Top 10 Names You Should Know in Women's Cycling
2022 is a big year for women's cycling. On Sunday 24th July, the first Tour de France Femmes race began at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. This inaugural eight-day women's race has attracted 144 top level women cyclists from around the world and will cover 1,029 kilometres. Concluding on La Super Planche des Belles Filles on Sunday 31st July, this race is a real line in the sand for women's cycling. After years of failed, tokenistic attempts to establish a women's Tour de France, we finally have a race that can be taken seriously (and offers serious prize money - €250,000 - to go with it).
In an article for The Independent, pro cyclist Lizzie Deignan noted that, for professional female cyclists, the Tour de France Femmes will be "the biggest we’ve ever had and that’s hugely important for the exposure and the sponsors and the investment, the whole business side. But it’s also for the athletes, to be able to say they’ve ridden the Tour de France. It’s something everybody asks you as a pro cyclist and until now they haven’t been able to say that.”
Perhaps the most exciting thing about a women's Tour de France is the elevation of the sport in the eyes of the next generation. No other cycling competition receives as much coverage from global media and, this week, "a little girl can turn on the telly and see women in the Tour de France...she knows that she can maybe go on to be a professional cyclist as a career.” Louise Vardeman, InternationElles (quoted in this article for the Independent by Lawrence Ostlere)
As some of the top names in women's cycling battle for the yellow jersey in the first proper Tour De France Femmes, we thought it might be a good time to look at some of the biggest achievers in the sport. Because we are going to be talking about women in cycling a lot more and it's better to be in the know in advance than to pretend you know who is being spoken about and then have to surreptitiously Google it later on!
Annemiek van Vleuten
One of the pre-race favourites for the Tour de France Femmes 2022, Annemiek started cycling professionally at 26 (rather late compared to many other cyclists on this list), when a knee injury prevented her from pursuing her dream of becoming a professional footballer. She has competed for the Dutch team in three summer Olympics - 2012, 2016 and 2021 - and has a host of stage race and one-day tiles to her name.
Her career to date would be impressive without footnote, but it is worth contextualising her achievements by highlighting her repeated inspirational returns from injury. She has endured five rounds of surgery for various different injuries over the past decade, suffering three spinal fractures, a concussion, a broken wrist and a fractured pelvis. However, each time she refuses to give up. Only nine days after breaking her wrist in a crash during the Giro Rosa in Italy in 2020, she won a silver medal in the road race at the World Championships.
Van Vleuten will bring this same grit and determination to her bid to win the inaugural Tour de France Femmes race, which she is keen to win, partly because it represents such an important turning point in women's cycling:
“We came from a point where organizers felt sorry for us and felt pressure to organize and weren’t really keen. Now we’re at a point where it’s interesting because we have enough spectators and now we seem interesting. I feel proud I was a part of this process and because our racing has developed and got more interesting.”Annemiek van Vleuten, quoted in Velo News, 23rd July 2022
This multidisciplinary Dutch rider is hailed as the greatest cyclist of all time. She began cycling at the age of six and has competed in some of the biggest races in cyclocross, track and road cycling, amassing a trophy collection for which she must struggle to find house room.*
On 25th July, she took the yellow jersey from Lorena Wiebes by winning stage 2 of the Tour de France Femmes 2022. As one of the four women who, eight years ago, led a petition calling on the Tour de France organisers (the ASO) to create a women’s event, this victory has been one of the sweetest yet for Vos.
If the ASO hadn't responded to pressure and developed a Tour de France Femmes race worthy of the calibre of its competitors, it may have been too late for the greatest cyclist of all time to achieve the yellow jersey, and that would would have been a crying shame. As Vos herself has pointed out:
"The Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift is a big deal... It’s a progress." Anne-Marije Rook, Cycling Weekly
*Rumour has it that her dad is curating a museum of her career, so all the medals, trophies and jerseys are probably heading there and not cluttering up her living room.
Born in Pontedera in Italy in 1974, Fabiana Luperini started racing at the highest level at the age of 19. In 1994, just a year later, she won her first Alfredo Binda. Luperini is best remembered for her dominance of the Giro Rosa, which she won four years in a row (1995 - 1998) and again in 2008. She also won four editions of the Tour Cycliste Féminin (one of the early attempts to establish a Women’s Tour de France), three in a row between 1995 and 1997 and then again in 2000. At the peak of her career she was the strongest climber in the women’s peloton and she still holds the record for winning the most editions of the Giro Rosa.
A home-grown cycling star, Nicole was born in Swansea in 1983 and started cycling at the age of 11, going to become a Commonwealth, World and Olympic champion. At 16 she became the youngest rider to win a senior women's title when she claimed victory in the 1999 British National Road Race Championships. Cooke turned professional in 2002, basing herself in Italy and winning races throughout Europe.
In 2004, she became the first British British cyclist (male or female) to win a Grand Tour when she was placed first in the Giro d'Italia Femminile. At the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, she became the first British woman to win a gold medal in any cycling discipline. Cooke retired from professional cycling aged 29 and has since been vocal about doping and sexism in the sport.
This former road racer from Germany started cycling at the age of six and claimed over 200 titles during her 13-year professional career, including 11 stages of the Giro Rosa and the 2009 Tour of Flanders. She competed for the German national team at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and the 2012 Olympics in London, but in 2013, she suffered concussion in a serious accident and retired from professional cycling shortly afterwards.
After her retirement, Tuetenberg took on a series of management roles in cycling, including directing the USA Cycling junior, men's and women's programmes in Europe and co-directing Rally Cycling's women's team. She is now Directeur Sportif of the Trek-Segafredo women's team.
Another cyclist currently competing in the Tour de France Femmes, Demi Vollering is a rising star on the professional road cycling scene. She was born in the Netherlands in 1996 and currently rides for the SD Worx women's team.
In 2019 she won both the Volta Limburg Classic and the Giro dell'Emilia and, in 2021, she chalked up her first win in a monument classic in Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Although she is modest about her achievements in post-race interviews, her successes to date definitely make her one to watch in the coming years: “I have to perform consistently for two more years before I truly belong to the world's best. Although this obviously inspires a lot of confidence for the future.”
At just 17 years of age, Emma Jeffers is a rising star of British Cycling. Keen to emulate her older brothers, Jeffers started riding BMX bikes aged four. At 13, she won two European Cup BMX rounds and finished second in the National Championships and the World Championships for her age group. Shortly afterwards she transferred her efforts to track and road racing and, earlier this year, she secured two wins in the Sportsbreaks.com Tour Series.
Professional cycling teams are watching her progress with interest and several are keen to talk to her about next season and her future cycling career. We predict and upward trajectory for this no-nonsense Lancashire cyclist, so it may be worth remembering her name.
From two rising stars we take a look back at a cyclist from the past who was considered the best woman in UK cycling for 25 years. Beryl Burton broke a host of world records, including setting a women's record for the 12-hour time-trial in 1967, which exceeded the men's record for two years. She won 90 national championships, 11 medals at the World Track Championships and 3 medals at the World Road Championships. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of her achievements is that she was an amateur all her life, taking part in cycling competitions alongside working on a farm in West Yorkshire.
Anna van der Breggen
Prior to her retirement in 2021, Anna van der Breggen was considered one of the most versatile racers of her generation. She started cycling at the age of seven and turned professional in 2012. However, she rode a quiet season in 2013 so that she could obtain her nursing degree before devoting herself to cycling full-time. Excelling in both one-day and stage races, this Dutch athlete secured a host of impressive results (including a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics, a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics and four Giro d'Italia Donne wins) before deciding to switch from competition to management. She is now a sports director with SD Worx, the team with which she used to race. This is a significant move and one that will hopefully inspire others to see the wider opportunities within female cycling.
We are ending our list by acknowledging that there is more to women's cycling than the road racing circuit :-) Rachel Atherton chose mountain bikes over road bikes and is force to be reckoned with in British professional downhill racing. Named Times Young Sportswoman of the Year in 2005, she went on to dominate the women's downhill circuit, securing multiple UCI World Cup and World Championship titles. But there is more going on in Atherton's life than notching up one race success after another. She has repeatedly bounced back from illness and injury (including viral infection, a collision with a truck and a ruptured achilles) started a family (baby Arna was born in 2021), been instrumental in the launch of Dyfi Bike Park and, in conjunction with her brother Gee, launched Atherton Bikes. She has been dubbed a "one woman recruitment campaign" for downhill MTB and will always offer help and advice to anyone who asks.
Is it possible not to be a bit excited about women's sport at the moment? With the Lionesses defeat of Germany in Euro 2022 final and the excitement of the Tour de France Femmes, it really does feel like a turning point in the history of women's sport. There is a long way to go, but the talent and tenacity of female athletes, such as the Lionesses team and the women we have talked about in this post, combined with the ongoing pressure to achieve parity with men's competitions, makes it feel like we are headed in the right direction.
Photo credit for all images: A.S.O./Thomas Maheux