The toughest women's race in history: Ore Ida

Its sponsor was a potato snack maker and it was run by an ex-Marine who knew little about cycling. How the 17-day Ore Ida race became a beacon of hope and hardiness during a downturn for women's cycling

There was once a women’s stage race that the UCI considered so challenging, it refused to ratify it. It would eventually grow to have the biggest prize fund of any American race, for men or women. It was created by a former green beret who’d served in Vietnam and knew next to nothing about bikes. 

What Jim Rabdau did know, however, was that cycling was a spectacular sport, ever since he’d been held up in his car at a crossroads in Italy some 20 years previously so that a bike race could go by.  That was the moment when he fell in love with the fanfare and the klaxons and the order within the chaos.

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When he returned to civilian life, Rabdau began working in the human resources department of Ore-Ida, a brand of potato snacks based in Boise, Idaho. One day, he was asked to come up with some ideas for promoting the brand to women. “A friend of mine said, ‘You ought to do a women’s track meet,’” he later recalled. “But no, I said it had to be [road] cycling. It has the colour, the speed, the thrill.”

Jim Rabdau

There’s this idea that women’s cycling is like a plane that’s perennially trying to take off, yet, for one reason or another, never manages to leave the tarmac; that despite a lot of noble effort, it will never be as tough, exciting or financially viable as the men’s sport. 

This belief has been doing the rounds for so long that most cycling fans under the age of 40 are quite unaware that women’s cycling did in fact take off, big time, in the summer of 1984. That year witnessed not only the first ever women’s Olympic road race but also the first ever women’s Tour de France, in which the women rode 18 stages of the men’s race on the same day as the men. 

For the rest of the decade, women’s stage races flourished around the world: there was the Tour de l’Aude, Tour de la Drôme, Mi-Août Bretonne, Postgiro, Tour of Texas, Vuelta de Bisbee, Giro Donne, Emakumeen Bira, Vuelta a Colombia, Thüringen Rundfahrt... So many races, in fact, that it was a struggle to fit them all on the calendar. Ten years previously, the only prestigious international event was the annual World Championships, which offered women a one-day race of around 70km and a couple of track events. 

In the 1980s, America led the way in women’s racing: there were sponsored teams that paid riders a salary and all the major races had men’s and women’s events. It was the land of promise for European riders – even if the prize money wasn’t equal, there was nonetheless decent cash to be won, a stark contrast to the “Old World”, where champions received domestic appliances or maxi packs of detergent. Most significantly, America was home to the Coors Classic, a major stage race founded in 1975, which helped convince Félix Lévitan that a women’s Tour de France was indeed possible. 

At the heart of this progressive culture lay Title IX, a civil rights law created in 1972 to put an end to sexual discrimination in federally funded education programmes. Subsequently, collegiate sports had to include women, which in turn created a thriving co-ed racing scene. This partly explains why many American racing women even today are highly educated, epitomised by Connie Carpenter-Phinney and Rebecca Twigg – two ambitious, supremely capable child prodigies who became bitter rivals. As team-mates, they took gold and silver at the 1984 Olympics. 

This all correlated with a moment when feminist dialogue entered the mainstream media. Joan Collins ruled TV with shoulder pads that could gouge an eye out, every self-described modern woman had a subscription to Cosmopolitan, with its advice on getting what you wanted in both the boardroom and bedroom, and Shere Hite broke the news that women could orgasm more effectively when they took matters into their own hands.

Being sporty had become cool, a declaration of freedom and independence. The fitness market was booming, as witnessed by the phenomenal success of Jane Fonda’s home workout videos while Joan Benoit Samuelsn, popularised women’s running by winning the first women’s Olympic marathon in 1984. For brands seeking to promote their products to women (who, for all the feminist talk, apparently still did the shopping) backing sport seemed like a smart marketing move. Companies like Weight Watchers, Lowrey’s Meat Snacks and Lycra all sponsored women’s cycling teams. 

Cycling, though still an obscure sport in America, had beatnik glamour, cemented by feature films like Breaking Away and American Flyers. And it was quite literally rock n’roll: Dave Pelletier, who created the Wheat Thins Mayor’s Cup series of big city criterium races, had been a roadie for the Rolling Stones, and Michael Aisner, who ran the Coors Classic, was an ex-DJ. Both of them installed huge sound systems at their events, at which they blasted loud music, creating an intoxicating atmosphere of trashy, anything goes fun. A talented rider in this brave new world could make enough to get by and live “the counter-culture vagabond cycling life,” as Connie Carpenter-Phinney puts it. She and husband Davis were treated like celebrities in their cycling hotspot home of Boulder, regularly asked for autographs.

But in 1990, crisis struck: the women’s Tour de France, which had always run on the morning of the men’s race, was reduced to a mere five stages and shunted to a backwater date in September, two days after the World Championships. The Tour de Trump, a new race created in 1989 following the demise of the Coors Classic, aimed to create an American version of the Tour de France. But it broke with an admirable tradition in US racing: Donald Trump’s race was just for the boys. 

With fewer high-profile events for women to compete in, sponsors walked away. Major teams to disappear that year included 7-Eleven, Lycra, Mazda, Lowrey’s Meat Snacks, Sundance and Team USA. The great stars of the day, such as Inga Thompson, who had placed third in the Tour de France the previous summer, struggled to find backers.

A friend created a promotional video for the 26-year-old to send to companies. “One of the things I hear a lot is, ‘you’re one of the best cyclists in the world. But you’re a girl.’ I just have to keep trying to sell myself,” she said in an interview. “It’s just really disappointing to work so hard, for so long and to get to the point where you really feel you can be the best in the world and then have it all pulled out from under you.”  

However, there was one race that was weathering the turbulence and even doubled its prize purse that year, despite also losing sponsors. The Ore-Ida Women’s Challenge, created like so many others in 1984, had inherited the mantle of the premium women’s stage race in America. Starting out as an event held over six days, it had grown in length and difficulty every year. And unlike the other big American women’s events, it was not run in the shadow of a men’s race. 

It was held in Idaho, a wedge-shaped western territory about the geographical size of Great Britain, with a population of only one million at the time. In 1990, the state was celebrating the centenary of joining the Union and Jim Rabdau decided to make it a year to remember with his most ambitious edition to date. It would start in the pointy tip of the state’s far north and then descend, zig-zagging through wilderness, across the Rocky Mountains, over desert plains, between potato farms down to the state capital of Boise in the south-west, finishing with a criterium in front of the Ore-Ida company headquarters. It would total 1019 kilometres over 17 stages, a dramatic leap from the ten days of racing the previous year. 

The UCI refused to ratify it, claiming that it was far too difficult for women. If the chaps in suits in Switzerland had hoped to remind the American upstart who called the shots in the racing business, then the plan backfired. 

Rabdau was not someone you challenged. Aged 56 in 1990, he’d spent most of his adult life telling people what to do and expecting total loyalty in return. “He was over six feet tall and built like a marine,” recalls Jim Ingram, a Campagnolo mechanic who provided neutral service for all teams at the race. He recalls setting up a pit stop on a criterium course that happened to be under the welcome shade of a tree. It wasn’t quite where Rabdau had specified. It was not a mistake Ingram made again.

“He was kinda bossy. He could bark out orders,” recalls Susan Eastman Walton, communications director during the early years of the race. “He wasn't a warm, fuzzy guy, but he adored these women, he adored his race. There would be funny things, like the graphics of the posters, with this artist's version of a woman's hand pulling a wheel. But she had a manicure, she was wearing nail polish. Some of us were like, ‘Really? Do we need to do that?’ He was adamant. ‘These are really attractive women and I want to show that they are athletes and that they're attractive women.'

‘Can't we have something more exciting, like some kind of action shot?'

‘No!'”

Raised in Idaho – a predominantly white, Republican state – Rabdau made an unlikely feminist, but he was rankled by inequality from an early age. When he created the race, he told reporters that he thought of his mother, who had worked in a bank and took home half the salary of her male colleagues. When faced with the choice of belonging to the UCI’s coterie of approved races or putting on a groundbreaking women’s event, Rabdau unhesitatingly chose the latter.  

A former green beret in E Company of the legendary 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, he knew a thing or two about how humans respond to demanding situations. Sure, his race would be hard: that was the point. It was ridiculous to suggest the women wouldn’t cope. “Athletes can’t grow unless they are given the potential to excel,” he pointed out. 

Inga Thompson

Inga Thompson concurred; It’s one of those things where they say, ‘They can’t do [longer distances] now.’ But maybe they can do it now. It just hasn’t been asked of them.” 

The race was extraordinary, not only in its scale, but organisation. In the course of his 25-year career in the special forces, Rabdau had been a logistics officer who planned barracks openings and closings. The work had to be done quickly and efficiently, often under enemy fire. Rabdau’s organisational skills in stage racing, with its sprawlingly complicated nature, are still talked of with awe. 

It was vital to him that the teams and riders had no practical worries to distract from the racing itself. He relied heavily on the Ore-Ida personnel, a wide network of volunteers and a huge amount of local community spirit. Where hotels were scarce, riders were housed with local families, while host towns put on barbecues and pancake parties.

“Nobody’s shooting at me when I do this one,” he said in the run-up to the race. “But we could be shot down in a hurry if things don’t go well. This could be a total disaster.”

For defending champion Lisa Brambani, the Ore-Ida was quite simply “Disneyland versus Butlins,” compared to the races back home: a magical racing wonderland contrasted with a down-at-heel UK holiday camp. A British rider from Yorkshire, in 1990 she was living in Boise and riding for the Weight Watchers team. She had come to the US almost on a whim after chatting to an American on the start line at the World Championships. “Somebody said ‘do you want to ride for an American team?’ And I thought, well, it’s got to be better than riding in the UK.” 

Lisa Brambani

Measuring 5’4” and weighing only 51 kilos, Brambani was known in the peloton as The Hummingbird. “She was so fast and she was so good,” recalls local rider Ruthie Matthes, who finished second to Brambani in 1989. “I remember her being this tiny little thing that could go up hills like crazy.”

Matthes, who was from nearby Ketchum, led the local charge, riding for the cobbled together Oh! Idaho Team, sponsored by the state tourism board. Matthes had been a skier who took up cycling as a way of cross training, only to start winning races straight away. An extremely versatile athlete, she was that year’s national road race champion and became mountain biking world champion the following year. Matthes was one of the most experienced riders in the race, having participated in every edition since its beginning.

Their most formidable rival that year was Inga Thompson, who was back for the first time since winning in 1987. Tall and powerful with a Rapunzel-like blonde plait, the Nevada native routinely took part in elite amateur men’s races to train. That winter she’d spent five weeks with the men’s junior national team in Argentina. “It was actually quite comical,” she’d told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “The men in Argentina aren’t actually very good and they looked at us and thought we couldn’t keep up with them for 20 miles. Actually, it was the other way round.”

The route for the 1990 race passed through a sparsely-inhabited, stunningly beautiful landscape with place names plucked from a children’s adventure story: the Sawtooth Mountains, Freeze Out Hill, River of No Return, Magic Valley, Atomic City, Bliss. There was something for everyone, from high mountain stages to short time-trials.

Inga Thompson fired the opening shots when she won the prologue ahead of Matthes on a bike she’d designed herself. Two days later, her team also smashed the 40.8km team time trial. That morning, Thompson’s father—an orthopaedic surgeon—had flown up in his private plane to deliver a part for her carbon-teflon TT frame, bringing its co-designer, Don Stephan, along too. 

Lisa Brambani was not discouraged by Thompson’s time-trial prowess and went on the attack on stage 5, which at 123 kilometres was the second longest stage of that year’s race. She finished second, gaining a 24-second time bonus that put her into the race lead. 

However, Thompson seized it back the following day as she powered up the final 13 kilometres of Spiral Highway, a tangling, 550-metre climb of 64 curves above the town of Lewiston. In the saddle, spinning a low gear, she dropped all her rivals one by one to win. “She just never sat up,” said Louisa Jenkins, of the Women’s Sport & Fitness Team. “She just built up. As we call it, she ‘dialled it up’. I think she has three lungs.” 

Stage 7 was an arduous, hot day of draggy climbing. The riding was aggressive, with constant breaks right from the gun. “That was pretty darned exciting,” said Matthes, who outsprinted a cluster of hard nuts to win the stage, moving herself to within eight seconds of Thompson’s overall lead. “I think I’m starting to ride into the race. I think I’m getting into the rhythm.”  

Her hopes were dashed the following day, however, when Thompson won a 34-kilometre individual time-trial in crushing style, increasing her lead to 1’51”. Thompson was impatient to skip the rest day that followed. “I would prefer to keep going,” she said. “Relative to the other girls, I seem to get stronger and they stay the same – or I stay the same and they get weaker.”

Three days later, with Matthes and Brambani hopeful of toppling the favourite, the race hit the mountains. As the lead group reached the steepest part of the climb towards the 2194-metre Banner Summit, Thompson attacked. By the time she reached the top, she had nearly a minute on the chase group. 

Brambani, however, kept her cool, knowing her bunch would catch her on the descent. And as soon as they did, she counterattacked, taking Eve Stephenson from the Women’s Sports and Fitness team with her.  They worked together, leaving their teammates to block Thompson and Matthes’ progress. A storm closed in over the mountains, offering a tailwind that swept the leaders across the finish line in Stanley at 56kph. Stephenson won the stage, while Brambani took 47 seconds from Thompson’s lead and moved into second place on GC, 1’16” behind. 

Stage twelve went over the Sawtooth Mountains, crossing the 2652-metre Galena Summit - ten taller than the mighty Col du Galibier. Brambani’s team set a relentless pace in an attempt to break Thompson’s lock-hold, but while the Briton’s teammate Linda Brenneman was rewarded with a stage win, they were unable to dent the lead. Conservative riding wasn’t Thompson’s style, but the previous day’s events had been a warning.  “By no means is it comfortable,” she said of her lead. “I could lose it very, very quickly.”

Her strategy paid off in the 5.2km individual time-trial the next morning. Suffering from her efforts in the mountains, Brambani wilted, losing 50 seconds and slipping back down to third overall. “I was just demoralised,” she said disconsolately. “Everything was aching.” 

Thompson’s lead was unassailable. The final day’s criterium back in Boise, in front of a crowd of about 7,000 spectators, saw no major change to the GC: Thompson won the overall, 1’16” ahead of Matthes and 2’08” ahead of Brambani. She had led the race for all but two stages, dominating the three individual time-trials and resisting the repeated attacks of her adversaries in the final week. Her overall winning time of 27 hours, 19 minutes, 46 seconds meant that she'd covered the 1019 kilometres at an average speed of 37.29kph, only a shade below the 37.49 kph with which Greg LeMond won the Tour de France 1989.

“This will show something to the Europeans,” she declared afterwards. “The racing got better when we realised we weren’t going to die after a week.” 

At one point during the awards ceremony, there was a spontaneous ovation from the riders for Jim Rabdau, the man who had refused to accept that women couldn’t race long distances. Surveying the delighted faces, he declared: “All those people out there who arbitrarily write rules about what people can and can’t do ought to come here.” 

“When I think of the Ore-Ida, I only have happy memories,” says Lisa Brambani. She believes the Women’s Challenge wouldn’t be out of place in today’s Women’s WorldTour programme; not only did it have the length, the variety and the prize money, it also had TV coverage. “I even have the programmes on video tape; we sometimes watch them and always comment on how ahead of the game this race was. Only the Giro Rosa comes close with length but really, it bears no comparison with the slick Ore-Ida event. I honestly cannot say enough good things about this race. It simply was the best.” 

What Happened Next?

Over the years, the race continued to evolve. The riders told Rabdau they didn’t want it to become less difficult, so even though it was reduced to 12 stages in 1991, they were much longer, with the overall distance only 120 kilometres shorter than the previous year.

That edition featured a national team from the newly independent (though not yet internationally recognised) ex-Soviet republic of Lithuania. Rabdau recalled their coach showing up with two suitcases: “One had vodka and caviar in it, the other had spare parts and underwear.” Their rider Diana Cepeliene came third, and her compatriots became a dominant force in women’s racing.

In 1995 the race was finally granted official UCI status, making it attractive to a more international field. Its champions included French great Jeannie Longo, Australian Anna Wilson, Lithuanian rider Rasa Polikevičiūtė, Canadian Dede Demet (now Barry) and Judith Arndt from Germany.

By 1998, when it became the HP Women’s Challenge, it had a prize purse of $125,000—the biggest of all US races, for men or women. The last edition took place in 2002. A new sponsor for the 2003 race fell through and Rabdau, who was 70, decided to retire. He died of pancreatic cancer ten years later.

The race’s disappearance marked the start of a period of contraction in the women’s sport. During the 2000s, the UCI took the decision to limit all women’s stage races to a maximum of six days, with an exception made for the 10-day Giro Rosa. Pierre Boué, who created the Tour Cycliste Féminin in 1992 to fill the void left by the axed women’s Tour de France, was taken to court by ASO for calling his race a Tour. Races lost sponsors and vanished.

This crisis and its causes, from which women’s racing is only starting to recover, have never been adequately scrutinised. We talk of growing the women’s sport, but we should also talk about what’s been lost. And we might ask how it was possible that Messrs Verbruggen and McQuaid, in their roles as presidents of the UCI from 1991 to 2013, allowed such a flourishing scene to die out on their watch 

ORE-IDA 1990: IN NUMBERS

4.2 - Shortest stage in kilometres
17 - Stages, running from June 22 to July 8 1990
17 - Teams of four riders
129 - Longest stage
1,019 - Total race distance
2,652 - Galena Pass, the race’s highpoint and highest road pass in the American Northwest
7,107 - Total metres of climbing