A letter to Yvonne Reynders

6min reading time   by Bieke Purnelle on 15 September 2022
Dear Yvonne. Or sweet Yvonne. Or hello Yvonne. I don't want to be too familiar, but also not too cold and distant, because that's something that you don't deserve.

Allow me to start with a humble confession: I was almost 30 when I first heard your name. There are some extenuating circumstances, if I might add. No one had ever told me about you. I had never seen you on television or in the newspaper. In retrospect, that is strange. I knew Briek Schotte and Fausto Coppi. I knew all about Eddy and Roger and Freddy and Fons. I knew that Tom Simpson succumbed on the flanks of Mont Ventoux in 1967. But I knew nothing about you. Not how many gold medals were gathering dust at your house, not how much toil and misery they had cost, not how you were harassed for years by unions and bosses. I still can't get over the fact that I had no idea about that for so long.

The late Karel Van Wynendaele did not write about you. Flandriens were real men from Flanders. You were neither a guy nor Flemish. To be Flemish would mean that you were born and raised in West- or East-Flanders, or at least that's how he saw it.

It didn't matter that as a child you dragged sacks full of coal. Neither did the fact that your colleagues couldn't do much else than to let you drive away, at least when you were in shape and had no bad luck. Your competitors all had to surround you so you couldn't attack, and even then you got away. But Karel himself had never lived in the back seat of his car, washed in a local fountain and eaten hot dogs for days on end to save money between races, so Karel couldn't have known what it meant to be a Flandrienne.

The late Karel Van Wynendaele did not write about you. Flandriens were real men from Flanders. You were neither a guy nor Flemish.

The hype surrounding the World Championships and the rain made me reminisce on your first world title and how much I would have liked to have been there.

It was only the second official world championship in history. I don't know exactly why it was organised in an unsightly hole like Rotheux-Rimière, because there was and is nothing to see or do there. Actually, the World Championship was supposed to be held in the Netherlands, but the Dutch cycling federation didn't feel like it. So the Belgians took over the job, provided it didn't cost too much.

Above all, it was an easy and cheap opportunity for the Belgian Cycling Federation to pretend they thought women's cycling was important. Nonsense, of course. They had never even organised a Belgian championship for women, the hypocrites. Even better: the year before, they had refused to give you a permit for the first women's World Championship in Reims, so all four of you were there in a white blank jersey instead of the classic light blue national jersey. That white jersey was the most shameful and saddest cycling jersey ever.

Let's get back to Rotheux-Rimière. 2 August 1959. The weather was terrible. Piping storms all day. Thirty of you stood there. Six Belgian, British and East German cyclists, five French, four Russian, two Dutch and Luxembourg's top favourite Elsy Jacobs. Twenty-two you were, and not a favourite. Le Soir, though, considered you a dangerous outsider.

On the seventeenth and penultimate lap, it happened. A British rider made a slide and caused half the mini peloton to slam against the asphalt.

At two hundred metres, in the last hairpin bend, you attacked like a spear. They didn't see you again. It wouldn't be the last time, but nobody knew that at the time.

The most remarkable thing is that you did it three more times after that, as if winning a world championship comes easy to you. Not to mention those three world titles on the track. Seven world titles, how many can say that? How many cyclists would sell a kidney for that?

My goodness, if one of our Belgian riders were to put together such a record today, we would be beside ourselves with pride and pretension. We would shout that the race is ours. We would celebrate with champagne, flowers, wreaths, newspaper and TV specials, specially composed songs.

But oh well, these were different times.

According to Sporta, the Catholic Church's sports movement, women's cycling was a "parody and misunderstanding of female grace and humanity". The sports press described you as a vulgar fairground attraction. The Belgian Medical Association for Physical Education and Sport listed the silliest arguments to keep women away from sport and competition: their glandular structures were too weak; they were too emotionally vulnerable; they were more prone to organ disturbances. Everything, the silliest first, was thought up, concocted and pulled out to stop you.

So your face was not on coffee mugs, caps and t-shirts. Never did you grace the front page of Het Volk. You were not received by the king.

Sportakerel talks about cycling for women (1955)
Women's cycling is a parody and misunderstanding of female grace and humanity.

Streets, squares, cycling tracks and clubs should have been given your name. Your statue should have stood in the middle of the capital for half a century. You should have been hailed, honoured and knighted until you were fed up. But what you got was mostly bullying and whining. According to the Belgian Cycling federation you asked for far too much travel expenses, eventhough an amateur in the men's side got three times as much. You were asked to stop stunting on your bike. The federation argued that that behaviour belonged in a circus, while you had to do it to make ends meet. Nor were you allowed to train on the track, even though none of the regulations said so.

It was an endless stream of complaints, and they were never like "Wow Yvonne, well done, congratulations, we are proud of you." The rewards were sticks in your wheels and ultimately the humiliation of a positive doping test that rattled everything. I don't understand where you found the courage to come back and, at thirty-nine, become Belgian champion for the tenth time and win bronze at your last World Championship.

Watching the Tour de France for women last summer, I thought of you, and so many others; of all the stones you had to move. Tough stones, the stones Marianne, Annemiek, Elisa and Lotte ride over on Saturday.

They sometimes say that women's cycling is moving too fast. From 1959 to today, that's more than 70 years, goddamn it. What is fast if it all comes too late for you?

Time cannot be made up, suffering endured cannot be made up.

I would understand if you said you are still angry. I myself am angry at all the injustice done to you. But anger benefits a person very little and it eats up energy.

So I don't want to be angry. I just want to be happy that you existed and still exist. I just want to say that this country has not known a stronger, more resilient, braver cyclist than Yvonne Reynders. And I won't take a word of that back. And your statue should already have been realised.

Dus ik wil niet kwaad zijn. Ik wil gewoon blij zijn dat jij bestaan hebt en nog altijd bestaat. Ik wil gewoon zeggen dat dit land geen straffer, weerbaarder, dapperder coureur heeft gekend dan Yvonne Reynders. En daar neem ik geen woord van terug. En aan dat standbeeld moesten ze al begonnen zijn.

With the warmest and kindest regards,


Yvonne Reynders

Yvonne Reynders (born 4 August 1937) is a former track and road cyclist from Belgium. With Beryl Burton of Great Britain, Reynders was one of the top female riders of the 1960s, winning 13 medals at world championships, including seven gold medals.Reynders' first sport was athletics: her heroine was Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won four sprint golds at the 1948 Summer Olympics. However, after her coaches told her that she did not have the speed on the track to follow in Blankers-Koen's footsteps, she initially switched to the discus, winning two consecutive Belgian junior discus titles in 1955 and 1956. Reynders then switched to cycle racing, having ridden a carrier tricycle when delivering coal in Antwerp after leaving school at the age of 16. In order to lose the muscle mass she had built up as a discus thrower, she developed a weekday routine of riding her race bike 40 km from her home in the Campine to Antwerp, where she did her 8–16 km coal round on her carrier trike in the morning, and then riding another 100–140 km on her racing bicycle along the Scheldt valley before returning home. After six months her weight had reduced from 74 kg to 59.5 kg. She subsequently won ten of the 14 races she entered in her first year, and earned selection to the Belgian national team.Reynders won her first world road title in 1959. In 1961 she won her second, defeating Burton and Elsy Jacobs, and also won the world individual pursuit title the same year. She won two more road world titles, in 1963 on home ground in the Belgian city of Ronse, and in 1966 at the Nürburgring in West Germany, and another two track rainbow jerseys, in 1964 and 1965. She initially retired from competition in 1967, however she returned to racing in 1976 at the age of 39: she took her final world championship medal, a bronze, at that year's Road World Championships. She retired a second time the following year.Reynders is a pedicure specialist.
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