Although she’s now competing at smaller races, (she rode her last National Championship in 2016 – coming in just shy of top 10 in time trial) she continues to be a cycling tour de force and apparently just can’t stop racing. A passion like that deserves to be shared so, in honour of her recent success, we’re looking at the career and legacy of this indisputable legend of women’s cycling.
From skis to wheels
Born in a small village in the French Alps, Longo essentially grew up at the foot of Mont Blanc and began her dazzling career as a downhill skier. A natural athlete from the beginning, she handily won the French schools’ ski championship and went on to take three university skiing titles before switching gears. Ready for a new challenge, she made the transition to cycling at the urging of her coach (and later husband) Patrice Ciprelli. The taste of success she had been introduced to on skis was quick to follow her into her new pursuit and within a few months, Longo won the French road race Championship at the age of 21. She has pretty much been on a crusade of victories ever since.
A laundry list of accomplishments
Hard as it might be to believe that all these wins can be attributed to one athlete, let’s give it a go. Jeannie Longo has been world champion 13 times, five times in the road race (1985-87, 1989, 1995), four times in the time trial (1995-97, 2001), three times in the individual pursuit (1986, 1988-89) on the track, and once in the track’s points race (1989). Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1993 she also medalled at the World Championships in mountain biking, finishing second in the cross-country.
Having also competed in seven Olympic games, she has laid claim to four medals, including a gold in the road race of 1996. She was a mainstay during the brief run of the women’s Tour de France, winning three times in a row (1987-89) and has 24 French titles to her name, her latest as recent as 2010 – bringing her total of national titles to an astounding 57. Longo has also broken the world hour record a total of six times and routinely races against competitors who were not even born when she was standing on the winner’s podium for the first time.
An early trailblazer for the women’s peloton
Speaking of those younger competitors, the current generation of women cyclists has much to thank this accomplished Frenchwoman for in terms of where they are today. At the time when Longo was really coming into her own and making waves in the sport, the public was just starting to pay attention to women’s cycling. While some top men cyclists were sports heroes in France, women’s cycling events drew far less attention.
Longo was determined to change that though, drawing attention to the women’s program while simultaneously attempting to demystify the sport. All the way back in 1987, she explained to the Los Angeles Times that “cyclists, male cyclists, have a mystique about them, sort of ‘Giants of the Road.’ Maybe if a woman can do the same thing, it’ll be more human.” She went on to add that, “I think I represent a different image for the sport. The movie ‘Rocky’ projected the image of a perfect sportsman. Maybe I am the contrary. When people look at me they say, ‘She’s like us, maybe we can do it.”
A competitive streak to be reckoned with
That being said, as Longo’s incredible career has demonstrated, she isn’t exactly your average athlete — and she didn’t get to where she is today without the help of her fierce competitive nature. A nature, by the way, that does not seem to be dissipating with age. This approach to the sport, which has been characterized in ways ranging from spirited to bloodthirsty, has on occasion prompted grumblings from others within the cycling world. However, Longo isn’t ashamed to be known for her no-nonsense attitude and has always defended her right to compete, no matter what her age. When she won that last national time trial in 2010, she said of her rivals, “maybe they hadn’t done enough specific training. I’m sorry to say it, but they need to go back to the drawing board on a few things” adding that, “still, you can’t discount my 30 years of experience.”
An imperfect legacy?
As is the case with many decade-spanning careers, Longo’s reign is not without its blemishes. In 1987, she tested positive for ephedrine following a 3-km world-record attempt in Colorado Springs, resulting in a 1-month ban. She was again implicated in a scandal in 2011 when French sports daily L’Equipe reported that Longo’s husband, Patrice Ciprelli, had purchased her the performance-enhancing drug EPO. To Longo’s credit, she was cleared following an investigation by the Fédération Française de Cyclisme (FFC), in a November 2011 statement.
All things considered, though, Longo’s unwavering tenacity speaks to a deep passion for the sport she has dedicated her life to, an unwillingness to be told no, and a genuine need to just go really fast on a bike. Those are all things we can get behind. And although there’s no doubt that her huge catalogue of achievements deserves its spot in the cycling history books, we’re not writing the ending of that story just yet. For if any late-career athlete has given us reason to believe that she might still have a trick or two up her sleeve — it is Jeannie Longo.