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Tales from the peloton, May 29, 2009
Sister in cycling: Morton at the 1984 Giro
When Robin Morton, a blonde, American, female team manager, showed up at the 1984 Giro d'Italia not everyone in that male-dominated scene greeted her with open arms. Morton reflected on the "profound, terrifying and exhilarating experience" in which she was kidnapped, misquoted and harassed with Cyclingnews' Susan Westemeyer.
Robin Morton, now in her early 50s, started her involvement with cycling causally helping with the management of the Pennsylvania Bike Club. She moved her way up to managing a professional team, although she was still working full-time at her 'day job'. In 1983 she made the cut and went to cycling management as her sole job.
Morton registered the first American professional road race team in 1984, making her the first woman ever to own and manage a men's professional team. Her Gianni-Motta-Linea MD team was also the first United States of America-based team to enter the Giro.
Behind the scenes
As American pioneers at the Giro, it was never going to be easy for the squad, but the riders found it easier than the manager did. While the Giro had come a long way since only inviting Italians to compete at one point during the 1940s, while the country was under fascist rule, the concept of a female team director struck a nerve.
"Women had never been allowed in the caravan," said Morton. "I was under a microscope, the entire time we were there."
There was a price with wanting to be a pioneer. First on the list was a haircut, which was not entirely voluntary. "I was told that I needed to get my very long hair cut so I did not look so feminine," she said. "Someone from the team took me to a salon and gave the stylist instructions [in Italian]. I left there looking like David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust phase."
Even then, she was not exactly heartily welcomed. Before every stage, the riders would get coffee from the trailer of race sponsor Rancilio. The team managers were allowed inside, everyone else had to get their coffee at a window and stay outside.
One morning Morton was invited inside by Riccardo Magrini, captain of the Meaturmobili team, she noted. "I went in and all of the other team captains were inside and they presented me with a 'bouquet' of vegetables made to look like male genitals," she said.
It was a big jump, going from small US races to one of the Grand Tours. Even the press was difficult, or at least different, but some of those experiences were positive. "I still have newspaper clippings from La Gazzetta where I made the front page," said Morton. "The journalist - Angelo Zomegnan (now the organiser of the Giro - Ed.) - and I fast became friends as he saw that it was a unique opportunity to write about the first American team with a woman director.
"I was interviewed by a journalist from l'Unita, which was a left leaning newspaper that was owned by the Italian Communist party," added Morton. "In very bad Italian/English combo he asked about my thoughts on the race, who I thought would win. He then asked me what was my opinion of the Pope."
Concentrating on cycling and the issues already raised by her squad's presence at the Giro, the question caught her off-guard. "I was not prepared for the question and I answered something like, 'Gee, I do not know, I was not thinking about the Pope now'," said Morton.
While the question and answer seemed straight forward, Morton was shocked when a friend translated the paper's headline. "When I read the paper the next day, it said 'Robin Morton thinks nothing of the Pope'," she said.
The whole experience came to a head when Morton's team kidnapped her in an effort to force her to stay at the Giro. She had been planning on informing the riders that the situation had become unbearable and that she was heading home, but her riders had other ideas.
"We were having some difficulties with getting paid from our sponsor," she said. "I had maxed out my credit cards and had reached my limit [financially and mentally]. [Eventually I had] a falling out with our sponsor over money and the management of the team.
"I decided to pack it in and head home, leaving the team in the hands of my Italian counterparts," she added. "Because I was a woman with the first American team it generated a lot of publicity for the sponsors. For that reason they did not want me to leave. I was determined to go home and told my husband [that I was going to leave]."
She met with the riders in the hotel lobby to inform them of her decision, while her husband waited in the hotel room for her return. But Morton never came back.
"The team personnel picked me up and carried me out to the team car, locked the doors and whisked me off to the start of the race," she said. "My husband finally came downstairs and asked the hotel reception desk, 'Have you seen my wife?' 'Oh yes, they just carried her out to the car.'
"Needless to say, my husband was very pissed off," added Morton. "He had been asked previously to drive the sponsor's sport convertible to the stage finish. He parked the car and then disabled it so it would not start for the sponsor the next morning. Ultimately, the sponsor and I declared a truce and I stayed through the finish of the Giro."
In the race
Her 1984 Giro squad was composed of Americans Mike Carter, Dan Franger, Karl Maxon, John Eustice, Greg Saunders, and Tim Rutledge, rounded out by Claude Michely (Luxembourg), Rudi Weber (Germany) and Guy Janisewsky (Belgium).
Maxon was a time-trial specialist who represented the team especially well at the Giro. "On the fourth stage, from Bologna to Numana, Karl was in a solo breakaway for 217 km," said Morton. "He got caught about 20km before the finish. At that time I think it was one of the longest solo breakaways in the history of the Giro."
He also shone in the closing time trial. His impressive placing came despite being at a technological disadvantage to his rivals at the time.
"Disc wheels were the new thing and all of the teams had them at the Giro, except of course ours," said Morton. "Karl finished 13th in the final time trial without the benefit of any special aero equipment."
The 1984 Giro was known for its duel between Francesco Moser and Laurent Fignon. The two were the only riders to wear the maglia rosa for the whole race, with Fignon in pink for six days and Moser wearing it the rest of the time.
"The final stage was a time trial that ended in the Coliseum in Verona," Morton said. "It was packed and of course everyone wanted Moser to win. It was alleged that the TV helicopters helped Moser in the TT."
The Italian won the stage and the Giro. But there was even more controversy surrounding that year's favourites, according to Morton.
"It was a controversial race that year because of this and because the most difficult stage to Selva Val Garden was eliminated, not because of the snow, but so Moser would not lose time," she said.
A quarter of a century later, Morton is pleased with her efforts all those years ago. Even though she had planned on leaving mid-race, Morton is glad her team persuaded her otherwise.
"When I reflect on it now, even the unpleasant parts are memorable and I would not change anything," she said.
See also The feminine touch.
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here
Images by Robin Morton
Images by La Gazzetta dello Sport