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Cyclist’s 31 Inspirational Women No11: Jeannie Longo

Maria David Sponsored
11 Mar 2021

An all-time great who set the benchmark for today's generation of female pro riders and is still competing to this day

Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women

To celebrate International Women's Month, we have partnered with Zwift to tell the stories of 31 inspirational women across 31 days

Words: Maria David Photography: Offside

If longevity were an Olympic sport, Jeannie Longo would be a multiple gold medallist. The Frenchwoman began racing professionally in 1979 after enjoying success as a downhill skier, and she hasn’t stopped racing since.

Living and training in the French Alps helped her win the 1985 World Championships in the foothills of the Italian Dolomites, against her Italian arch-rival Maria Canins.

By that point she had already won the French road race title six years in a row, but Jeannie was just getting started.

She would go on to win a further four World Road Race Championship titles, along with four World Time-Trial Champs rainbow jerseys, three yellow jerseys from winning the Women’s Tour de France, a gold medal from the women’s Olympic road race in Atlanta in 1996, World Championship titles in the Individual Pursuit on the track, and multiple Hour records for good measure.

In 1995 she became the first female rider to win road and time-trial world titles in the same year, a record that stood until Anna van der Breggen repeated the feat last year.

The only blemish on her outstanding career record is the allegations of doping that have been made against her, particularly in 2011 when her husband was found guilty of importing erythropoietin (EPO). However Jeannie was cleared of any offence, and has always maintained that she raced clean.

Jeannie looks back on her career:

‘When I first started racing, we had regional races which were more like 10km hill climbs, and the National Championships. Apart from the World Championships at the end of the year, there weren’t any international races.

‘Then everything changed in the 1980s with the Tour de France and the 1984 Olympic Games [in Los Angeles]. I couldn’t go to the first Tour de France as I went to the Olympics instead, where I came sixth in the road race behind the winner, Connie Carpenter. 

We were 30 or 40 years ahead of everyone on many fronts – training, equipment, technical clothing, even the helmets. People are doing things now that we were doing 30 years ago

‘When I did the women’s Tour de France there was a lot of interest, particularly when I was wearing the yellow jersey. As we went over the cols there were thousands of spectators – more than you get now.

‘It was incredible because I could hardly see the road as the spectators were in the middle of the road. There were around a million people over two and half weeks.

‘Arriving onto the Champs-Elysees wearing the yellow jersey was great. I remember doing a circuit of it in 1988 with the men’s Tour winner, Stephen Roche. We were riding side by side waving to the crowds. It was great.

‘With my husband we planned all the training and the races, and I was lucky enough to have a velodrome to train on in Grenoble where I was living. That helped me with my sprinting and my achievements on the track.

‘I wanted to finish my professional career at the London 2012 Olympics, but the French Federation did everything to stop me from being selected. They no longer wanted me on the team. I was too old (she would have been 54), so they ruined my chances.

‘I really wanted to go to London. I did a recon of the time-trial course in 2011, but was excluded from everything and I felt undervalued as if all the experience that I had acquired was worth nothing to them.

‘We were 30 or 40 years ahead of everyone on many fronts – training, equipment, technical clothing, even the helmets. People are doing things now that we were doing 30 years ago – including things like altitude training. But back then, folks were suspicious, and I feel the investigations into me were because they don’t like it when people do things differently.

‘I think overall, the racing atmosphere was probably better in the 1980s. It was innocent and friendly compared with how it is today. The competitive environment was still there – that never changes!

‘The innovations today, with earpieces and directions from the sports director have changed cycling. It has killed the spontaneity of racing. You need to have racers who can decide to attack, but people no longer race on instinct.

Find the rest of Cyclist's 31 Inspirational Women here

‘All the technological material that records data has robotised cycling, which is a shame.’

Jeannie is still competing to this day on the Masters circuits and takes part in local races to keep in shape and socialise. Even last year at the age of 61, she won a regional time-trial championship in Provence, finishing over a minute ahead of her nearest rival, a woman almost 40 years her junior!

‘I knew the course well, so that helped, and I was feeling quite good on the day.

Bear in mind, at my age I have to manage training and recovery carefully. Even though I don’t specifically target these races, my many years of experience make a difference. I do like to keep fit, and regularly go hiking in the mountains with my husband, so that helps too.’

‘I do the races as much for what happens after the events as during them. It’s always good to meet up and chat to riders I’ve known for years, and it’s good to share tips and experience with the young riders.

‘So really, with the social aspect and the health and fitness benefits of my cycling, I am not going to stop racing any time soon!’

For more from Zwift this International Women's Month, visit here.