- Men are always faster than women? Well, maybe not. Former courier, adventure racer and long distance specialist Emily Chappell highlights ten women who have proved women can be faster than men.
It’s an argument we’ve all had. Be it with an unenlightened club mate, or a stranger on a train who spots our lycra and decides to give vent to his opinion that "women’s racing is all very well, but men will always be faster and stronger, and why should anyone pay us attention when we’re always going to be second best"?
Well, he’s wrong, and over the last few years, more and more women have shown us that they’re definitely not second best – that they’re capable of winning races outright, beating men and women alike. So, for the next time you find yourself having this tiresome altercation, here are a few examples to help you win it.
Back in May, 23-year-old Amanda set out to establish a new record for the highest annual mileage ridden by a woman. Barely four months later she had already surpassed Billie Fleming’s 1938 record of 29,603.7 miles – and at her current average speed, is projected to beat the men’s record (currently held by Kurt Searvogel) by over 5,000 miles. Five years ago, Amanda suffered horrific injuries (including damage to her brain and spine) when she was hit by a car during a training ride. As well as breaking the world record, she hopes to encourage people who have experienced similar setbacks in life.
This year, former British champion and Commonwealth athlete Lee Craigie turned her back on professional mountain biking and took on the formidable Highland Trail 550 – a non-stop, self-supported, off-road race through some of the remotest parts of the British Isles. Lee came in third overall, but led the race for a good long way, oblivious to the Twitter storm she created as her pink tracker dot put increasing distance between itself and all the blue ones. “To my mind there is no reason why a woman cannot compete with a man in this category of racing," says Lee, who plans to take on the Tour Divide next year.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy ‘chicking’ a few blokes along the way" admits triathlon superhero Chrissie Wellington, who believes it’s only a matter of time before a woman ends up topping the podium in Kona’s prestigious Ironman event. Wellington herself proved that this day may be closer than many of us think. She beat all but one of the men in the 2008 Alpe d’Huez Triathlon, finishing less than two minutes behind the winner, and in 2011’s Ironman South Africa, her marathon time was faster than those of all of the men.
One of the most nail-biting storylines of Inspired To Ride, Mike Dion’s 2015 film about the 4,300-mile TransAm Bike Race, is the saga of Juliana vs the Italians. “Juliana’s doping" says a sceptical Giorgio Murari, of world-record-holder Juliana Buhring, who remains persistently a few hours up the road from him and riding buddy Paolo Laureti. Both insist that it’s impossible a woman could maintain the same average speed as them without support. The high point of the film is when Buhring claws back the lead she’s briefly lost, whooping with delight as she soars past them. She came fourth overall, a clear hour ahead of the Italian duo, and a whole month faster than the second-placed woman.
Sally Bigham’s achievements are all the more remarkable for the fact that she was a late starter, who first picked up a mountain bike in 2006, and within three years was ranked third in the world. Known as ‘Iron Sally’, she is currently European champion, and has won the UCI World Marathon Series 16 times, but one of her proudest achievements is her win at the infamous Leadville 100, beating the vast majority of the men, and “ahead of some pretty well known roadies".
Now acknowledged to be one of the greatest cyclists Britain has ever produced, Beryl Burton is best known for her 12-hour time trial record of 277.25 miles, which surpassed the existing men’s record. As she passed competitor Mike McNamara, she thought to herself “Poor Mac… His glory, richly deserved, was going to be overshadowed by a woman", reached into her back pocket, and handed him a liquorice allsort as a consolation.
“It’s getting to the point where I’m getting used to being beaten by Christina" says Nico Deportago-Cabrera, who took second place in the North American Cycle Courier Championships, behind Californian Christina Peck, who won the overall title for the third time. The three-hour championship race was set up to mimic a courier’s working day, and called on competitors’ skill and strategy as much as their strength and speed, racers being awarded ‘money’ depending on the number and urgency of the deliveries they were able to complete within the time limit. “It’s about how fast you can think on the fly," observes Deportago-Cabrera. “She’s such an intelligent person that it’s no surprise she won again."
After she broke the women’s record for the Tour Divide last year, not once but twice, few people were surprised when Alaskan Lael Wilcox set her sights on the TransAm – one of the longest self-supported races there is. And she won it outright, beating Greek rider Steffan Streich by around two hours, breaking the women’s record by almost three days, and setting the second fastest time in race history. Wilcox has spent almost her whole adult life travelling by bicycle, covering thousands of miles all over the world, and recently helped establish the Baja Divide – a 1,700-mile bikepacking route through California and Mexico – and a women’s scholarship to encourage female riders to take on the challenge.
“My job was to hurry up, harden up, get back on the bike. See what I am made of. No excuses." So says Sarah Cooper, of her record-breaking ride in Race Across the West, where she completed 928 miles from California to Colorado in 2 days, 11 hours and 59 minutes, beating the women’s record and winning the race overall, despite flat tyres, sandstorms, crosswinds, and temperatures ranging from 5C to 45C. The 44-year-old mother of four from Iowa is now signed up for RAW’s bigger and badder cousin, the Race Across America, and has kept herself busy in recent month, setting a new 24-hour course record for the Texas Time Trial that surpassed all other records except the 4-man team, and winning the No Country For Old Men ultra outright.
No one had really heard of Australian Sarah Hammond until suddenly she was leading the TransAm Bike Race (which Lael Wilcox eventually won), riding blistering 250-mile days over the first week of the race, and occasionally putting whole mountain ranges between herself and the rest of the field. The world looked on in disbelief, addictively checking the live tracker to see if Hammond could maintain her lead. She eventually dropped back to finish sixth, but then a few months later won Australia’s Race To The Rock outright, despite having entered with only two weeks notice, and riding off-road with almost no experience. Now an international celebrity in the rarefied world of ultra-racing, Hammond has her sights set on the Tour Divide and the Transcontinental Race in 2017. You sense she’s only just getting started.
Emily Chappell is a pretty prolific adventure racer herself - read out interview with her following her win of the Transcontinental race earlier this year.
Emily wants to encourage more women to push their boundaries on the bike - and she's a founding member of the Adventure Syndicate which aims to inspire women to do exactly that. Read more about the Adventure Syndicate here.