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‘Nothing could have prepared me for the wall of sound on the Champs-Élysées’: Q&A with Clare Greenwood

Ahead the Tour de France Femmes, the 63-year-old British racer recalls riding 5 editions of the original women’s Tour back in the 1980s

Trevor Ward
22 Jul 2022

Cyclist: You were part of the GB team that rode the inaugural Tour de France Féminin in 1984. Did you feel like trailblazers at the time?

Clare Greenwood: It felt more like we were a supporting act to the men, a novelty act, but in a good way. The women’s Tour ran parallel with the men’s and lasted the full three weeks.

We raced 18 stages on the same roads as the men. We’d race the last half or third of the same stage the men were riding, and finish ahead of them in the same towns.

It was a huge gamble for the organisers, but we knew it had been a success from the crowd’s reaction. 

Cyc: How did you prepare for that first Tour de France Féminin?

CG: I don’t think any of us on the GB team had the right experience, training or bikes. We didn’t realise how naive we were until we got there.

I had a cast-down jersey from the men’s team with the rider’s name still on the tag. I was completely out of my depth but so were the other 35 riders taking part.

There were no team coaches with physios and showers. None of us had the right gears because we’d never done climbs like these before. I had six gears and a 52/42 chainring. I thought a col was a castle.

On the climb to La Plagne I thought I’d do it in an hour so didn’t bother filling my bottle or packing any food. Two hours later I was still on the climb.

Cyc: Tell us about the crowds.

CG: They were incredible. They would surround us on the climbs and because we were shorter than the men the clapping and shouting was deafening and directly in our ears. I used to have to wear earplugs.

All the men would give me a good smack on the backside to help me up. I knew it was a fun thing but it hurt and sometimes I felt like jumping off the bike and beating the shit out of them.

Eventually we had to put foam down our shorts and ask the race organisation to put out an appeal for fans ‘not to touch the ladies’ because we were getting fined for being pushed.

Cyc: But they helped you in other ways?

CG: The crowds clicked that the women’s teams weren’t as prepared as the men, so they helped us. They fed and watered me on the way up the climbs.

I had a moving buffet all the way up: water, tea, coffee, wine, lots of beer, baguettes, croissants, you name it, they fed me it. Afterwards we’d discuss who had eaten the best on the way up.

I realised the fans could also help me in other ways by telling me how far the finish or the top of the climb was, or where my rivals were. We had no Garmins or team radios so I would use my school French to get this information.

Nowadays those fans running alongside the riders look irritating, but for us they were a source of information – ‘So-and-so is 30 seconds up the road’ or ‘the gap is one minute’, that sort of thing.

Cyc: What did it feel like to make it to Paris the first time?

CG: When we caught our first sight of the Eiffel Tower the whole peloton seemed to freeze with this big moment of realisation – ‘Wow, we’ve done it!’ Then suddenly it went ballistic.

The Dutch wanted to be first on the Champs-Élysées because they had the green jersey; the French wanted to be first because it was their race; the US because they had the yellow; and us because we had the white [19-year-old Louise Garbett was Best Young Rider].

Nothing could have prepared me for the wall of sound on the Champs. My hair stood on end. About half a million people had turned up.

Our masseur Pat Liggett [television commentator Phil’s wife] had warned us we might burst into tears with the emotion at the finish but I just felt a great sense of relief that I wasn’t going to have to ride my bike again.

That night all the men’s and women’s teams went to the Town Hall for the medal presentation and I remember seeing Paul Sherwen wearing a suit and shirt with a collar that looked three sizes too big. He looked as if he’d just come out of prison.

Cyc: You must have been pleased with finishing seventh overall?

CG: Yes, but I knew I could improve if I worked on my weaknesses, which were sprinting and changing pace. So instead of going back to the Tour the following year, I packed in my job and home in Cardiff and went to Antwerp with my brother Eddy, who was a semi-pro track rider in Australia.

I did everything I could to strengthen my sprinting. I’d ride kermesses in Belgium or criteriums in Holland during the day, then ride the velodrome at night. We were penniless, so we had to win to eat. A good week meant being able to afford a pizza.

The next year I returned to the Tour [finishing 18th out of 80 starters] and completed every one until the last edition in 1989. I enjoyed being the senior rider in the team.

Unless you’ve completed a Tour, you have no idea what it’s like. How do you explain to someone that in the middle of the night in bed you have to reach down to move your legs with your hands because you are so exhausted?

Cyc: What are you doing now?

CG: I’m still racing, mainly TTs, for Bush Healthcare. I also work as a reflexologist. I trained after developing sciatica during the Tour [de la Communaute Européene Economique] in 1993 and needed a way of treating the pain without drugs.

It has allowed me to keep riding my bike when the medical advice was for me to stop. I went on to be Masters World Champion in 2001 [TT] and 2002 [road].

It’s also how I met my wife [US rider Susan Shook]. We were racing in Austria and she collided with a car. At the finish she complained of whiplash symptoms and I treated her. We got married in 2006. She still races too, but fortunately we’re in different age groups.

Cyc: Finally, we hear you once went drinking with Sean Kelly…

CG: I met him at the finishers’ banquet one year. Neither of us liked champagne so we went on a drinking crawl around the back streets of Paris looking for a bar that served Guinness.

We eventually found a place but after three weeks of racing we could hardly stand and were propping each other up at the bar. A photographer found us and had to take us back to our hotels.

I next saw Sean 20 years later while training in Mallorca and I asked him if he remembered that night. He said, ‘Did we have a good time?’ and we howled with laughter. I still can’t remember what happened.