Guest Blog: Suzie Godart – Going Her Own Way (by Cat Armour)

This is only my second season as a cyclocross fan. When I first saw it online I thought “Wow!” Then I went to my first meeting and I was hooked. If you are unfamiliar with CX by all means go to the UCI web page, but let me save you the effort and reproduce their ‘About’ page here

“Cyclo-cross races last approximately one hour. Races are held on technical and hilly circuits of 2.5-3.5 km. Cyclo-cross provides a real education in cycling as it requires accomplished bike handling skills and unfailing physical fitness. Competitors have to carry their bikes over some sections. The first Cyclo-cross World Championships were held in 1950.”

Thank you for that gem, UCI. Let me just add that riders not within a certain time of the leader, usually 80%, get pulled out of CX races. There’s no such thing as getting lapped or being held up by a backmarker.

This year I went to Cauberg Cross, a UCI World Cup meeting, for the first time. It was a gloriously sunny October day in Valkenburg and, as there had been little rain in this part of the world for some time, the ground was hard with minimal mud; I knew the racing was going to be fast. After the U23’s race the sun was blazing so I got myself an ice cream and headed for the shade of the trees. This part of the course had a wicked little off camber section and a bit of a steep & stepped short section with slippery top soil under the trees. It was an ideal place to see some action. The women’s race was next up so I sorted myself out a spot and waited.

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© Cat Armour

Through the trees I could see the riders and hear the state of play over the speakers. As the racers get closer the cheering for the front group gets louder. I could hear them coming. And there they were – the elite of the elite of women’s cyclocross riders: Helen Wyman, Sanne Cant, Sophie de Boer and Ellen van Loy. Further down the field at this point in the race was eventual winner USA champion Katie Compton then Swiss champion Olivia Hottinger and then, bringing up the rear of the main bunch, there was an older woman who I could not name. Dressed in blue and bearing the number 44, she was pushing her bike up that little steep section.

So who was she? The man next to me seemed to have his own opinion, but judging from the tone of his voice and the look on his face, I’m glad my Dutch isn’t up to much!

The race progressed and I wandered the course to get a better vantage point for taking photos, which I love to do, and to cheer them on, even though sometimes I am the lone voice! At the end of the race I made my way to the finish line area where the riders and support crew were milling around – riders getting their faces cleaned and taking on drinks after a hard race – and there she was again, with the biggest smile. Someone had had a really good day.

Eventually I found out that the woman in question was Suzie Godart and – despite being more than 8 minutes down on the winner – she had not been pulled out . She had finished the race, and there were several riders who Did Not Finish that day.

Being an advocate for women’s cycling I felt guilty that I did not know who this woman was. So, as soon as I got home I hit the computer.

Born 20 July 1962 – that makes her…52?

I had to find out more.

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© Cat Armour

As it turns out, Suzie Godart is an extremely approachable person and, amazingly it seemed to me, gave unstintingly of her time to a new fan. So this is a little story about this incredible woman and how, despite the cycling ‘powers that be’ not wanting her there, she just kept on going.

In the beginning there was a bike for Christmas at age 5. Then there was the first ‘men’s bike’ bought with pocket money at 15. Then weekend touring with her husband. Two children later there comes the mountain bike fun, UCI licence and a whole lot of National Titles in mountain biking, road cycling and cyclocross. That is a short summation of the life of Suzie Godart, but obviously there’s more to it than that.

Like her childhood hero, Pippi Longstocking, Suzie Godart is her own person with the strength of mind to follow her own way and not care about what others might think. This fearlessness comes out in her love for sport, be it cyclocross, mountain biking or skiing – as a youngster she loved all the technically skilful sports and quite happily played alongside the boys. It would seem that nothing was out of bounds for Suzie and, although her parents encouraged her towards more academic achievement, she was always active.

It may seem strange, but Suzie had never considered a career in sports. Her first thoughts were with her family and then her job as a school teacher. Sport was just about having fun. In fact, before trying her hand at cycling, she had already had a family and it wasn’t until after the birth of her son in 1991 that she took up mountain biking “just for fun”. This was principally because her husband had been doing a few duathlons, so she trained a bit with him, but immediately fell in love with the technical skill. Both her and her husband, Marc, applied for a licence together, but it was Suzie who was getting the better results so Marc gave up his licence to follow her. He is the major support behind her continued success as well as her coach and mechanic. They will be celebrating their 28th wedding anniversary next year!

Suzie caught the competitive bug after that. Her palmares make reading any rider would be proud of:

  • 1994 Luxembourg Championship Mtb Cross-Country
  • 1995 Luxembourg Championship Mtb Downhill
  • 1996 Luxembourg Championship Mtb Cross-Country
  • 1997 Luxembourg Championship Cyclo Cross
  • Luxembourg Championship Mtb Cross-Country
  • 1998 Luxembourg Championship Road Cycling
  • Luxembourg Championship Mtb Cross-Country
  • 2001 Luxembourg Championship Roadycling
  • Luxembourg Championship Cyclo Cross
  • 2002 Luxembourg Championship Cyclo Cross
  • 2003 Luxembourg Championship Cyclo Cross
  • 2004 Luxembourg Championship Cyclo Cross
  • 2005 Luxembourg Championship Cyclo Cross
  • Steinmaur Cross (Switzerland)
  • 2007 Luxembourg Championship Road Cycling
  • 2009 Luxembourg Championship Cyclo Cross

That’s a lot of championship jerseys!

On a more serious note, it would seem that the Luxembourg Cycling Federation have been remarkably resistant in recognising the talent that Suzie has shown over the years. And it all comes back to her age.

“As I started very late with cycling, I was considered a little bit as an ‘exotic’ by both the public and the riders, but over the years I made my place in the bunch and for the moment I really enjoy every moment of every race with so many people cheering for me.”

Suzie got her first licence at the age of 32; an age when many are actually thinking about retiring, but Suzie did things the other way round. Her first successes came in mountain biking and road racing and she signed her first UCI-licence with Team Fatbirds alongside Helen Wyman, Catherine Williamson & Emma Pooley. Although her part in the team was fairly short-lived, it brought her much more attention.

But because of her age she has never been given the opportunity to represent her country, even though at times there was actually no other female rider in the country to challenge her. So what possible reason could a National Federation have for not sending their National Champion to represent them?

Take a closer look at her palmares and you’ll notice that there is no cyclocross championship before 1997. The UCI did not recognise women’s cyclocross before that time, although events had been contested for many years and several countries already had National Championships prior to 1997. But nobody ever accused the UCI of being proactive.

In 1997, Suzie’s first cyclocross race was won on a bike borrowed from a friend, but she bought a bike of her own for the National Champs that year, which she won without any competition – the other riders simply never made it to the start line. Apparently, it had snowed and she believes the others were too scared of riding on the frozen ground. She admits that this time she was scared too, as it was one of her first races, but she did it anyway. This is a familiar and recurring motif in Suzie’s life.

Suzie’s cycling career has been a bit of an uphill struggle, but despite being recognised only as an ‘older’ rider and not being considered by the Luxembourg Federation for any national selections, Suzie and Marc just got on with racing under their own steam. Suzie rapidly discovered she had enough UCI-ranking points to make it into the top 100 ranked riders. Finally, this was something the Luxembourg Federation could not ignore and so she was able to participate in World Cup races, but never the World Championships. It appears she was ‘snubbed’ because of her age. It’s easy to think that this sort of thing is all in the past, but it happened as recently as 2007 when she won the National Road Race title, but still it was the younger women who were selected in her stead. It seems that, regardless of how good you are, if you’re over 40 your place is deemed to be in the masters category. However, there was a silver lining for Suzie – it drew her to the attention of Team Fenixs in Italy, who proceeded to give her the chance to ride the Giro d’Italia feminile as a domestique for team leaders Svetlana Bubnenkova and Monica Bacaille. Although she admits this was an amazing experience, she missed the technical aspect of her sport and returned to cyclocross.

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that discrimination isn’t just about gender. The thinking that ‘she has her future already behind her,’ as Suzie puts it, was not just wrong in an ageist way, but literally and factually incorrect, because Suzie just kept on winning. Cycling is full of ‘if onlies’ but what might have been if the Luxembourg Federation had allowed her to compete for the previous 10 years? Is it always just about getting medals for national federations? Clearly they’re under increasing pressure to justify their existence because they spend tax payer money, but shouldn’t sport also be about recognition? Isn’t it also about having a representative good enough to compete?

Since she started racing in 1994 Suzie says she has seen many changes. There were no races for women in Luxembourg at that time and although that small country loves cycling, there is still not much in the way of cyclocross racing. The UCI have, however, decided to hold the world champs in Luxembourg in 2017, so hopefully this will rekindle and stimulate interest in the sport. Back in 1994 though, women’s racing in general was very unprofessional and a bit haphazard. Now with the UCI taking notice the races are organised and all aspects of women’s cycling have become much more professional, but there is still a great divide between the big UCI teams and the smaller teams that are struggling to survive.

The nature of cyclocross courses has also changed with more technically difficult sections, such as long sand pits, to please the crowds – and they do! And the organisers do their bit by placing beer tents by those sections of a course where possible. Suzie believes that mountain bike cross country courses today “are technically as difficult as downhill courses in the nineties.” Of course there are many more women participating in cyclocross now and the sport has diversified, attracting entrants from many different countries. The recognition from sponsors, like Twenty20 Cycling – who provide equal prize money at Koppenberg Cross – and Bpost Bank – who’ve been responsible for moving the women’s race up the race day order, instead of being held at some time before dawn – has made a difference. The full impact may not be known for a while yet, but when the crowds come to the races earlier in the day and are able to call out the women’s names, I tell Suzie I think this is huge. Suzie worries, however, that the expectation on organisers and sponsors may make it less affordable to put on a race. We have a way to go to get women’s cycling TV coverage, unfortunately, although fans can only hope that this increase in popularity will see channels like Sporza or Vier actually showing the racing live instead of putting out packages of recorded highlights. Races like La Course help to make women’s road cycling more popular but, as Suzie says:

“CX fans are different from road race fans, the courses are shorter and the entertainment value is bigger: look at races like Koppenberg, that’s not a race, that’s a big ‘fiesta’.”

And this is the point why I adore cyclocross. It’s the interaction between spectators and riders”

And this is why we, the fans, love cyclocross, too.

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© Cat Armour

There have been huge improvements in equipment over the course of her career too. Suzie bought her first cyclocross bike in 1997, the year the UCI first acknowledged women’s cyclocross competition – it was a long way from that first cyclocross race, ridden on a bike borrowed from a friend. Her first cyclocross bike sported an aluminium frame which, at the time, she thought was state of the art. Now, with developments in carbon frames, shifters, brakes, pedals and virtually every aspect of bike technology, she can’t imagine riding anything else. Suzie currently rides a Guerciotti cyclocross bike…

“but it costs ‘la peau des fesses’ (the skin off your arse) as the French say and sponsors are very hard to find especially in women’s cycling.”

Hopefully, this will change.

Suzie doesn’t worry too much about sports’ nutrition and is quite happy tucking into pizza, pasta and cookies. There’s hope for many another carb-happy 52 year old yet! She tells a similar story about her training schedule. It’s a story many working mothers can relate to – Suzie works in around the family and being flexible to adapt to sickness and afterschool activities is paramount. She says she actually finds that competition itself is the best intense training.

It is a simple statement of fact that in order to be any kind of successful athlete a person has to be dedicated. To be a female cyclist, that dedication has to be accompanied by a support network, a massive love for your sport and, usually, a second career to pay for it. As well as the support from her husband and children, Suzie Godart is a Physical Education teacher at a local school with students ranging from 6 to 12 years. She loves her job and says her principal aim is to give children the chance to discover the joy in physical activities. She hopes that she can help each child to believe in themselves and to reach their potential, even if, like her, they don’t realise that potential until later in life.

There have been some extraordinary highs and some deeply painful lows for Suzie over her career. One of the highlights of her career was in 1998 when she won her first Road Race National title, especially as she won Cyclocross and Mountainbike titles that year too. Her children had T-shirts made up saying

“Mummy Suzie you’ll win, we know you’ll win!”

Last year she got to stand on the cyclocross podium in Luxembourg with her daughter, Trixy, who is following in her footsteps, but has taken her own path to success. Other highlights include that national road race title in 2007 at the age of 45 and her subsequent selection by Team Fenix to ride the women’s Giro. But that was overshadowed by the death of teammate Liane Bahler in a car crash on her way to the airport. On stage 3 she received a phonecall to tell her of her mother’s death. Another painful memory was the death of Magali Pache – who was also involved in a car crash – at the Trophee d’Or in 2000. The death of young riders such as Amy Dombrowski and Annefleur Kalvenaar is something most in women’s cycling find very difficult to cope with:

“Especially in cyclocross we are so few riders that you feel like a huge family and it’s terrible if someone’s missing.”

So what does the future have in store?

“There were moments I wanted to stop. At the age of 40 I got a dog and thought about just walking him around, but it never lasted long until I felt like something was missing and started again. Finally I’m not racing for a federation, but for my pleasure and I just go on as long as I’m taking pleasure in what I’m doing and as I’m not ridiculizing myself.”

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© Cat Armour

As a teacher it won’t be difficult for Suzie to fill her time when she finally stops applying for a racing licence. She has always seen racing as a bonus; an opportunity to travel, meet people and enjoy riding. She was worried that her two children might have missed out on some aspects of family life because of her participation in cycling, but thankfully they feel quite the opposite. Not only did they feel they haven’t missed out, they feel they got to experience a lot of things that they would not have done otherwise. With daughter, Trixy, now participating in racing she won’t be far from the sport she loves. Though Trixy does not intend to make a career of cycling – she has other interests and is not ready to give up that life just for the bike. Sadly, should cyclocross ever be made an Olympic sport, there won’t be a Godart representing Luxembourg just yet.

However, it’s a sad state of affairs that the Luxembourg national champion rarely got the opportunity to actually race in her home country, on her home roads and it’s hardly surprising that those nations who field the most competitors are those with most races and the highest level of consideration for their riders. Take Belgium, for many the spiritual home of cyclocross – though for many years they didn’t recognise the women’s sport, they have more than made up for that oversight now. And the more races I go to the more I see local people recognising the women riders and taking them to their hearts. There are still some, like my friend at Koppenberg, who give their disparaging opinions freely, but mostly, as a dedicated fan of and advocate for the sport, what I see is acceptance of women’s racing and, more than that, respect for the riders’ athleticism, hard work, commitment and achievement. There is still a long way to go before the general crowds come to see women’s racing with the same excitement as the men’s, but then the men have had over 60 years head start – it’s hard to ride not just against your competitors but against 60 years of history.

© Cat Armour

Some fans love their sport, some fans are obsessed with it – and then there’s Cat Armour, who gave up her old life in New Zealand to travel the world attended bike races. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and doing so is highly recommended by Neutral Service for the excellent photos she takes.