Names you should know: The greatest historical rivalries in women’s cycling

While riders in today’s women’s peloton benefit from more live race broadcasts and media coverage than ever before, female cycling figures from the past are often criminally underreported while their male contemporaries are mythologized. However the history of women’s racing is replete with legendary figures and indeed some passionate rivalries over the years. Here are some of those riders and rivalries you should know about.

Tillie Anderson

Tillie Anderson and ‘Lisette’

For a brief period during the late 1800s, track cycling was one of the biggest sports in the US and women garnered just as much attention as the men. One of the leading stars of the scene was Tillie Anderson, part of a group known as ‘The Big Five’ alongside Lizzie Glaw, Helen Baldwin, May Allen, and Dottie Farnsworth.

Born in Sweden in 1875 Anderson grew up on a farm before she emigrated to Chicago at 16. Having noticed the popularity of bikes in her adopted city she saved money by working in a laundry by day and as a seamstress by night to buy her own bike . It wasn’t long before she was taking on challenges such as the century record. Soon after, she met her future husband, Swedish racing cyclist J. Phillip Shoberg who introduced her to track racing and became her coach.

In 1896 Anderson raced her first Six-Day and won. That year she won six of the seven competitions she entered and achieved huge fame with her exploits, earning her the nickname ‘Tillie the Terrible Swede’.

With the success of track racing came lucrative deals and betting which created added drama and competition. Such was the popularity and financial potential of Six-Day racing in the US that it attracted the enigmatic French rider Amélie le Gall – who went under the mononym ‘Lisette’ – to the scene.

Anderson had been largely unchallenged on the Six-Day scene but Lisette was vocal about her intentions to topple her crown. In the racing, however, Lisette failed to win a Six-Day race amidst accusations that Tillie and her fellow Americans blocked her and rumors of Tillie paying off other riders to sabotage Lisette’s races.

Reduced sponsorship and decisions taken by the League of American Wheelmen (the US cycling federation at the time) meant that there was scant space for women at the top of the sport which added extra heat to Tillie and Lisette’s rivalry. The press, who revelled in the drama, drummed up the rivalry and the pair had a back-and-forth battle of words as well as wheels in the newspapers.

Sadly, at the turn of the century, as motorbikes superseded bicycles in the public mania for speed, the popularity of track racing died away and the reign of Tillie and her colleagues came to an abrupt end.

Beryl Burton

Yvonne Reynders and Beryl Burton

Although Beryl Burton is relatively well-known in comparison to other historical figures in women’s cycling, her achievements were such that she should be given the same reverence today as her male contemporaries.

The no-nonsense Yorkshirewoman is iconic for her incredible tally of victories and records across track, road, and time trials for a period of almost three decades between the mid-1950s and 1980s. She frequently bested the men as well as women in distance records. Indeed, one Beryl Burton story suggests that during one such event she offered one of her male competitors a Liquorice Allsort sweet as she effortlessly passed him.

Burton won the British Best All Rounder time trial accolade for 25 consecutive years alongside 72 individual national time trial titles. She was twice world road champion, in 1960 and 1967, and was five times the individual pursuit world champion on the track.

With a career spanning so long, Burton came up against many rivals in her time but one of her main adversaries was the Belgian, Yvonne Reynders, who won the world road race title in 1959 one year before Burton’s first title. In 1961 Burton and Reynders battled it out for world titles with Reynders taking the rainbow jersey on both the road and in the individual pursuit with Burton coming second. Reynders went on to win two more road titles, in 1963 and 1966.

It was a well-matched rivalry that dominated the women’s side of the sport, something of a precursor to Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten. In her book Queens of Pain, Legends & Rebels of Cyclingthe author Isabel Best says of Reynders:

“Perhaps the greatest road racer of her generation, the rare woman in whom Burton met her match at the world championships in both the road race and the individual pursuit on the track. They were perfect rivals, each winning seven gold medals. Born in the same year they were titanesses of their sport and largely unbeaten in their own countries. The gold medal would go back and forth between them from one year to the next, each pushing the other to its limits. ”

As all good rivalries do, the competition between Burton and Reynders encouraged them both to strive to better themselves as well as each other.

July 1984. Rebecca Twigg, Connie Carpenter-Phinney and Kristin Thompson prepare for the women’s road race.

Connie Carpenter-Phinney and Rebecca Twigg

In 1984, Marianne Martin became the first American to win the women’s Tour de France. One week later, in Los Angeles, Connie Carpenter-Phinney became the first American to win the Olympic road race in the first ever women’s road race at a Games.

A former speed skater, Carpenter-Phinney remains to this day the youngest woman to compete at the winter Olympics after attending the Sapporo Games aged just 14. Her speed skating career came to an end, however, after an ankle injury forced her out of the 1976 Winter Games after which she turned to cycling – the sport she had used for cross training.

Six years Carpenter-Phinney’s junior, Rebecca Twigg was also precocious, attending the University of Washington at 14 to study biology. It was at university that Twigg discovered cycling and it wasn’t long before she was racking up results which lead to her selection on the aged national team 17. Between 1979 and 1984 Twigg went on to win 10 national titles across both track and road.

The rivalry between Carpenter-Phinney and Twigg began on the track. At the Track World Championships in 1982 the pair came head-to-head in the final with Twigg emerging as the victor. The following year, the same final yielded the opposite outcome, and then a year later Twigg bested Carpenter-Phinney once more. The pair also became rivals on the road that year, with Twigg winning the Coors Classic (one of the biggest races on the US calendar) after Carpenter-Phinney crashed out.

Both clearly on searing form, they each made the team to race the first ever women’s Olympic road race in Los Angeles the following year. Like the Six-Day stars before them, Carpenter-Phinney and Twigg sparred via the press before the Games with Carpenter-Phinney telling the LA Times “I have more experience and I want to win more than anyone else.”

On the day, around 200,000 people lined the course for what was the opening event of the Games. The course was just 79 km long but it incorporated some steep climbs making it a selective race. On the third lap, Twigg broke away on a steep rise which caused a select group, including Carpenter-Phinney, to follow. Twigg was brought back and as they came into the finish looked to be winning the sprint, but a bike throw at the very last minute from Carpenter-Phinney sealed the win on the line.

Despite their rivalry, the pair embraced over the line, celebrating an American 1-2 at the first women’s Olympic road race.

Maria Canins in the yellow jersey.

Maria Canins and Jeannie Longo

Both Maria Canins and Jeannie Longo grew up in the high mountains, Canins in the Dolomites in Italy, and Longo in Sallanches in the French Alps. Canins started her sporting career as a cross-country skier in which she was Italian national champion no less than 15 times between 1969-1988. She then took up mountain biking wherein she won the world championships and Italian national titles twice before turning her attention to road in 1982 at the age of 32. In that first season she took the Italian national title and came second at the world championships.

Longo, who is nine years Canins’s junior, also began her career as a skier before switching to cycling with immediate success. She won the French road race championship in 1979, aged 21, and would go on to win an additional 24 national titles in her career as well as 13 world titles.

At the first Olympic women’s road race in 1984 the pair both found themselves in a select group coming into the finish. Canins, aware that she was no match for Longo and the others in a sprint, went early. Afterwards, however, the two collided and Canins’s pedal broke Longo’s chain, putting them both out of contention with the French rider having to walk her bike over the line.

The following year, at the Tour de France – Canins’s first at the age of 36 – the Italian beat race favorite Longo in the mountains to take the win overall. Longo had her revenge later that season when she beat Canins in the Dolomites, her own backyard, to take the world road race title.

The following year Canins repeated her Tour de France victory, fending off both Longo and the American Inga Thompson. In 1987, however, after three years of trying, Longo finally took the yellow jersey.

The two continued their rivalry until Canins retired in 1990. Longo, however, continued to race and hoped to compete at the London 2012 Olympics – although she was not selected. Her last professional race was the French national time trial championships in 2016 where she placed 13th.


The history books might not do them the justice they deserve, but for every Coppi and Bartali there was a Burton and Reynders; while Hinault and LeMond were going head-to-head, Longo and Canins were having their own face-off for a yellow jersey. These women were the precursors to the rivalry between the likes of Annemiek van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen, and they are legends of the sport in their own right.

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