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ROLLING ALONG : U.S. Female Cyclists Gain Support in What Has Been Uphill Race

August 23, 1987|SHAV GLICK | Times Staff Writer

BOULDER, Colo. — When Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg crossed the finish line together in the 1984 Summer Olympics at Mission Viejo, it was expected to ignite a renaissance in U.S. women's cycling.

Instead, it ignited a fire in Jeannie Longo, a 28-year-old French rider.

Longo was in the six-rider sprint near the end of the Olympic road race, but just as she started her challenge--less than 100 meters from the finish--her bike's chain broke.

"At that point Jeannie was at the crossroads," Carpenter said here while working as a TV commentator at the Coors International bicycle race --an event she won three times.

"She could have retired (as Carpenter did) and perhaps wondered what might have happened had her chain not broken, or she could do what she did, totally focus on becoming the best rider in the world."

Longo is such a standout--world road racing champion, Tour de France winner and about to become the first, male or female, to win the Coors three years in a row--that she makes the next level of competitors look almost mediocre.

Carpenter's record three wins were not in succession, coming in 1977, 1981 and 1982.

"We (the United States) have some good women riders coming along for the Olympics in Seoul, but you don't see their names in headlines because it's always Longo," Carpenter said. Longo, who works as a publicist for the City of Grenoble, was named French athlete of the year after her 1986 season, and the balloting included male athletes.

She has won three stages and finished second in three others. Only once has she finished worse than sixth.

Her rivals call her Madame Cannibal.

"Sometimes it takes such a high level of disappointment to motivate someone the way it has Jeannie," Carpenter said. "Nothing seems to make her complacent. She won the world championship and then trained harder than she ever had before for the Tour de France. She looks like she lost 15 pounds and is physically at her peak.

"She has improved every year when it wasn't necessary. It's as if she has something to prove to the world. Now we will see if her dedication can last another year (through Seoul)."

Longo believes it can.

"I thought last year I was at my peak," she said. "But I am better this year. I have more maturity since I married (cycling coach Patrice Ciprenni), and I feel I get more from my training.

"I love to train, and I hope to do more and more of it before next year."

Of the U.S. cyclists, the logical Olympic candidates are Rebecca Twigg-Whitehead, who won both the road race and time trial at the Pan American Games in Indianapolis, and Inga Benedict, the surprise member of the '84 team after becoming a cyclist only a year earlier.

"Inga has the most potential, but she doesn't seem to have the motivation it takes to sacrifice everything else," Carpenter said. "She improved in 1985 and 1986 but seems to have leveled off.

"Rebecca has had health problems and was hurt pretty badly in an accident, but of all the U.S. girls, she cannot be discounted because she is such a competitor. I certainly wouldn't count her out at Seoul."

Twigg-Whitehead flew from Indianapolis barely in time to make the start of the first race Aug. 15 in Grand Junction, Colo.

"Until today I thought Rebecca was pacing herself for the world championships next month, but not now," Carpenter said Saturday. "I knew she wanted another world pursuit championship, but today she looked like she's ready for the road race, too."

The Olympic silver medalist won Saturday's 53-mile Morgul-Bismarck road race, most trying of the 10 women's stages. She won with a long uphill sprint that buried challengers Bunki Bankaitis-Davis and Susan Ehlers.

Tricia Walters, a 17-year-old from Santa Rosa, Calif., is one Carpenter tabs as a sleeper for the Olympic team.

Walters is a candidate for the turquoise jersey that goes to the event's best young rider.

"Kristin Tobin is another girl bearing watching," Carpenter said. "She started as a downhill skier, the same way Jeannie (Longo) did and last year she won the national road race championship."

Unlike the men's competition here, which is watered down considerably from past years, the women's Coors has a world-class field. The only reason it might not seem that way is Longo's domination.

Benedict is second behind Longo, but only because Maria Canins of Italy was forced out of competition Friday. Canins, 38, the 1984 Coors winner and a former Tour de France champion, broke her collarbone in a four-rider spill during the rainy Denver Tivoli criterium.

"What a pity to see her hurt like that," Longo said. "I know Maria would have been my best competition in the world championships."

The world road racing championships will be Sept. 6 in Austria.

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