The world of women’s cycling is rife with admirable characters. From the likes of Marianne Vos and Annemiek van Vleuten who continue to push the boundaries of what can be accomplished on a bike, to the now-retired Iris Slappendel and Ina-Yoko Teutenberg working behind the scenes to fight for equality, there are plenty of leaders worth emulating. These trailblazers are also the descendants of a rich history that demonstrates women’s empowerment and the bicycle have long been intertwined. From Alfonsina Strada to Beryl Burton – the list is long and stretches back over a century.
With so many remarkable women to be inspired by, it’s easy to miss some of the incredible role models this sport has produced. While we may not get to see the racing we’re used to this season, it’s a great time to learn about some of the stunning women who have made an impact on the world of cycling and beyond. As we continue to dive into the history of incredible women cyclists, here are just of few of the notable athletes worth knowing about.
Two-time Olympic and 11-time world champion, the trajectory of Kristina Vogel’s life was changed irrevocably in June of 2018. While training at the Gottbus velodrome in Germany, she collided with another cyclist and suffered spinal injuries that would ultimately leave her paralyzed from the chest down. A devastating experience for anyone to overcome, it didn’t take Vogel long to prove that she’s not one to succumb to life’s setbacks, regardless of their magnitude. She was back in the public eye only months later, discussion her experience, planning her next move, and demonstrating that she was nowhere near done pushing her boundaries.
Refusing to slow down despite her paralysis, she took up work again as a police officer with her local chapter, acting as a source of strength and motivation to other members on the force. In addition to her police work, she is now also a local politician, a motivational speaker, a television commentator and sits on two UCI commissions. Vogel’s astounding lack of anger and ability to accept her circumstances are a true testament to her strength of spirit and character. Her ongoing presence in the sport of cycling and her community will no doubt continue to provide courage to those facing obstacles of all varieties.
Leontien van Moorsel
Leontien van Moorsel began cycling at age seven and by her early twenties, she was already a world champion on both the road and the track. She seemed unstoppable when she won the 1993 road race world championship and, therefore, fans and fellow athletes alike were surprised when she suddenly disappeared from the limelight. As those close to van Moorsel already suspected, though, the promising young athlete was fighting a severe eating disorder that left her hovering at a dangerously low weight and at risk for doing permanent, if not fatal, damage to her body.
Strong enough to admit she needed help, van Moorsel stepped back from the sport she loved and committed herself to getting better. After missing three seasons and ultimately conquering her disease, she returned to international competition. Appearing stronger than ever, she had many impressive performances and at the 2000 Sydney Games, she broke the world record in the semifinals of the pursuit and went on to take the final with ease.
She retired from racing in 2004 and has now dedicated herself to promoting women’s cycling and helping people with eating disorders. She established her own clinic to help people recover from the types of illness that had such a dramatic impact on her life and cycling career. Her commitment to directly addressing the issue and helping to draw attention to a disease that so many athletes struggle with has no doubt earned her a well-deserved spot in the hearts and minds of cycling fans around the globe.
Another example of overcoming adversity to pursue the sport she loves; Pauline Ferrand continues to prove that she’s not going to let anything keep her off her bike. During the 2015 season, aged just 23, she became the first person in the history of cycling to simultaneously hold the World road title, World cyclo-cross title, and World mountain bike title. Her glory was short-lived, though, and despite holding concurrent titles, she had a heartbreaking performance at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, where she struggled in the women’s XCO event. Her difficulties persisted over the coming years until she was ultimately diagnosed with iliac endofibrosis, a condition that explained her erratic leg pain and inability to produce consistent power.
After being forced to undergo complex surgery to repair a damaged artery in her leg, she spent the first part of 2019 watching from the sidelines. Proving her unwavering determination, she made an incredible recovery to win the Val di Sole World Cup round and, finally, the Mountain Bike XCO World Championships. A comeback queen with an endless passion for the sport, her rebound reminded the world just how talented a cyclist she really is.
Likewise decorated in accolades of all stripes, Nicole Cooke has won Olympic and World gold, 10 National titles, two Grande Boucle Féminine, the Giro, and two UCI Women’s World Cups. An impressive inventory of triumphs in their own right, her achievements extend beyond what she has managed to accomplish on her bike. In addition to her athletic prowess, she’s made a name for herself by speaking out against drugs, sexism and the exploitation that takes place in professional cycling.
— Nicole Cooke (@NicoleCooke2012) June 10, 2018
In 2013, Cooke announced her retirement at the age of 29 and, in her mission to improve the sport of cycling for women everywhere, published a bombshell statement that shocked the cycling community by exposing many of the less palatable realities that characterize the sport. Asking for structural and fundamental changes that would address the inherent chauvinism of professional cycling, she has continued to fight for what she believes in. Unafraid to put forth damning accusations on the subjects of doping and sexism in cycling, she has undoubtedly inspired other women to stand up for themselves and to demand that those in charge do better.