by Jen See
Before 1984, there had never been a woman in the team caravan at the Giro d’Italia, or in fact, at any other major European race. But that year, Robin Morton travelled to Italy with the Gianni Motta team. Together with John Eustice, Morton had organized the program with the goal of sending an American-registered team to race in Europe. Morton did not set out to be a path-breaking figure in cycling, but she quickly became one. She was the first woman not only to ride in the Giro caravan, but also to manage a top-level men’s professional team.
Morton’s involvement with cycling began in the early 1980’s when her husband raced regularly with the Pennsylvania Bike Club. Morton tagged along to races, and before long, she was working out sponsorship deals for the club. There, she also met John Eustice. Eustice had recently returned to the U.S. from several years of racing in Europe and dreamed of putting together an American team to race the European circuit. “Not knowing any better, I got involved,” Morton explained with her characteristic dry humor.
The collaboration between Morton and Eustice led first to the GIOS team which débuted in 1983. The GIOS team competed in the Tour of America and included Belgian classics legend, Roger de Vlaeminck. Morton’s involvement in the sport steadily increased, and later that year, Morton managed the 7UP team during the well known Super Week races in Wisconsin. At the time, Morton worked for an architectural firm that did historical restorations. “They said to me, listen, you’re on the phone all the time, making all these calls, you need to decide what you want to do,” she recalled. She quit her job.
It was a risky move for Morton, then in her twenties. Together with Eustice, she formed a company called Bell Marketing with the goal of sending an American team to Europe. In 1984, they presented the Gianni Motta team. “It was kind of a crazy thing for me to do,” she said. “I’d been involved in racing, but certainly not to that extent.” Morton’s first race with the Gianni Motta team was the 1984 Giro d’Italia. She spoke no Italian and she had never been to a major bike race in Europe. To make things more challenging, there were few, if any, women working for top level cycling programs at the time in Europe. In the U.S., there was a nascent women’s racing circuit and there were some women working for major teams. The team structures were also more fluid. “You’d have guys’ wives and girlfriends in the feedzones and whatever,” Morton said. “While I was used to being with men, there were still women involved in the U.S. racing environment.” When Morton worked for U.S. teams, it was not especially unusual to interact with the riders, join them for dinner, and be in the thick of the team’s activities.
Not so in Europe, and it all made for an eye-opening experience. No woman had never ridden in the Giro caravan before Morton prompting team directors to hold a vote deciding if she could ride in the Gianni Motta team car behind the race. “I don’t know what I would have done if they’d said no!” she said. “They were just totally blown away that I was there.” Though later in her career Morton worked as a sports director and decided race tactics, she did not yet have that role at the Giro. Instead, she managed the business and organization of the team.
Despite Morton’s leadership role at the team, she was constrained by the boundaries of European cycling tradition. There was a strict divide between the riders and staff. “They wouldn’t even allow me to eat dinner with the team,” said Morton. The staff almost entirely spoke Italian, which left Morton with little to say. “After a while, I was like, forget this,” she said. “I went and sat with the riders at dinner. And that was a huge scandal!” Morton’s decision to sit down to dinner with the team challenged tradition and created resentment in some quarters.
That resentment was made manifest when the team sponsor’s wife took Morton to a beauty salon for a haircut. At the time, Morton had long, blonde hair. Morton sat down in the stylist’s chair and there was an exchange in Italian between the beautician and the sponsor’s wife that she did not understand. “I kid you not, when I left there, I looked like David Bowie in Ziggy Stardust!” To this day, Morton cringes at the sight of photos after her disastrous cut. “That was my retribution for being a woman traveling with the team.”
Bad haircut and all, Morton attracted attention in Italy. The media frequently interviewed her. Who was this boundary-crossing American? Most of the interviews were routine, but Morton recalls an exchange in particular, where the linguistic wires got crossed. After a series of questions about the Giro, a journalist from a left-wing newspaper asked her what she thought of the Pope. She answered that she hadn’t thought anything about him, because she was focused on the bike race. “And the paper — they called me La Morton — La Morton says she thinks nothing of the Pope!” she said. “It was this big thing!”
Morton’s Giro experience was not all scandal and misunderstanding. It was challenging, especially with the team’s tight budget and Morton’s inexperience with big-time racing, but there were days that she remembers fondly. While driving through one of the countless Italian towns on the Giro route, Morton sat in the passenger seat while Gianni Motta, the team owner, drove. “And somebody came right over to the car and opened the door, and gave me 200 roses.” There she sat in the team car, her lap overflowing with roses in the middle of the Giro. When Morton goes to Italy now, cycling people still remember her role with the Motta team. Morton still remembers the roses. Despite the challenges of the 1984 Giro, Morton remained in cycling. For the next five years, she managed a succession of teams that raced in both the United States and Europe.
In 1985, Morton’s Philadelphia Lasers team, sponsored by Rank Xerox and Benotto, was the first American team to compete in the Vuelta a España. In 1988, Roberto Gaggioli won the prestigious CoreStates championship for Morton’s Pepsi-Fanini team. Gaggioli came over to the U.S. from Italy in 1987. Racing on the American circuit suited him and he accumulated stack of victories. Gaggioli became one of Morton’s favorite riders. “He took his racing very seriously and he had more talent in one leg than most guys have in two legs,” she said. “Roberto is a little bit of an Italian hothead, but he was, actually with me, never a diva. Very, very talented.”
The Italian also won a stage of the 1987 Coors Classic in Reno. “There’s been no race since then that’s been like that,” said Morton. “You have the U.S. Pro Challenge, but the feel and showmanship of the Coors Classic has never been replicated.” The 1987 Coors Classic started in Hawaii, before passing through California and Nevada en route to the finish in Colorado. “That was a crazy trip!” For Morton’s team, the race got off to a nightmarish start when their bikes were delayed by two days. “That’s like every team’s nightmare,” she said. “The bikes didn’t show up until the day before the first stage. It was a bit challenging!” The race also had to be rerouted due to an erupting volcano. “You talk about every organizer’s nightmare! Not every organizer has to deal with rerouting the course, because of a volcano erupting!” Gaggioli’s stage win in Reno was a highlight for Pepsi-Fanini.
In 1989, Morton switched from working with teams to managing races. She took a job with David Chauner at Threshold Sports and eventually became technical director of the Philadelphia Classic, then the U.S. professional national championship race. “I’d been at enough races, so I knew that side of things,” she said. “It was a great leap of faith for [Threshold], because I’d never been on the event management side.” Morton also worked with Threshold at the now-legendary San Francisco Grand Prix that raced up the famously steep Filmore Street and the Atlanta Olympics.
After fifteen years with Threshold, Morton set off on her own. She now leads her own event management company, G4. With her G4 staff, Morton manages the technical details at races, charity rides and marathons. Initially, G4 intended to develop its own races, but Morton soon found that technical direction rather than sponsorship sales was her super power. “We just said we don’t need to own our own events,” she said. “We’ll let people hire us to run their events for them.”
As one of the pioneering women in cycling, Morton has seen her share of changes in the sport. “I think we’ve made amazing strides in racing,” said Morton. When Morton was involved in the early years of the Liberty Classic, she said they would bring women’s teams over from Europe. “Now we wouldn’t do that,” she said. “Women’s racing, the skill sets, the experience level, and the organization of the teams here are so much better than they used to be.”
All the same, Morton remains a unique figure. Though women own and manage many of the sport’s top-level women’s teams, “La Morton” stands virtually alone in having managed professional men’s teams. A woman in the Giro caravan would still be an unusual sight, which makes Morton’s accomplishments 25 years ago all the more significant. Though women’s racing is steadily growing, the roles for women in cycling remain limited.
“I didn’t know enough to say no,” said Morton of her decision to commit to managing the Gianni Motta team. Sometimes, change comes as a consequence of carefully laid plans. Other times, it turns on a spontaneous decision. Without thinking twice, Morton became a pioneer in cycling. She pushed forward, leading cycling in a culture unprepared for her presence, armed only with a level head, a persistent nature and (for a time) a David Bowie haircut.
Jen See is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Barbara, California. She contributes regularly to cycling publications such as Bicycling, Mountain Flyer, and VeloNews. Jen used to race mountain bikes, but now she surfs too much. She also has a Ph.D. in U.S. history. Her favorite food is espresso ristretto and all her bikes are blue. Catch up with her on Twitter.
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