While bike racing in the British Isles was making breakthroughs into continental cycling through the late 1950s and early ’60s, most American road racers were still using fixed-gear track bikes. I recently had an e-mail from VeloNews reader Prosper Bijl who said that when he began road racing in the Washington, D.C., area in 1963, it was on a single-gear track bike with a front brake. It wasn’t until 1966 that the Amateur Bicycle League of America ended the use of fixed-gear bikes in road racing. No wonder riders from North America were slow in making an impact on the world scene. Across the
By John Wilcockson
While bike racing in the British Isles was making breakthroughs into continental cycling through the late 1950s and early ’60s, most American road racers were still using fixed-gear track bikes. I recently had an e-mail from VeloNews reader Prosper Bijl who said that when he began road racing in the Washington, D.C., area in 1963, it was on a single-gear track bike with a front brake. It wasn’t until 1966 that the Amateur Bicycle League of America ended the use of fixed-gear bikes in road racing. No wonder riders from North America were slow in making an impact on the world scene.
Across the water, Tom Simpson had already won Britain’s first world professional road race title in 1965, when Americans were still racing on fixed gears. But Simpson wasn’t the first Brit to take a rainbow jersey on the road. As far back as 1923, when the road world’s were held near Liverpool, England, Dave Marsh won the amateur title. But it was not a conventional road race, and virtually no Europeans took part. The championship was incorporated into a traditional English event, the Anfield Bicycle Club’s 100-mile time trial, and Marsh won the gold medal ahead of two other British time trialists.
That situation was not unlike the 1912 world track championships, which were held at the famous velodrome in Newark, New Jersey. In the three events, Americans took six of the nine medals contested, with Frank Kramer (pro sprint), Donald McDougall (amateur sprint) and George Wiley (pro motor paced) emerging as the three world champions.
Fast forward to the 1960s, and in a half-century no more Americans had won a rainbow jersey — they hadn’t even made it into the top five of any world’s road race until 1968, when a Californian, Audrey McElmury, came in fifth at the women’s race at Imola, Italy. Meanwhile, the first British rider to win a true road-race title (other than the 1923 time trial) was the incomparable Beryl Burton, who took the third edition of the world women’s road championship in 1960. She followed this up with a second victory at the 1967 world’s, a few weeks after Simpson died on Mont Ventoux.
Two years later, the world’s were split between two countries — the pro championships took place in Belgium and the amateur titles went to Czechoslovakia. The Czechs had won a bid to stage the world’s to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first bicycle race held there in 1869. But professional sport was not recognized by the Soviet bloc, so only the amateur championships (track and road) took place there. The Berlin Wall wouldn’t fall for another 20 years.
After reporting a race in Switzerland, I traveled to the world’s venue in Brno (now part of the Czech Republic) by taking a 17-hour train ride through Austria to Vienna before heading north by bicycle. The heavy military presence was a little disconcerting as I crossed the border into the Communist country (luckily, I had the right paperwork), but things were much more tense in Brno itself, a city of 330,000 people. The Red Army had sent in tanks and armored cars and instituted an evening curfew in anticipation of trouble on the August 21 anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
There was trouble. My roommate for the week, a local grad student, went out with some friends after curfew each night, lobbing rocks at the tanks, while tear gas broke up thousands of demonstrators on the actual day of the anniversary — when no world’s events were held. The next morning I took a 50km ride with some members of the British team, including the three who’d be competing in the women’s road race the next day.
One was an English time-trial champion, Ann Horswell, a strong, steady rider with little experience in true road racing. Another, 18-year-old Bernadette Swinnerton, was actually the national track sprint champion, but she was a gifted rider who had done a number of road races to prepare for these championships. She certainly had a lot of speed, and on a training ride earlier in the week she had outsprinted the top British man, Doug Dailey.
Another woman who was comfortable competing with men was the U.S. team’s McElmury. A graduate of UC-San Diego and a young mother, McElmury, then 26, was part of the flourishing California cycling scene that in the late 1960s produced national road champions Mike Hiltner, Bob Tetzlaff and Bob Parsons. McElmury’s fifth place at the previous year’s world’s was considered something of a fluke by the Europeans, in a race dominated by Dutch, Italian and Soviet teams.
At Brno in 1969, everyone expected domination by the powerful six-woman Soviet team (virtually on home territory), along with the six Dutch riders (headed by defending champion Keetie Hage) and seven Italians. No one gave much chance to the three Brits and four Americans in the 44-rider field.
I was one of the few Western journalists reporting the race, which we followed in an open-top army jeep that the Czech organizers supplied. It was a great place from which to watch the race unfold; that is, until the rain started to pour down in the second half of the championship.
There were no flat parts on the 14km circuit, which featured a stiff, switchback climb. It had pitches as steep as 10 percent and topped out 6.5km into each of the five laps. At 70km, this was one of the longest events for women in the ’60s. And the course was probably the toughest they had ever had to tackle. Especially when the foul weather was factored in.
Line-up order at the start was decided by lottery. Perhaps it was an omen that the U.S. team’s number was drawn out first….
Crashes on the downhills and riders dropped on the stiff climb cut the peloton to just 30 after two laps. Then 1968 champ Hage charged away on a solo break the third time up the hill. Over the summit, Britain’s Horswell was chasing Hage, while behind the pursuit was taken up by two Russians, marked by Swinnerton.
Everything changed before the end of lap three when Hage flatted, probably because of the wet roads, and she had to wait for the neutral service vehicle, which was stuck behind the peloton. Hage never rejoined the leaders, who regrouped into a 15-strong pack going up the hill on lap four.
By now, the rain was pouring down. The pace slowed, and McElmury made a smart solo attack. She was well clear over the top of the climb, but couldn’t handle the slick descent and crashed. At the same time, Horswell, who had been climbing strongly, fell off the pace because of her poor bike-handling skills.
As the bell sounded for the final lap, McElmury had fought back into the much-diminished lead group, while Horswell rejoined just as the final climb began. Inspired by her move on the previous lap, the American again went clear, climbing strongly and bravely through the heavy downpour. McElmury was never more than a few seconds ahead, but no one had the strength (or volition) to cross the gap. Swinnerton and Horswell later said, “We would rather see Audrey win than take up the Russians.”
The Soviets, all strong sprinters, were hoping they could retrieve their surprising American foe on the downhill. Instead, McElmury opened up her 10-second lead at the summit to 30 seconds as she emerged from the forest of pine trees that lined the swishing descent with 5km to go.
By now, our jeep had deposited us at the finish line, and I was standing under the dripping canvas roof of the British team’s pit. There was no television coverage of races back then, so we were now getting race information from the PA announcer at the start/finish. How was McElmury doing, everyone wondered. Was the unthinkable about to happen? Was An American going to win a gold medal for the first time in the history of the world road championships?
Then came confirmation: “No. 10 now has a lead of 40 seconds.” Every eye was focused down through the torrential rain, looking for visual confirmation of the announcer’s words. Suddenly, by my side, a matronly American whose name I don’t recall screamed out, “Gee! It’s really her!”
Yes, there was the slim Californian storming up the wide road toward us, and across the line she came: a transient flash of blue-red-and-white jersey, an upraised arm and a nervous smile. Audrey McElmury was the world champion!
As she was engulfed by the joy-crazed Americans, the British team members started shouting, “Come on, Bernie!” Bernadette Swinnerton was fighting out a fierce second-place sprint with the Russians. And she was going away! Swinnerton beat the Soviets by five bike lengths to claim the silver.
America first, Britain second. What a day! None of us minded standing in the rain for half an hour while a recording of the “Star Spangled Banner” was located, and the medal ceremony could go ahead. After all, the last time that world’s organizers had needed to play the U.S. national anthem was in Newark 57 years ago….