Christiane Goeminne on two decades in the women's peloton: "Now they race with intelligence, in our time we didn't."

11min reading time   by Hermien Vanbeveren on 05 July 2022
On Sunday 3 April, Mathieu Van der Poel and Lotte Kopecky win the Tour of Flanders. It is the women's winner who opens Sportweekend, a nice illustration of how women's cycling has been upgraded in recent years. A few decades ago, Christiane Goeminne was racing at a time when some newspapers even prohibited writing about women's cycling. At the same time, cycling was of crucial importance to her, as a way of countering certain expectations and of breaking away from a life path that had already been mapped out. "Cycling was a way to escape and it worked out well."

Christiane, "Chris", Goeminne spent two decades on a racing bike, from 1960 to 1979. In 20 seasons she collected 163 victories on the road and on the track. She proudly mentions this number when we look at some photos in the garage of her house in Oudenaarde. With hardly any support, sshe has managed to build a great career. A career that, at 81, she can still talk about in many details and she looks back on with roguish eyes. At the same time, she is also a little nervous about this interview. Just like then, on the bike, especially before the big championships. But more about that later.

"You can do that too!"

For the start of her cycling adventure, we have to go back to the winter of 1960. "It actually started very foolishly because of a sports evening in Elsegem, where women were riding the rollers. A colleague had asked me along."

Until then, she hadn't considered the possibility of women on a racing bike. Although she remembers seeing two women on a racing bike a year earlier. You know what I saw today?", I said to my dad, "I thought it was great. "I thought it was the best, even though they were riding very slowly", she laughs.

And now that she thinks about it, her love for the (racing) bike already showed. "When I was younger, two riders who took part in the Tour of Belgium for amateurs once spent the night with us. I could not keep away from their bikes! But as a girl, starting to race seemed impossible. Especially in Oudenaarde, which was a very narrow-minded town.

Back to the sports evening in Elsegem. In the hall the roles were on a stage and Chris still remembers well who participated. "Marie-Thérèse Naessens, Denise Bral, Simonne Ellegeest and Monique Maes," she lists. "My colleague said: "Come on Chris, you can do that too! And that was actually the beginning."

Her parents and four sisters - Chris was the youngest of five - had to be convinced. Something that never really worked out. But she stuck to her guns. She had to figure out how to get a racing bike herself. Although it helped that her father was self-employed and dealt in motorbikes and also a little in bicycles. So she could go and see wholesalers. "But a racing bike like that cost a lot, 4,000 francs! Fortunately, one dealer let me buy in instalments. And that's how I started."

Cheeky looking

On 12 March 1960, at the age of 18, Chris rode her first race, in Harelbeke. "It was a kind of support act for the pros. There were a lot of people! Those men came to look at our cheeks, but I did not care."

Although they did not like it, her mother and some of her sisters also went along. "They thought I would be good from the start, but that wasn't the case. I still had to learn everything: riding with gears, riding in a peloton, ... . Trying to follow, that's all I could do." Still, she could be quite satisfied with the result at her debut: 21st out of about 40 riders. "The 20th got 100 francs, so I just didn't have a prize.

Her first racing years were mainly about learning, not winning, let alone competing for the victory. She had her first taste of this in 1962, her third year. It was in Rotheux, a race in three series. I was sure I had won, but I didn't get my flowers! They thought it was Yvonne Reynders, but she only came 8th in the last race. Afterwards, when I was changing clothes, they came to give me the flowers.

Those flowers are only a memory, the (compact) trophy of that first victory is still there - in the attic, that is. But unlike many other trophies and jumpers, she did not throw it away.

With a little push from André and Brieks

Her first years were literally and figuratively a search for a place in the women's peloton. And finding the right material was also a quest, with hardly any help. Now and then she did get a little push, though. Her father asked Firmin Van Kerrebroeck (six-time Belgian cyclo-cross champion) to come and look at her bike. "Your bike is much too big,' he said. A year later he got me a smaller Peugeot."

Van Kerrebroeck brought her into contact with André Stevens, a soigneur. He taught her how to drive the scooter. "He could really stimulate me and convince me that I could do it. But then he got divorced and moved away, which was a shame. If he had been able to help me for longer, my career might have turned out differently."

After André left, was there no one to take over that role? "No, I had to do it on my own again. But I also enjoyed doing that. Don't forget, back then you couldn't go out, you had to have a lover! I could do that by racing. It was a way to escape and it worked out well."

So when it comes to racing (for women), don't think of a team, mechanics or other support. Although Goeminne does mention Briek Schotte, as one of the few who tried to help women's cycling. Through the intercession of Denise Bral and Rosa Sels, Briek gave her a bicycle. "That was in 1964. You had to be good enough for that, it was also a sign that you were accepted."

Yvonne, Rosa and Nicole

But Goeminne sought and found her way and grew into a fine rider on the road and certainly also on the track, with a good sprint in her legs. Gradually, she started to race abroad - especially in Italy and France, where, for example, they paid expenses and there was often also start money (which sometimes ended up in other pockets).

Through Goeminne's intercession, the young Nicole Van Den Broeck was also able to go to a race in Italy. "But she could not follow! Back in Belgium, I agreed to train with her twice a week in and around Aalst. I actually launched her career, yes."

The relationship with Van Den Broeck blossomed into more, but withered bitterly. "I lived with Nicole for three years and we raced a lot in France and Italy then. But when our relationship ended in '69, she kept stalking me and harassing me, she also turned everyone against me. I was in a very deep place then and my races also suffered: I couldn't even compete in the lunches anymore!" A colleague helped her get out of the doldrums and revived her for the race, and after a few years she recovered.

Of her more than 160 victories, Chris won quite a few on the track ("riding high on the track, not everyone dared to do that but I did!"). On the road, she especially excelled in regularity and a lot of places of honour, including five podiums on a Belgian Championship and two top five finishes at a WC.

Perhaps the one standout was missing, but at big moments her nervousness played a part. And also the fact that she often had to compete against a star like Yvonne Reynders. She was probably the best Belgian in that period: 4 times world champion and 3 times Belgian champion, so a quick look at her record shows. "She certainly wasn't going to help you if she thought you could do better than her. She also had a 'big valve'. She really was an annoying number. But she was very good."

Although there was someone even more talented in Chris's eyes. "Rosa Sels, Ward's sister. She was a pure talent. She could also ride through the peloton very well, could steer formidably. And if she hadn't raced for a while, you only had to grant her a couple of weeks to train and then she was flying again! She had to stop after a fall, I think in 1966. A great pity, because she did not provoke jealousy. I would truly call her a friend."

Rainbow battle without tactics

Chris always combined racing with a job ("racing was expensive and I liked riding with good equipment"), in the Samsonite factory. She literally had to pack her bags on ten occasions and because she was part of the Belgian selection for the World Championships, the first time in Spain in 1965.

Those selections were made by the cycling federation, but according to Chris it was not much more than putting the names on paper. "In 1965 I became champion of East Flanders, in Eeklo. The boss of the federation told me: 'I don't know you, but you are going to the World Championships'! On the track (the World Championships on the track followed the week after the one on the road) I felt much better in the sprint, I was Belgian champion, and yet I had to ride the pursuit. Why didn't they let me start in the sprint?"

There was no one to coach them during such a World Championship. Did the cyclists discuss their tactics? "No, not at all, it was up to each one of us. We often didn't know what the course was like beforehand."

At the 1973 World Championships in Barcelona, where Van Den Broeck won, Chris came closest to a medal. She finished fourth. "I made the mistake of wanting to ride with too light material. Then you can't take the corners well. I should have chosen other, sturdier wheels."

A year later in Montreal she finished tenth, again there was more in it. After an early fall ("Beryl Burton was there too") she could not get her straps loose immediately. "There were hardly any people watching, so no one came to help. I had to chase for a long time and it was the Belgians who were in the lead. "Those ugly people," I said. I had to chase them the whole race and eventhough I had an empty runner in the final lap I still finished tenth."

"There were also World Championships where soigneurs told me: let me prepare you, then no one will be able to follow you. That happened repeatedly. But I always refused. After I stopped, I ran into one of those soigneurs. "Bloody hell, you didn't let me do it," he said. He still regretted it.

So doping surfaced in the women's peloton as well. "Certainly in my first years they were doing all sorts of things. Sometimes they even put it in the pocket of my jersey, men who were walking around before and during the race. It was a bit like with drugs, they give you a sample and then you can't live without them. But I never took it, that little pill ended up in the laundry," she laughs.

Finally in Het Volk

With hardly any support and guidance, Chris has built a fine career. Which ended in the perfect way: with a victory. "That was always my wish, to win my last race. That was in Wilrijk.

She would like to highlight one of her many victories: when she became Belgian sprint champion for the first time on the Rocourt track in 1965. "In the Catholic newspaper Het Volk it was not normally allowed to write about women's cycling. But my victory was mentioned in it anyway, and it was quite big!"

After her career, Chris still helped several riders with their training, with tips or material. Josiane Vanhuysse among others, or Patsy Larno. She tried to give them the support she missed herself. "I had to do everything myself and figure it out. My career could have looked different. But when I look back on it, it was very nice."

And she still follows cycling today. If Chris doesn't sleep well, she wants to watch a women's race again. "The way of racing now is more beautiful. They race with intelligence, it wasn't like that in my time."

There is one thing she still needs to get off her chest. "I could not and do not tolerate spectators laughing at the women. About three years ago I went to watch the women's Ronde van Vlaanderen and heard a group of men say: 'they should be in the kitchen'. I was really angry! How is that possible now, in this day and age."

Christiane Goeminne

Christiane Goeminne is a former Belgian racing cyclist. She finished in second place in the Belgian National Road Race Championships four times between 1973 and 1978.
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