Connie Carpenter: Olympic champion, world champion, frustrated cycling fan
Connie Carpenter-Phinney was the first woman to win gold in the Olympic road race. She was one of the youngest Olympic speedskaters in American history; she rowed varsity crew races at Cal-Berkeley; she hikes in the Colorado mountains; and she is mum to Taylor and Kelsey, de-facto mum-in-law to Kasia Niewiadoma, and wife to Davis Phinney, another Olympic medalist. As you’d expect, she still follows the sport closely.
It’s 9am in Carpenter’s Colorado home when we talk. She is full of stories from days gone by. She’s an enigmatic and enthusiastic figure – lots of energy reaches me from the other side of the phone line. We start by talking about a flooded field across from her childhood home in Wisconsin. That’s where her sports career began in the 1960s.
“I come from an active family with three brothers,” she says. “Mind you, back in those days we didn’t have a lot like TV or the internet. Playing outside is what we did and skating was a logical choice in the cold Wisconsin winters. We always had active vacations as well as a family.
“My mother suffered from MS [Multiple Sclerosis, a progressive illness affecting the nerve system]. It’s a debilitating illness. I think I moved a lot partially because she couldn’t, but it’s also very much part of who I am. I was attracted to sports that were hard and didn’t pay a lot,” she says, laughing.
Carpenter’s Olympic debut was in the Makomanai Stadium in Sapporo, Japan in 1972. In the 1,500 meters, arguably the hardest distance in Olympic speedskating, she came in seventh of 41 competitors, aged only 14 years. When she was 18, she underwent ankle surgery which meant the end of her speedskating career.
“We didn’t have the equipment or medical support athletes have nowadays,” she says about the end of her first Olympic career. Her second Olympic career was already in the making, though, alongside another woman who excelled in both speedskating and cycling.
“I was already training on the bike and Sheila Young [now Ochowicz] invited me along to track and road cycling,” Carpenter says. “I was attracted to the globetrotting lifestyle. Our small group of women would travel to Europe and stayed with Dutch families. There was so much hospitality. We raced whenever and wherever we could and with the primes we won we bought the plane tickets and our meals. We didn’t have teams like you have now with tactics and all.”
That lack of tactics shows when you look at the result of the first women’s Olympic Road Race in 1984 in Los Angeles. Carpenter and her USA Cycling teammate Rebecca Twigg sprinted against each other for the gold. A photo finish was eventually required to decide the gold and silver medal.
Carpenter remembers the start of her second Olympic career vividly.
“We heard somewhere in 1980 that women’s road cycling would be part of the Olympics for the first time,” she recalls. “That was an important motivation but knowing that my future husband Davis [Phinney] should also be able to qualify was an even bigger motivation to focus on cycling more and more,” she says with a smile.
“What I remember most about that day [at the 1984 Olympics] are the crowds. It was on the first day of the event. With 45 women on the start line on a big wide road we weren’t exactly a big field but people had camped out there at night. It was my first time racing in the US wearing the USA Cycling jersey. Davis tells me that I said that I would race that day, win the title and that it would be the last day of my cycling career. He has a great memory for these things. It’s exactly how it happened too.”
The inclusion of women’s cycling in the Olympic program seemed to mark the start of greater professionalization for the sport. Money flowed in the years before the 1984 Olympics. It resulted in a grand spectacle for all medal winners which included Carpenter and Phinney (who took bronze in the team time trial).
“The sponsors offered us a five-day trip around the country,” Carpenter recalls. “They chartered planes for all medal winners and we flew to Washington for a parade, to New York City, and to Disney World in Florida. The trip ended at the sponsor 7-Eleven’s headquarters in Texas. There was interest in our sport and I thought it would really lift off from there.
“I had never been a professional cyclist. I lived on campus at Berkeley, California and my parents provided for me during college. I had a $500 bike – a used one – one pair of wheels and two pairs of bibs. Davis’ dad was an aerospace engineer and we built wheels together. I laced my own spokes.
“It should never be about money in the first place, I think. Passion should always be first and then income. Leading up towards the Olympics some sponsors’ money flowed into the sport and after the positive flow of inclusion in Los Angeles I had hoped for more.”
But things went the other way. With an increased focus on the importance of the Tour de France and therefore men’s racing, other race organizers wanted a piece of that cake as well.
“The Tour de Trump organizers brought big names to the US to race,” Carpenter says. “The result was that the Tour de Trump was the first race to not include a women’s race anymore. All the money went to the men’s side of the sport. We went the opposite direction from tennis where men and women’s athletes enjoy more equality than ever. That movement started many years ago.
“This gravy train of men’s cycling wasn’t only appealing to organizers but also to federations like USA Cycling or the UCI which up till then was a rule-making body first and foremost. They all wanted a piece of that boom in the disproportionate media attention for the Tour de France and men’s cycling in general.
“I am not an activist but I do sometimes wonder what the state of the sport would be if federations had demanded men’s professional cycling teams to include a women’s team and equal race days for the women back in those years. The talent and the riders were there!”
But the sport moved back in time. For Carpenter it’s painful to realize that she still can’t watch many races on television. To her, media attention for women’s races is the most important factor in developing the sport.
“I am on social media solely to follow women’s races which in 2020 is pretty bad,” she explains. “Why can’t we watch more? The men’s races tend to become longer, more formulaic and therefore boring. Make them shorter and show the women.
“My daughter and I were in the Tour of Flanders in 2013 to watch Taylor who didn’t get selected in the end. We stepped out of the VIP tent to watch Marianne Vos win the race and we were basically the only ones watching. The announcer barely even mentioned her name. The big screen showed the men’s race where nothing happened at a hundred kilometers to go. Now we can watch more women’s racing but still not a lot.”
Carpenter believes her first sport, speedskating, has taken a more positive route.
“When you look at speedskating or cross-country skiing, the men and women share the same arena and take part in the same tournament,” she says. “The fans can watch them both on site and on TV. I feel it’s pivotal that fans see these women race, to follow their progress and know who they are, hear the stories they have.”
Like most fans of the sport, Carpenter has certain riders she most enjoys following. But she feels for the burdens those riders must carry too.
“I admire Lizzie Deignan and started following her more closely after she had her baby,” Carpenter says. “I am a fan of Kasia too naturally and follow her closely. Riders like Kasia, Deignan or Vos are role models, top athletes. There is so much pressure on them. It feels like they personally are responsible for the success of their sport, to keep the sport afloat. In men’s racing this isn’t the case. I feel that’s unfair.”
To Carpenter, improving the plight of women’s cycling all comes down to exposure.
“Not longer distances, not adding a few thousand altitude meters or other extras,” she says. “No one asks these women to ride 250 kilometres. You’d be better off to shorten the men’s races to make them more exciting and less formulaic and add that TV time with more than one TV camera and several angles to the women’s race.
“The UCI started thinking about more equality only a few years ago but did the bare minimum at first. There is still a lot of catching up to do which is a shame because cycling is a family sport for a lifetime, for both men and for women.”