October 24, 2018

An Undeniably Important Female Cycling Pioneer

For many people within the cycling community, the name Nora Young (1917 – 2016) may not sound familiar. Five decades before female cyclists were allowed to compete in the Olympics in the 1980’s, Nora was one of Toronto’s original female cycling pioneers who also excelled in multiple sports. Director Julia Morgan is currently working on a film called “Undeniably Young: Nora Young and the Six-Day Race” to raise awareness about Nora and the importance of women’s cycling history in general. She is raising funds to finish the film through an IndieGoGo campaign which runs until November 6. I spoke with Julia to get a better understanding of the film and Nora’s impact on women’s cycling.

What is “Undeniably Young”?

“Undeniably Young” is a short film focused on a historic event at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1936, where Nora was invited with five other women to do a demonstration race as part of the larger Six-Day Race. The style of the film is mostly animated; mixed with some archival imagery, video, and audio of Nora telling her own story through some interviews I did when Nora was 95. The animation is a creative and necessary choice which will provide a lot of freedom in telling a really fun story that will appeal to audiences of all ages. Aside from one photograph, there is no other visual documentation from this race; meaning I need to recreate what happened. The film will also shed light on the fact the 1930’s were considered a “golden age” for women’s sport in North America.

Why the Six Day Race?

Six-Day Races were the biggest live events of the 1930’s with as many as 15,000 people attending each night including politicians, film stars, gamblers, and everyone else. In the 1930’s, they involved male racers in teams of two on steeply banked velodrome tracks; each member in a team would take turns riding throughout the six days.
Nora Young in 1936 (via Julia Morgan)
What happened at the Six-Day Race Nora was in?

In an effort to sell tickets, the promoter wanted to invite women to participate and put out a call. Of the seventeen who applied, the top six female cyclists by skill level were selected for this special women’s race, including Nora and her cycling archrival Marjorie. It was one of the first times (if not the first) in Toronto where female cyclists competed on a banked track. They had to borrow men’s track racing bikes, which were too big for them and unfamiliar for a variety of other reasons, all of which contributed to a steep learning curve. Velodrome racing is already quite dangerous, so the fact that these women took this on having never tried it before says a lot about their fearlessness. There is still a plaque at Maple Leaf Gardens about this significant women’s race to this day.

What happened to Nora after the 1930’s and 1940’s?

Nora didn’t cycle for two decades after WWII; I think partly because she couldn’t afford a bike. She started again after she retired during the early 1970’s due to arthritis and discovered her arthritis didn’t bother her when she was riding. She rode her bike everywhere for transport and recreation as a senior (as she also did during her youth). She competed internationally in Masters events (also known as the “Seniors Olympics”) in the 1980’s and 90’s and won numerous cycling gold medals. Her athletic ability in her seventies even gave serious cyclists decades younger a run for their money; something late CBC broadcaster Stuart McLean found out when he biked 50 kilometres with Nora for a 1989 radio segment and still remembered very fondly when I contacted him 25 years later.

What challenges did female cyclists such as Nora face in the 1930’s – and how did Nora feel about them?

In terms of cycling competitions, there were a lot of races Nora couldn’t enter because women simply weren’t allowed in and in other times, she was the only woman in men’s races. It was amazing she took these on and usually, she was successful. There were other barriers she and other women would have faced. For example, there were unfounded claims about cycling being so strenuous it would prevent a woman from having children. There may have been a lot of excitement about female athletes in the 1930’s, but there certainly was discrimination as well.

When I spoke to Nora about those times, I found she didn’t focus on challenges or negativity. Instead, her approach seemed to be to laugh about things, or even more often, to pay them no attention and focus on what she loved to do. She almost didn’t seem to notice negativity or chose not to.

How did Nora encourage other women to bike?

Nora joined the Ontario Cycling Association’s “Cycling Women’s Committee” (CWC) in the early 1980’s when there was a big push to get more women cycling; competitively and for transportation and recreation. She was a mentor to a younger generation of female cyclists and cycling activists, and shared her experience of women’s early cycling history with them. She and other members of the CWC taught a number of “cycling freedom” courses to women in Toronto. They also fought for equality of opportunity. For example, men’s cycling races in the 1980’s would have cash prizes, while equivalent women’s races had prizes like bubble bath!

Why should Toronto’s cycling community check out “Undeniably Young”?

Nora was the original early Toronto female cyclist. What’s she’s done is amazing and all of us need to know our female cycling role models better. She laid the groundwork for women who came after her and my plan is for Nora’s story to raise the profile of women’s cycling; particularly with younger people. People should check it out because Undeniably Young is going to be just a really great story. The women’s race I’m documenting was exciting and full of surprises, including the performance of a daring 19-year-old named Nora, who was taking the 1930s cycling world by storm. I can’t wait to share it.

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I will sign off with this Nora Young cycling video, courtesy of Undeniably Young - an animated film-in-progress about Nora - which you can support here.


Ride on!
Rob Z (e-mail)

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