Thompson Wasn’t Just Along for the Ride : Cycling: She qualified for the U.S. Olympic team three months after she began racing.
Is there such a thing as overnight success?
Probably not, but two-time Olympian Inga Thompson is about as close as anyone is likely to come.
In 1984, Thompson had a choice to make. Should she buy a racing bike with the $1,400 she had saved, or should she continue saving for a trip to Australia, where she planned to work on a cattle ranch?
It was a difficult decision, one she describes as having been 50-50, but she finally chose the bike.
“I heard that there was a women’s Tour de France for the first time ever, in 1984,” Thompson said the other day. “And so I decided I wanted to do it, I wanted to race in the Tour de France.”
Thompson, then 20, didn’t make it to France that year. She went to Los Angeles instead, as a member of the U.S. Olympic team.
"(The Olympics) kind of kept me from doing the tour,” Thompson said. “I didn’t know any better and just trained as hard as I could train, and there I was.”
Now 26, and beginning what should be her peak years as a cyclist, Thompson has put together a career that includes berths on two Olympic teams and two third-place finishes in the women’s Tour de France. Still, even Thompson was unprepared for her early success.
“My attitude was, ‘I’ll never make the Olympic team because they only choose the three best, and I’m just a beginner,’ so I wanted to go to France to race, but it didn’t work out,” Thompson said.
But Thompson got her Olympic break when Connie Carpenter, on her way to becoming a gold medalist in the 1984 Games, noticed Thompson at a local race. Later, when Carpenter’s team needed a substitute the night before the 1984 Olympic trials, Thompson came to mind, and Carpenter got special permission from the organizers for Thompson to be allowed to compete. Thompson had been racing for about three months.
“It was pretty amazing the other girls accepted me as well as they did, considering they had all been racing for years, and I come in there and one race is all they see of me and I make the Olympic team,” Thompson said. “They couldn’t have been too happy about that.”
Although Thompson finished 21st overall in those Games, boycotted by the Eastern Bloc, she got her first taste of international competition’s atmosphere.
“I was absolutely awe-struck by the number of people,” Thompson said. “We were driving in the van to the start of the course, and there were hundreds of thousands of people and they all had flags. That was incredible.”
In the 1988 Olympics, Thompson finished eighth, the highest of any American cyclist that year, after working on her weakest point, her sprinting, for three years.
“To me that’s the whole aura of the Olympics,” Thompson said. “It’s to go and ride to the best of your ability, it’s not winning the medal.”
Despite her sudden success, Thompson didn’t roll off her couch one day and into the Olympics. She was an athlete long before she began competitive cycling. As a runner, she was a three-time Nevada cross-country champion and competed in college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
As a runner, Thompson said she developed the high pain threshold and discipline that serve her so well in cycling, although she also credits her running coach of nine years, Lyle Freeman, the only coach Thompson has had in either sport, for her athletic development.
However, her lack of supervision as a cyclist might have been harmful. Immediately after the ’84 Olympics, Thompson became ill and did not ride again until May the next year. Her illness was tentatively diagnosed as a brain tumor, then later as a brain abscess, but no definitive diagnosis was ever made. Thompson believes that overwork was partially responsible for her illness.
“I literally slept 23 hours a day . . . for about six months,” Thompson said.
"(Before the illness) I would ride a bike for five to six hours every day, because I was used to running and you would hit the pain barrier (in running) after about an hour,” Thompson said. “But the cycling pain was a different kind of pain, and I wasn’t used to it.
“I have a bad tendency to get obsessed with something and just go for it because I love it. I think I took it a little overboard.”
A month after she returned to cycling, Thompson struck again, winning the World trials in June.
“That had to be frustrating to the girls again, because they hadn’t seen me all year,” Thompson said. “And then I turn up in June and I win the trials.”
Thompson, who describes her childhood as having been spent “half on a cattle ranch and half in the city,” lists her motorcycles and English flower garden among non-cycling interests, and still lives in the Reno area, where she grew up.
“I like being able to be on a Harley one day and turn around and go to an opera or symphony the next day,” she said.
Although she isn’t a close friend of that other Reno cyclist, Greg LeMond, last year’s women’s Tour de France gave Thompson an indelible memory of her townsman.
"(The women) had just finished our race on the Champs Elysee and we didn’t want to be anywhere around the finish when the men came through . . . so we were all in our hotel rooms, and we were showering, watching the men come through, and we had heard that Greg won,” Thompson said.
“Of course, we were all in our T-shirts and underwear because we hadn’t finished getting dressed yet, and we all went outside and we were screaming in the hallways and all the doors locked after us.
“So here we are in this huge hotel in Paris in our underwear and our T-shirts, trying to figure out how to get in, not because we were embarrassed so much as we wanted to watch the rest of the race. I remember that very well, but I guess everyone remembers it from their own perspective.”
In mid-1985 Thompson joined the 7-Eleven women’s team, but her career was temporarily sidetracked, both financially and emotionally, when the team was disbanded this year after a dispute with the United States Cycling Federation. Since then, several other women’s teams have folded as well.
“When you’re used to being on a big team and having everything done professionally, to get back to the point where you were when you first started is a little bit demoralizing,” Thompson said.
“We were talking about it the other day, (with cyclist) Katrin Tobin, how we liked the professionalism of the sport, and then the other day we were on the podium and we didn’t even have jerseys to wear. That was kind of hard.”
Now Thompson has to raise the $90,000 it takes to race yearly, but she has been helped by Bill Thornton, a Reno businessman who is underwriting her search for sponsorship.
There also has been another setback, not only to Thompson’s career, but to women’s cycling in general.
Until this year, the women’s Tour de France was run concurrently with the men’s event, but this year it has been shortened to a five-day race and moved to mid-September. The men’s event will start Saturday.
“That was my sole motivation for riding, to ride the women’s Tour de France,” Thompson said. “You have a chance to kind of touch it, race it, and come back and want more, and then it’s taken away. I think that’s worse than if we’d never had it in the first place, because that makes it really hurt.
“It’s enough of a thing where that’s the reason I got into cycling, and you take that away, and I wonder why I’m still on my bike.”
The women’s Tour de France also provided Thompson with a taste of the kind of racing that the men’s pro teams enjoy.
“If I have memories, it would just be going over these mountains where no living thing is supposed to be existing, and you look straight up these things, and you see all these switchbacks--there’s no trees, just rocks and all that shrub-type grass. And you just see this wall of people, 20 deep on both sides, and you’re thinking, ‘Did all these people walk up her just to watch us go by?’
“There are people just swarming these roads, and when you go up they give you about two feet to pass through, and the screaming and yelling is so loud it just deafens you. You can’t hear once you get on the other side.”
But Thompson’s complaint concerns more than her personal motivations.
“That (the women’s Tour de France) is what seemed to really give women’s racing . . . a chance to be legitimate in relationship to the men,” she said. “Not that you want to be compared to the men (but) it is kind of tough, when they race twice the distance, to be taken seriously.”
Women should be allowed to race at least half the distance that men do, Thompson said, but she believes that the attitude of the predominantly male governing bodies of cycling helps to keep women’s cycling suppressed.
“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,” Thompson said.
Thompson has actually raced against men in local races, and although she does it primarily for conditioning, it helps to prove her point.
“It’s still difficult, because I race and train for women’s distances and then sometimes hop in with the men,” she said. “I think it would be quite different if I actually raced and trained with the men, and that’s why I actually have a desire to get on a men’s team, and be like a lower level domestique and have the opportunity to race and train on a man’s schedule.
“Either I’d become better or I’d probably end up blowing up. I don’t know which one, but it’s worth the try.”
Still, with all the setbacks, there hasn’t been a large scale retirement of female cyclists.
“What I find really interesting is that since the sponsorship has been dropped, none of us have quit,” she said. “Before that, a lot of us were talking about retiring, but I don’t hear any of that now.
“They’re all there because they love it, and so, if anything, what stands out in my mind is that the women are just as passionate about the sport as the men.”