Book Review: Queens of Pain - Legends and Rebels of Women's Cycling

Within the first two pages of Queens of Pain – Legends and Rebels of Women’s Cycling, you are outraged; the tone of quiet, simmering rage, and a matter-of-fact delivery sets a precedent for what you are about to read.

Author Isabel Best says, quite simply: “Women’s cycling gets such scant mentions in cycling literature you’d be forgiven for thinking it had no history”.

Best’s book sets the record straight. What follows a punchy and engaging introduction, are stories of glories, victories, rivalries and extraordinary feats of human endeavour, stories of trailblazers, rebels, record-breakers, and legends of our sport, lost to the fragile ego of the patriarchy and officialdom. Forgotten, ignored, erased from history. But not anymore.

Each chapter is dedicated to one of these astonishing women, such as Alfonsina Strada who remains the only woman in history to ride a men’s Grand Tour, completing the Giro d’Italia in 1924, or Brit Marguerite Wilson, the endurance record-breaker who “put women’s cycling on the map”, her achievements ensuring the ruling establishment “things would no longer be the same”.

And what about Eileen Sheriden who broke all 21 distance and place to place records? Five still stand today.

Millie Robinson was the first British woman to win the “Tour de France”, 57 years before Bradley Wiggins, before the UCI voted against another edition of the race. L’Equipe celebrated this decision, applauding their “good sense”.

And then there is Elsy Jacobs, who won the first ever women’s world road race championships, despite the Luxembourg Federation refusing to give her a racing license at the start of her career.

No book on women’s cycing would be complete without paying tribute to the legendary Beryl Burton, the greatest ever female rider, who won close to 1000 races, including 96 national titles and seven world titles. She also regularly beat men, most notably in her mythic 12 hour time trial record, where she beat the women’s and men’s standards.

Then there are the “firsts” in the 80s - Audrey McElmury, the first American to win a world championship road race, but relatively uncelebrated and forgotten, “ice Queen” Connie Carpenter-Phinney, the first American to win an Olympic road race and winner of the inaugural women’s race, and Marianne Martin, winner of the inaugural women’s Tour de France in 1984.

The book draws to a close at the professionalism of women’s cycling in the early 1990s, after breathlessly recounting the epic rivalry between Jeannie Longo and Maria Canins at the Tour de France.

It took me several days to get through the book. I became lost in the words, the chapters, the snapshots of history unknown. I regularly put it down to exclaim in surprise, in anger, in awe, to read sections out loud, to make notes on another unbelievable performance, or another obstacle put in front of these women by the very federations who should have been enabling their sport. It lit a fire within me, inspired and outraged in equal measure.

This book should be read by commentators, journalists, broadcasters, cycling fans, sports fans, and anyone who firmly believes women’s cycling is not exciting enough, female riders are not good enough. It should be on every school curriculum in the country. These are the heroines teenage girls (and boys) should be looking up to - the tenacity, fearlessness, ambition, and determinations are inspiring.

Best tells stories in such vivid detail you feel as though you were there, roadside, trackside, on the bike alongside these women. Their achievements would be remarkable in 2018, but are all the more jaw-dropping given the prejudices, misogyny and obstacles they faced throughout history. Even in 1984, Inga Thompson was told by Olympic champion Alexi Grewal that women shouldn’t be on a bike.

Women’s cycling has a rich history, but one which has been lying dormant for years. Best has brought the legends of women’s cycling back to life and made sure they will not be forgotten again.

Queens of Pain – Legends and Rebels of Women’s Cycling, will be available to buy from Friday 19th October with Rapha. This blog was originally posted over on Voxwomen