The Giro d’Italia, Cycling’s Glass Ceiling And Air-Brushed History

1984 was a landmark year for cycling's glass ceiling. The International Olympic Committee finally opened the door to female cyclists at the LA Olympics, with the addition of a road race for women. Connie Carpenter beat Rebecca Twigg for a US one-two. Within a mere twenty eight years women achieved parity with men and had the same number of opportunities to win gold.

1984 also saw Félix Lévitan adding to the racing calender with the Tour Féminin, won by Marianne Martin – meaning an American woman won the Tour de France before an American man did.

While it would be another four years before the first Giro d'Italia Femminile, the 1984 Giro d’Italia itself was at the forefront of another development that helped break cycling’s glass ceiling. A development which has, largely, been air-brushed from cycling history. Most of the histories about the sport I’ve read have repeated the story that 7-Eleven were the first American team to race in the continental peloton when they went to the Giro in 1985 and the Tour in 1986. And that their masseuse, Shelley Verses, was the first woman to break into a sport dominated by men.

Richard Moore’s In Search Of Robert Millar says of 7-Eleven that they were “the first American team to ride the Giro d’Italia (1985) and Tour de France (1986).” While not factually inaccurate – 7-Eleven were the first American pro team to ride the Giro as well as the Tour – I don’t think it would be fair to criticise the reader who understands Moore’s line to say that 7-Eleven were the first American team to ride the Giro and the first American team to ride the Tour. Certainly I’m stupid enough to read it as saying that.

Or how about a recent VeloeNews piece from John Wlcockson which claimed that February 7 "marked the exact 25th anniversary of the European debut of America’s first pro team, 7-Eleven, and its star sprinter Davis Phinney, in 1985."

Or take Peter Nye’s history of American bicycle racing, Hearts Of Lions. The first Giro it mentions is the 1981 one, in which Smilin’ George Mount made an appearance. Mount had been one of a group of eight Americans who came to the continent in ’79. Though they rode as amateurs, they made their presence felt, even if at first that was just through a serious fashion faux pas. L’Equipe, describing their arrival, noted that they were “dressed in cowboy clothes with broad-brimmed hats and rodeo trousers.” After a few races though their questionable fashion tastes were excused and L’Equipe was saying that “the ‘cowboys’ have shown a collective strength rich in promise for the future.”

The next Giro Nye thinks worthy of mention is 1985, when “ten members of the 7-Eleven team – one of the top US professional cycling teams – made a six-week racing tour that included the first organized American effort in the Italian tour, the three-week Giro d’Italia.”

Of the 1984 Giro Nye has nothing to say.

But the 1984 Giro was where an American team – a proper pro team – debuted and where an American woman gave cycling’s glass ceiling a good solid kicking. The woman was Robin Morton and the squad she was in charge of was Gianni Motta-Linea MD. Morton’s presence at the Giro and other races raised more than a few eyebrows. “Women had never been allowed in the caravan,” she told CN’s Susan Westemeyer last year. “I was under a microscope, the entire time we were there.” The other team managers even had to hold a vote as to whether Morton could ride in a car in the race caravan, she told Pez in 2007.

Now I’m not going to repeat the stories told in the two links above – they’re both worth the read, so feel free to abandon this and read them, I’ll try not to sulk too loudly – but I am curious as to what Morton and her Gianni Motta-sponsored team did to merit their rather Stalinist air-brushing from history.

British cycling journalists who don’t know (Union) Jack Schitt about cycling have been busy air-brushing ANC-Halfords and Linda McCartney Racing from cycling history, proclaiming Team Sky to be Britain’s first cycling team to take the Europeans on on their own turf. That British journalist should occasionally overlook part of their history is probably excusable, given they have so much of it and all that. I mean you try remembering everything of note since 1066 and see how much brain space it’d take up.

But America … well America has what, barely a little more than two hundred years or so of the stuff. What is there to remember? The Alamo, a tea-party in Boston that didn’t even have any cucumber sandwiches, some crash or other on Wall Street and that’s about it, unless you rate the invention of jazz. Surely in between that lot there’s loads of space to remember the really big things in American cycling history? The invention of the Madison and riders like Mile-A-Minute Murphy and Major Taylor aren’t forgotten so why is it that 7-Eleven and Shelley Verses have elbowed Morton and her Gianni Motta squad from the frame?