and then pay for. She would read one of the store’s magazines and gorge herself with trail mix before paying for a fraction of what she consumed. The magazine provided a handy screen to hide the fact that she was helping herself to the merchandise. Yes, some of us were obnoxious.
We drove cars that didn’t meet regulation safety standards – no seatbelts, lying on mattresses in the back of a cargo van – while drivers drafted behind large trucks. It was a scary way to save gas. The truck drivers didn’t seem to mind, knowing the benefits of less wind drag on the fuel meter. We also all had ‘fuzz busters’ on our dashboards, which alerted the person driving to slow down for police radar guns. Back then, the police actually had to catch you to hand over a fine! We certainly had no extra funds for expensive speeding fines, so these devices were worth the 150-buck investment!
For another example of living on the edge in the world of women’s bike racing, take the story of a 20-something racer, who was new on the circuit and struggling financially without much team support. With a pair of high heels in her luggage, she would take a week between races to get a job as an erotic dancer and build up her racing coffers before showing up on the starting line of the next race, extremely eager to win some prize money. We were aghast at how casually she admitted to this practice—this was a whole new level of determination and chutzpah to us, her fellow riders, and an extreme example of how poor financial support was for many women racers at the time.
My good fortune went to a whole new level when I was offered the opportunity to race in the 1987 Tour de France Feminin. I was in the right place at the right time.
The right place at the right time
I had the good fortune to race on a few composite teams for some big international races like the Coors Classic in Colorado and The Ore Ida Women’s Challenge in Idaho. These teams were comprised of riders who also were not on elite teams yet and provided decent accommodations and even a soigneur that often had to double as a mechanic. This Jack-of-all-trades soigneur managed to complete the tasks of giving us massages, making feed bags, driving to race locations, and preparing our bikes fuelled mainly by sugar, coffee and cigarettes. This sort of generous and driven person was pure gold to the low-budget composite team. I always felt very grateful for their devotion to team and sport.
My good fortune went to a whole new level when I was offered the opportunity to race in the 1987 Tour de France Feminin. I was in the right place at the right time. With the top riders racing the amazing women-only Ore-Ida Women’s challenge in Idaho (18 stages!!!) in order to make Team USA for the World Championships, USA decided to send aspiring (but not World Championship standard) riders to the TdF in a team that was sponsored by Winning (a magazine) and Peugeot. The manager, Mike Fraysse, had sent a team to France each year since this women’s version of the race began in 1984. So I, and six other b-string racers, jumped at the chance to compete in the race of all races, the Tour de France. This Tour de France Feminin only happened 6 times. I survived to the finish placing 53rd out of 85 riders. Now in my 50s, I’ve been back to France several times to spectate and ride the famous cols and it always makes me emotional— the beauty and spectacle of it all is electrifying. But I also feel waves of pain in my heart that women were excluded from this phenomenal cycling event for so long. It feels very unjust. Thankfully, this will change in 2022 with the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift! We owe this victory to many people willing to take a stand for reversing inequality in women’s bike racing.
The racing, then and now
In the 80s, our races were shorter than the distances women race today. This was quite a curse as our races didn’t have the time to develop—most often completely dominated by a handful of riders like Connie Carpenter, Rebecca Twigg, Jeannie Longo, and Maria Canins. The depth of talent in the women’s field today makes women’s racing much more exciting to watch. Technical tools such as watt meters, computer apps that log rides and fitness monitors make training more fine-tuned and eliminate the guesswork. As a result, women’s racing is now much faster and spectacularly exciting by comparison. Radio communication with team cars also didn’t influence races in the 1980s.
In the science of sports nutrition, things have progressed significantly too (although there’s still work to be done for women). So many USA racers in my time brought into the US Federal Food Administration’s advice of that time that fat was harmful to our health and that carbs were the answer, especially if you were an athlete. I knew riders that would eat entire bags of dry fat-free rice crackers and non-fat frozen yogurt, thinking they must be perfect foods… no fat! We’d have juice instead of milk on our cereal and egg white omelettes only. There were such disgusting examples of the bad dietary advice of that time. Sadly, I took the US Government’s dietary recommendations as gospel and, as a result, I was almost perpetually hungry, needing to eat every 60 minutes to avoid a hypoglycemic meltdown. I witnessed racers cutting fat out of their diets over the winter and showing up in the spring for the start of the season way too thin. They would be light and lean and very fast in the early season, then become weak or get sick easily, not able to endure the long racing season. Nowadays, we are much better informed about nutrition and endurance sports. Cutting a macronutrient like fat down to almost zero % of our intake is ridiculous. Pictures of me after the TdF showed a gaunt and too-thin rider, not likely to be a very strong teammate. My stomach was a bottomless pit of constant hunger. I’m sure that the pro-women of today must receive state-of-the -art, scientifically proven nutritional advice, based on how fantastically fast they go.
Progress, as witnessed by Nan
Things seem much better in many ways in the women’s peloton right now. Most importantly, they are real pros. The amateur rule for the Olympics doesn’t exist any longer. There is an incredible line-up of races and the calendar is getting better each year. It was a thrill to see women racing Paris-Roubaix in 2021 for the first time since the race began 120 years ago. Then there are salaries: I understand that current UCI rules require teams on the pro circuit to at least pay minimum salary, pay travel expenses, and provide health insurance. Prize money still can’t compare to what the men are winning, but things seem to be moving in the right direction. Consider the prize money American cyclist Marianne Martin won for winning the TdF in 1984 of 1,000 euro, which she had to split with her team. She had to work two jobs for two years to pay the debt she incurred winning the “race of all races”! Laurent Fignon, who won the men’s yellow jersey in 1984 took home, in today’s currency, 225,000 euro.
It still gives me chills
Someone has to spearhead the movement
I recently learned after listening to an interview with former tennis pro Billie Jean King that women’s tennis used to suffer from similar inequities. Her efforts to organise women’s tennis players to not put up with inequity made a huge difference for those athletes. Women bike racers have been successful in creating change in their sport too. The whole sport looks more like the men’s pro tour with better prize money, salaries for all racers, and a fantastic schedule of races. I know we owe much of this progress to journalist, author and former cycling pro, Katherine Bertine, who started the Change.org petition to bring back the women’s TdF. With help from professional cyclists Marianne Vos and Emma Pooley and Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington, the petition was able to gather plenty of signatures to make a clear statement demanding equality for professional women cyclists.
In 2015, Donnon des Elles au Vélo, a group of tough women riders, also working toward equality for women’s cycling, completed the same route as the professional men, one day ahead of them to demonstrate that women are capable of riding the same courses and should be included in the Tour. The Internationelles – another determined and talented group of women cyclists – also began demonstrating in the same way in 2019. I’m in complete awe of these driven riders, pedalling all those kilometers without a fraction of the physical or financial support the men racers have.
I was lucky to have been able to race in a 15 stage TdF Feminin, which ran concurrently with the men’s race. In writing this, I learned that the UCI, at some point, changed the rules limiting women’s stage races to 8 day and the women’s race will not be held at the same time as the men’s—it starts the day after on July 24th, which I think is a shame. With the incredible speed of today’s pro tour women’s peloton, I’m certain that they would finish their race well ahead of the craziness of the promotional caravan without being caught by the people throwing red polka-dotted shirts into the crowds of adoring fans! Racing your bike over a crowded French Pyrenean mountain pass where the spectators open the roadway as you ride through them is a dizzyingly intoxicating feeling that every pro woman cyclist should be allowed to experience. It still gives me chills.
Today Nan keeps her fierce cycling pace up, by racing with team CrushPod on the WTRL league on Zwift, leads the weekly NGNM Women Crush Weds ride and rides outdoors year round in her new homeland in the Netherlands.
Besides cycling, you can also see her catching waves in Costa Rica or France. Never a dull moment. 😊