Twenty-eight years ago, Connie Carpenter-Phinney struck gold in the first Olympic road cycling race, at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Even more impressive than the victory is the athletic background of Carpenter, who made her Olympic debut at age 14 as a speedskater in 1972. Before switching gears to cycling, where she would go on to podium at road world championships and set world records on the track, Carpenter also showed her prowess on the water, where she rowed for the University of California at Berkeley. Today, Carpenter lives in Boulder, Colo., with her incredibly talented athletic family. She leads cycling tours, explores her creative talents by painting and advocates for women's cycling. Carpenter sat down with espnW's Kathryn Bertine to share her memories from '84 and her insights on the U.S. Olympic team, and to explain why we should expect more from women's cycling.
Kathryn Bertine: For our readers who are new to cycling, what's the most challenging part of a women's road race?
Connie Carpenter-Phinney: Bike racing is a difficult sport on all levels -- it's technical, tactical and physically challenging. But I think the hardest part for a new cyclist is riding in close proximity to another cyclist -- especially at speed. It requires practice, quick reflexes and trust.
KB: Many professional cycling races have fields of up to 200 competitors, but the Olympic road race has just 67, with countries having only one to four representatives. How do race tactics differ for the Olympics?
CCP: First of all, the Olympics are once every four years -- so the pressure is on. Generally speaking, all of the top [professional] riders are there, but they are on smaller [national] teams due to space limitation in the Olympics. Because the teams are smaller, some riders who traditionally come from weaker teams might have more of a shot, as they are not so outnumbered. But in general, it's a championship bike race and the favorites will play up -- and play to win.
KB: Women's road cycling debuted in the 1984 Olympics, and you have the honor of being the sport's first gold medalist. Twenty-eight years have passed since you won in Los Angeles. How has women's cycling changed for the better?
CCP: Let me start by saying that women's cycling has improved but not nearly to the degree that the men's side of the sport has improved over the last three decades. I was considered an amateur in my day, but probably was supported at a higher level than two-thirds of the current professional female peloton. Simply put, the sport lacks funding. I don't know what comes first, the funding and sponsors or the TV and media exposure, but they feed on each other. The Olympics fortunately allows women's cycling to really shine on a world stage, which definitely gives the sport more of both, at least every four years.
As for what's changed for the better, women's cycling has a more organized race system, with World Cups, etc., but I was just at the women's Giro [the Giro Donne in Italy, held earlier in July], and there were precious few spectators. One thing I had during my career was that most races in the U.S. were concurrent with men's events, which meant bigger crowds and more exposure, which equates to more sponsors. That is clearly lacking at the moment.
KB: So women's cycling is still critically in need of media exposure and sponsor partnerships. How do we improve this?
CCP: I have tried to push that any new men's race have a women's race [in conjunction], but it tends to fall on deaf ears and no one really wants to risk it.
KB: Risk what, exactly?
CCP: The risk is financial -- it costs more to include a professional women's race. Organizers of big professional men's races might have a women's race "on the side," but almost never concurrently with the men. It's a huge loss for the women, and in my opinion not that big of a risk for the race. The absolute best event in my career was the Red Zinger/Coors Classic [in Colorado]. We raced just before the men every day. The crowds were large and the fan base was huge for the women and the men. Look at tennis -- women's tennis is slower and it's shorter in duration, but definitely no less interesting to watch.
KB: Despite the hurdles women's cycling still has to overcome, the love of the sport, high level of competition and overall sense of achievement seem to keep the participants of our sport motivated. Share with us the memories that stand out today from your Olympic win in '84.
CCP: We raced the first day of the Olympics and the streets of Mission Viejo were 5 to10 deep with spectators. I have never seen that at an American race -- not before and not since then, in terms of the sheer quantity of people lining one course for a full day of racing. Men's and women's races were on the same day. The noise was deafening.
KB: You came to cycling via speedskating, where you were the youngest U.S. member of the 1972 Olympic team at just 14 -- finishing an impressive seventh place in the 1,500 meters. After that, you had a career as a collegiate rower at Cal-Berkeley. From a physical and mental standpoint, how do speedskating, rowing and cycling relate to each other?
CCP: I was not actually the youngest -- there were two of us who were 14! And I rowed in sort of an intermission, or a break from cycling. Speedskating, rowing and cycling are all big-money sports -- tongue-in-cheek -- but seriously, they are pretty much the hardest sports you can undertake. Maybe add cross-country skiing to the list. Painful, hard and beautiful sports.
KB: You grew up playing sports both before and after Title IX went into effect. However, speedskating and cycling were, and often still are, not recognized as collegiate sports, not to mention these are two sports that are known for being male-dominated. Did Title IX have any direct effect on you?
CCP: Title IX only affected me on the University of California crew. It gave us more funding, but more than likely at the expense of one of the men's sports. Isn't it too bad we have to legislate equality? Why can't we just expect it? I speedskated because it is one of the few sports that is truly equal with the boys/men, and therefore provided me a much-needed outlet when I was a kid growing up in Wisconsin. But cycling is a male-dominated sport with historical roots that do not include women. This has caused the sport to suffer and the perception of women in the sport to suffer. We should expect more.
KB: Are you specifically referring to expectations at the grassroots or collegiate level?
CCP: On a cultural level! In this era of equality we should simply expect more at every level. More women would have the chance to try cycling as a sport, not just as a form of transportation or recreation.
KB: You have a special relationship with Evelyn Stevens, the still-new-to-road-cycling-but-dominating-the-peloton phenom who will represent the U.S. at the Olympics this summer. Tell us a bit about your friendship as a mentor, and what we can look for in Stevens as she toes the line in London.
CCP: Evie was introduced to me three years ago via telephone and email by a client friend in New York City who happened to be one of her bosses [Stevens worked as a Wall Street analyst before finding her calling as an elite cyclist]. I never would have guessed that Evie would be the stellar cyclist that she is, given her background, nor would I have expected her to become such a close friend. I enjoy being her ally and supporter. She's had a great season, and yes, she could medal in London.
KB: Our 2012 U.S. Olympic team boasts four talented women: Kristin Armstrong, Amber Neben, Evelyn Stevens and Shelley Olds. Together they have amassed one Olympic gold medal, three world championship titles, multiple national titles and countless major European tour-stage victories. Can you give us the scoop on the strengths of each rider, and what to watch for in London?
CCP: Kristin is the defending Olympic champion -- my money is on her to repeat. Amber could definitely medal in the time trial with a good day. Evie could medal from a breakaway in the road race in London, and if given the chance, Shelley will be in the hunt if it's a sprint. Each rider has their own distinct characteristics -- they are truly four super-strong women and that may be their biggest strength and weakness. That is true because cycling is a team sport; it will be difficult for one to work for the other.
KB: New followers of cycling may not know that you are part of a cycling dynasty. Your husband, Davis Phinney, is an Olympic bronze medalist and your son, Taylor, an accomplished pro rider with BMC, will represent the U.S. this summer for his second trip to the Games at just 22. Your daughter, Kelsey, is a national-class junior Nordic ski racer. What on earth is a normal day like for a family of champions?
CCP: Dynasty? Hardly, but a strong athletic family for sure. Yeah, we like sports at our house but we also like to relax and we all favor the comedic approach to almost any situation, so we have a lot of laughs. There is no such thing as a normal day at my house!