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    Yin-Yang

    Johnny Green in praise of Dervla Murphy and other female pioneers.
    Words
    Johnny Green

Cometh the hour; cometh the woman. Our heroes are blokes on bikes usually, yet slippin’ through on the inside are remarkable female riders, Victoria Pendleton and her crew. The lineage unrolls.

“...he’s kinda big and he’s awful strong.

Hey-la! Hey-la! My boyfriend’s back.”

I was listenin’ to The Angels, back in ’63, watching those beehived barnet white girl groups as they rustled in their flared layers of stiff petticoats, or toreador pants to the knee, while black chicks shimmied to the beat in pencil skirts. Each was playin’ the game.

At the same time, a young woman was breaking free from demure feminine constraints. Dervla Murphy was packing her bag in readiness for an epic solo journey. Firstly her lover had died. Both her parents followed in death within three years. An adventure of freedom was called for. Naturally the bicycle was her chosen method of transport. From Ireland to India with no shortcuts.

She travelled light: a puncture kit, a couple of pairs of clean knickers, a shooter with spare bullet clips and a waterproof. As a token to modernism, she stripped her Armstrong Cadet boneshaker of its old three speed gears. She braved bandits, wolves, would-be rapists and snow blizzards to reach her goal in Delhi. Dervla summed up her pedalling inspiration:

“The hardships and poverty of my youth had been a good apprenticeship for this form of travel. I had been brought up to understand that material possessions and physical comfort should never be confused with success, achievement and security.”

For sure, tell that to some of those boys in the Premier League!

I have been present at the births of four of my own children. Phew, dear Lord ‘n’ how do they do that? Every mother in labour carries my admiration for their dignity and my astonishment at the terrifying level of pain they absorb to bring new life into the world. Racing, whether road or track, must seem like a doddle in comparison.

Yet to make the top in a sport like cycling requires immense dedication of brain control, not to mention avoidance of thick, sweet, gooey gateaux (Jan Ullrich excepted). Youngsters contemplating a stab at professional cycling might well balk at the demands. What kinda crazed maniac devotes her young life to insistent and repetitive extreme physical torture?

My mate Keith round the bike shop tells me that the teenage girl years are a dirty great black void for cycle purchases. Zero unless she is an active member of a cycling family. The dinky pink push-a-long of junior years is rarely replaced. This form of fitness is rarely addressed while Madonna, Gaga, Rhianna are struttin’ their stuff in sado-masochistic designed luxury lingerie.

Keith notices across his shop floor that, for some young women, the early twenties lead to mountain bike workouts as an alternative to running. He reckons that the love affair some women have with drops ‘n’ racing road bikes commences in their thirties but that they then stay faithful for life. This is a somewhat different trajectory to boys on their BMXs, and onwards to other bikes, aping their heroes on the back streets, acting out a dreamed stardom.

With music, it took punk rock to break down the walls of gender stereotype. Who could ignore The Slits (such a spot-on moniker for a girl band), all lashed out power chords with leerin’ vocals? In sport, it took one woman to turn heads, break records and change attitudes. As peace returned after World War II, women who’d gotten involved in all aspects of struggle were not going to merely simper.

At the London Olympics of 1948, Fanny Blankers-Koen ripped the joint apart. She was a bizarre role model by the standards of the modern girl. She had a long, gloomy face. She ran in baggy bloomers pulled up over her waist, all gawky legs at sticky-out angles. But, my, how she could run! And jump! She cleaned up – gold medals in the 100 metres, 200 metres, 4x100 metres relay, 80 metres hurdles, setting world records. The Dutch woman could well have triumphed in the long and high jumps but was officially barred thanks to a rule prohibiting women from competing in more than three individual events.

How she made those medals shine! They said she was too old at thirty. They said she should’ve stayed at home to look after her children. They called her ‘The Flying Housewife’. It turned out that she was pregnant at the time.

Upon her triumphant homecoming, the Queen of the Netherlands presented her with a bicycle. In 1999, the IAAF voted her ‘Female Athlete of the Century’, to which she responded in surprise: “You mean it is me who has won?”

And now The Games are back in town. Adele conquers the globe without silly posturing. Women cyclists, warriors ‘n’ goddesses all, have their moment in the sun. Good luck to ‘em and about time too.

Extract from Rouleur issue 30. Listen to 1993's Desert Island Discs with Dervla Murphy here.

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Sue Pritchard
05/11/2012 - 12:42

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