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Peggy Shinn Blog - The Fairer Sex

July 15, 2008, 4:57 p.m. (ET)

As the Tour de France winds into its second week, women's cycling continues to fly way beneath the radar. While many Americans have probably heard of Levi Leipheimer, who automatically qualified for the U.S. men's Olympic cycling team after he finished third at the 2007 Tour de France, Kristin Armstrong, Christine Thorburn, and Amber Neben aren't exactly headline grabbers. And no, Ms. Armstrong is not Lance's wife.

These three women could do even better than America's 1-2 finish in the 1984 Olympic women's road race, when Connie Carpenter-Phinney used a technique her husband had showed her - throwing her bike forward at the line - to beat fellow American Rebecca Twigg by a tire's width for the gold medal.

Like Leipheimer, Armstrong, Thorburn, and Neben have all collected hardware at major international races. Armstrong is the 2007 World Championship Time Trial silver medalist, and she'll be racing both the Olympic road race and time trial (TT).

Thorburn, a bona fide MD from California, earned a bronze medal in the TT at 2006 Worlds and finished in arguably the worst possible spot in the TT at the 2004 Olympics: Fourth, the wooden medal. How much more motivation does one need? She too will race the road race and TT.

Then there's Neben. Two months before Lance won his seventh Tour in 2005, Neben was quietly winning a major stage race in France, the Tour de L'Aude Cycliste Feminin, which frankly sounds more like an ointment for female troubles rather than a grueling 10-day bike race. She won it again in 2006. As her Web site says, "Look out Beijing, Amber's on her way."

This will be only the seventh Olympics at which female cyclists have competed; the 1984 road race was the first cycling event for the, uh, fairer sex. And one cyclist has raced at every Olympics since then - a French woman by the name of Jeannie Longo, who finished sixth in the 1984 road race after a collision caused her to lose her chain and break her derailleur in the final kilometer of that 79.2-kilometer event.

A formidable athlete, Longo has relentlessly haunted the women's peloton for almost three decades, winning five world titles on the road and eight more in time trial and track events. She won the Olympic road race in 1996 and has three other Olympic medals - two silvers and a bronze - in her collection.

I raced against Longo twice - way back when - and never saw her after the first few miles. Which was fine. She's not the sort to make conversation. Since then, whenever I read about her, I can't help but hum the music in the Wizard of Oz that plays when Elmira Gulch flies through the tornado on her bicycle.

Now 49 (she turns 50 on Halloween), the French cyclist recently won the French time trial championship, putting her in good position to be named to the French Olympic team. Again.

Longo admits her goal in Beijing is a podium place, and no doubt a gold in the TT. But my money is on Armstrong.

Will Longo ever hang up her broom? I dare you to ask her.


Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This blog was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.