At last…a book about women’s cycling! And not a moment too soon, given the increasing interest in this aspect of the sport over recent years. And Suze Clemitson (known as @festinagirl on Twitter) is clearly the right person to write it, having penned a good e-book about the Tour de France (100 Tours, 100 Tales) and written features about cycling for the Guardian.
But Ride The Revolution isn’t quite the book I thought it would be. I had expected to read the history of women’s cycling, some in-depth analysis of the current state of women’s pro cycling and the challenges it faces, and some ideas about how it might move forward. All told through the stories of riders, journalists, and administrators past and present.
However this book doesn’t really do that, and doesn’t really aim to do that. The problem is that I’m not really sure what it does do. It is split into sections — the pioneers, the riders, the service course, the media, the administrators, the campaigners, and the women who ride — each one with a number of personal stories. This is more of an anthology than anything else.
The pioneers section is good, but only includes two stories (Beryl Burton and Mein van Bree). On the back cover of the book there is a mention of Alfonsina Strada’s extraordinary Giro d’Italia in 1924, but there is no mention in the book. Nor of Billie Flemming or Eileen Gray.
The section on riders is mostly rather dull, I’m afraid. Personally, I’m only really interested in riders if they have extraordinary stories to tell, and most of these are not terribly exciting (I was a tom-boy, I raced my brother’s bike in a local race, I won, I got picked up by a team, I won some more).
In the service course section there are pieces about Emma O’Reilly and Hannah Grant, both of whom have already received plenty of coverage elsewhere over the years and who don’t really tell us much we don’t already know. And the administrators section includes Rochelle Gilmore, racer-turned-team-owner, and Tracy Gaudry, UCI Vice-President. Neither of these chapters are particular captivating, and Gilmore especially could have shed some light on the problems women’s cycling faces. But she doesn’t. And all we get from Gaudry is impenetrable management-speak beloved of people who spend far too much time on committees and far too little time actually doing anything. It’s a shame, because they should both have interesting things to say.
In the media section we have Sarah Connolly who does an excellent women’s cycling podcast (with a very annoying co-host). But instead of talking to her about her work, we just get a few examples of her rider interviews instead. The piece about Laura Meseguer is more interesting, if only for the questions it doesn’t ask. Such as: do you think your father’s senior position at Spain’s leading news agency helped you get a job there? And do you think you’d be on our screens, having had no experience of pro cycling prior to 2014, if you didn’t look like this:
The campaigners section includes Betsy Andreu, who when asked about Armstrong’s doping responds with “You want me to talk about it again? The detail of that is out there.” That’s rather what I thought, too. The piece by Clara Hughes on the mental and physical dangers of pro cycling is a good read, and so too is the chapter by Kimberley Rampling, which does actually touch on some of the problems women’s pro cycling faces (prize money, sponsorship, coverage, etc). It’s the best piece in the book, albeit too brief to go into any real depth.
Anna Doorenbos’ piece about trying to buy cycling gear for plus-size women is heartbreaking, and I can’t even begin to imagine the difficulties involved. But sadly the problem comes down to simple economics…there just aren’t that many size 18 women out there who want cycling kit, so the manufacturers don’t make it.
I think the main problem with this book is the expectations I brought to it. I thought it would be something different. Having listened to Sarah Connolly’s podcasts berating race organisers for their shambolic efforts to arrange women’s races, I expected this book to address some of those concerns.
Take the case of the Tour de Languedoc-Roussillon in 2013, won by Emma Pooley. It was cancelled at the last minute, then reinstated moments before the start after several teams had already gone home. Pooley described: “Frequent last-minute changes of accommodation, which is a nightmare for anti-doping whereabouts; poor quality accommodation; campsites of varying cleanliness; no proper addresses for race starts… It was all highly frustrating.”
Often women racers are sleeping on campbeds in school halls, showering in car-parks, being fed terrible food by the organisers, and are expected to do all this for €100 prize money and no coverage for their sponsors. There are often examples of cars getting onto the parcours mid-race, and sometimes the roads are reopened while some of the back-markers are still racing. These are the sorts of things that are routine for the women, and which would cause uproar in the men’s peloton if it happened to them.
So while I quite enjoyed Ride The Revolution, for me it didn’t really hit the mark and I still think there’s room for a book that takes a more serious (and angry) analytical approach to how women’s cycling should move forward.
Ride The Revolution is published by Bloomsbury, priced £16.99.