“I’m 66, I’m old. I know that I’ve lived a lot of years,” Maria Canins says, her crystal blue eyes sparkling. There is a punch line coming.
“But when I started to learn cross-country skiing, I was 25 [in 1974] and they told me I was old: it’s a sport for young people. So if I’m old, I’ve always been old!”
She was a fast learner, becoming the dominator of the domestic winter discipline for the next fifteen years and the first Italian to win the Vasaloppet, cross-country skiing’s oldest and longest race.
Canins was already 32 years old and married with a young daughter when she said yes to a call from the Italian cycling coach in 1982, asking the ski squad if they fancied taking up a summer sport.
Five months later, she placed second to Britain’s Mandy Jones at the World Championships road race in Goodwood; Canins reckons it was only the “fifth or sixth” race of her life. A natural talent, and then some.
Queen of the mountains
Canins was a climber: she had to be. She grew up in the Dolomite town of La Villa at 1,400 metres and spent her youth as a hotel cook. Her coinciding hobbies of skiing and cycling jarred with the prevailing attitude of the day.
“They were different times. The woman had to look after the house, stay at home and prepare the food. It was a bit more chauvinist,” she says. “It’s changed a lot, now women do a bit more what they want. It’s much better.”
To excel in one anaerobic sport is impressive; Canins juggled several with aplomb. In 1982, she was Italian national champion at cross-country skiing, mountain running, roller ski and road cycling.
On two wheels, Canins never shed a slight fear of racing in the bunch, but she was often uncontainable in the mountains. The Italian press dubbed her “Coppi in a Skirt”, “Maria the Beast” and, most famously, la Mamma Volante – the Flying Mother. She won the Tour de l’Aude, two Trofei Binda, the Tour of Colorado and the maiden women’s Giro d’Italia in 1988. Often, she claimed her stage victories solo.
“Now in cycling, they race with those earpieces. The manager or trainer says ‘attack now!’ I didn’t have that. I rode or attacked as I felt in my legs,” she says. “Sometimes it came off, sometimes I raced badly – I threw away some nice races like that – but I like it that way. I always enjoyed myself: win or lose, I had fun.”
Tour champ by 22 minutes
Canins made her name at the Tour Féminin, the women’s Tour de France. Inaugurated in 1984, the three-week format consisted of short, sharp stages over the latter parts of the men’s route, several hours before them.
Despite negligible prize money – the 1985 edition pot was £18,000, which doesn’t go very far when you consider there were 80 competitors and 18 stages – and tricky logistics, it serves as a reminder of what is possible for the contemporary race, taking the competitors up many of the sport’s iconic climbs, like the Izoard and Galibier.
“We had so many crowds and it was more of a party, there was more colour, it had more importance,” Canins says.
Although Canins missed the first edition due to the coinciding Los Angeles Olympics, she won the Tour in 1985 and 1986, destroying her rivals in the Alps and Pyrenees. She claimed her first title by 22 minutes over Jeannie Longo, the Frenchwoman who would become her closest rival, and took five stages along the way.
After a winning margin of nine minutes at Luz Ardiden on a 53-kilometre stage that included the Col du Tourmalet, she remarked of the Pyrenean giant: “I thought it would be harder. Some of our passes in the Dolomites are more difficult.”
Longo, ten years more junior, got the better of Canins in 1987 after a ding-dong battle and narrowly beat her in the subsequent two editions too.
Though into her fifth decade by the start of the Nineties, age didn’t slow Canins down or stop her enthusiasm. Equipped with a natural fascination, Canins was grateful that the sport took her to places like Japan and the USA. “Cycling opened my eyes, it gave me a knowledge of the world … you see the country exactly how it is, the road just how it is, how the people live in this place because they don’t change for people passing on a bike, they continue with their lives.”
Canins is simple in the best sense of the word. She was a hard competitor, but is also a gentle soul who enjoys getting out on in her native mountains and being in communion with nature.
This woman for all seasons eventually retired from cycling in 1995 at the age of 46. Over twenty years on, she still runs, skis and cycles in her dazzling Dolomite back yard. She takes tourists out on loops and regularly gets the better of competitors half her age on the Maratona delle Dolomiti short ride. Not bad for a self-confessed old lady.
Originally published in Rouleur 17.3