A podium finisher at the Tour Cycliste Feminin in 1997, the EF-Education-TIBCO-SVB founder gave her team a leg up during the Tour de France Femmes in July.
When Veronica Ewers and Krista Doebel-Hickock finished seventh and 11th on the final stage of the
Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift in July, it was a great result for EF-Education-TIBCO-SVB squad. The longest continuously running women’s professional cycling team in the world—19 years and counting—had an ace up their sleeve: the team’s founder, former Canadian pro cyclist, Linda Jackson.
Not only did Jackson represent Canada at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, but she also took the bronze medal in the women’s road race at the 1996 World Championships in Lugano, Switzerland. But it was her podium finish in 1997 and a second place in 1994 of the l’Alpe d’Huez stage at the Tour Cycliste Feminin which proved invaluable to her team’s riders. She had been there and done that and it showed in how the team she built raced.
Looking back at her first participation in the Women’s Tour in 1994 evokes some fond memories. “I will never forget it. It was an amazing experience,” said Jackson. “But, boy was it hard. It was brutal racing. There were long transfers at night. You would finish a race; have a sandwich in the car. You would get to the next town five hours later. There was no time for a massage.
“It was brutal but we were all so grateful for the opportunity to do the race. It was hell! I am not slamming the race organization back then. [Race organizer] Pierre Boue put on the race and he did what he could with the funds he had. It was a function of the state of women’s racing at the time. You couldn’t get start and finish cities close together. You had to have long transfers. It’s just the way it was.”
“People think it is glamorous to be a professional athlete. It was not glamorous by any stretch of the imagination,” adds Jackson. “The food was horrendous. You would have bagged white chicken and white rice and it was boiled in a big pot. You had double days [two stages in one day] all over the place and you were eating this food in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road or in some high school gymnasium or something.”
The 1994 race finished with the climb of the iconic l’Alpe d’Huez. “I remember our director saying ‘you just have to hang on at the bottom because it’s steep.’ I just kept thinking that and thinking that. It was a big group and I just stayed near the front and all of a sudden there were only five of us left. It was just head down, suffer through the pain. Then the attacks started flying and I finished second on that stage and that moved me up to fifth overall for that year in my first Tour de France," said Jackson.
But, there were some days Linda would care not to remember. "I think in the same year there was a horrendous storm,” recalls Jackson. It was huge hail and pouring rain and howling winds. We didn’t know it but they had called the race. The conditions were so bad you couldn’t see in front of you. We just kept racing and racing.
“Finally our director got in front of us, got out of the car and said ‘stop! The race is over.’ We had been racing for hours in these horrendous conditions. It was incredible to have lived through it. There were riders in the hospital because they had been thrown off their bicycles, in the wind, into ditches. Yeah, it was crazy.”
“But it was an incredible experience and I am so glad I got to race the Tour in the 1990’s. I will never forget it. They are some of my fondest memories,” adds Jackson.
Fast forward to 2021 and the organizers of the men’s Tour de France, Amaury Sports Organization (ASO), announced an eight-day version of a women’s race. “As soon as ASO said they were going to put on a multi-stage Tour de France I knew that this was going to be an incredible experience for the women’s peloton because ASO does things right,” said Jackson.
“The hotels were fine. You got sent menus ahead of time and you could even change them and ask for different things. It was just so well organized. The transfers weren’t long, maybe an hour, hour and a half max between finish and start cities. The neutral sections weren’t long.”
While the logistics were a definite upgrade from the Linda’s days racing the Tour Cycliste Feminin what about the intangibles? “The biggest difference were the spectators,” said Jackson who rode all the stages except one each day before the race with a small group of friends. “What was phenomenal were the spectators along the side of the road. They were there for the women.
“When we raced in the 1990’s we didn’t have huge crowds. There were some crowds but not like this. There were people camped out on the roads along the course hours before the women came through. Not the men and we were tagging along. The women! They were there just for us. When you would get to the finish city, oh my gosh! It was like the men’s Tour. The roads were closed off hours before the race came through. Very well organized. Very safe. And the crowds were huge and thunderous when the peloton came through.”
But the amazing spectator support was not guaranteed. "Everybody realized that this was a huge moment for women’s cycling,” said Jackson. The question was always ‘what is going to happen on Monday morning?’ because on Sunday we had the benefit of the crowd for the men’s race. On Monday morning the crowds were there. We knew right then that this race was going to be a success. And it just got better from there.
“The engagement of the crowd was just electric. It’s a huge, huge difference. Women’s cycling has just gone through the roof in the last several years and I credit this race with turning the tide for women’s cycling. Hopefully for generations to come.”
Linda is quick to point out that this race has major growth potential. “A lot of people criticized ASO for the number of days saying that it was only eight days but we can do three weeks. I don’t know that we need three weeks and I don’t criticize ASO at all. Look, it is the return of the return of the women’s Tour de France. I think the race will grow as it should with increased interest.
“Obviously the consumer is interested. The market is interested. There is a market for it. I think it can go out to a couple of weeks. Having some of the iconic mountains would be fantastic but you can’t turn up your nose to La Super Planche des Belles Filles. That’s a hell of a mountain. Those were incredibly hard stages.”
And what about that advice she gave her riders? “I told them they need to focus one day at a time. The race started off with some flattish stages, the hills didn’t come until later. The strength on our squad right now is the climbers. We knew we had to survive the first few stages before the mountains came. It’s no good being a good climber if you have crashed out on stage 2 because you got caught in a bad position.
“Try to stay calm and treat it like any other race. Don’t get wrapped up in the hype. Don’t focus on the stage you really want to do well in because you have to get there first,” adds Jackson.
The EF Education-TIBCO-SVB team has been aggressive all season long. Why stop now? “I told my directors early on that I didn’t want our riders just sitting on hoping to get tenth or fifteenth on GC,” recalls Jackson. "We need to race our bikes. I don’t want to see our people intimidated and not feeling like they belong and not feeling like the should take a chance. We really need to race our bikes.
“I really think they did and they did a really great job. For Veronica and Krista to be riding and climbing with the best in the world made me feel so proud for them. They rose to the occasion and showed people what they were capable of.” Veronica Ewers ultimately finished ninth overall.
“This is the biggest thing to happen since I have been involved in women’s cycling for three decades,” concludes Jackson. “A lot of people devote their lives to their passion and don’t see this kind of return. It is so exciting to be dedicated to the sport since I joined it in the early 90’s until now and to see this kind of growth in a sport you love it is just so fulfilling. It has made it all worth it.”
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