It’s different for girls

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:

lauram.jpg

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.

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Don’t listen to them…they’re idiots!

Climbs and Punishment, by Felix Lowe, published by Corgi, £9.99

This isn’t a particularly new book, but it does serve to illustrate one very important point…don’t ever buy anything based solely on Amazon customer reviews. Why? Because they’re clearly all idiots.

Of the 34 reviews on the UK Amazon site for this book, 28 people give it five stars, three people give it four stars, and three people give it three stars or fewer. Interestingly, of those 28 five-star reviews, only 16 are verified purchases. For what it’s worth, here’s my review from Amazon:

Climbs and Punishment can be summed up thusly: “Hello I’m Felix and I’m a world-famous cycling blogger with a world famous cycling blog and column in a cycling magazine and I’m truly awesome and despite never having ridden a bike before I rode across Europe better than all the other idiots who were cycling with me. I also ate a lot of food and fantasised about all the nice things the other people were thinking about me and I have a fabulous cycling physique and know lots of very famous cyclists. Did I mention that I’m a famous cycling writer? Anyway despite being a cycling arriviste it turns out that I’m completely brilliant at riding a bike despite being incredibly old and I’m really great mates with Greg Lemond and then I cycled up a famous mountain in southern Europe and retold all the old cycling stories we’ve all read a million times in other people’s books. Did I mention my slender cycling physique? And then I threw in a few paragraphs here and there about the 2nd Punic War and rode really fast with some Australians and I could have been a pro racer if I’d taken up cycling earlier and I even managed to tell everyone that my family discovered Tuscany long before Tony Blair went there for his holidays. Did I mention my column in Cyclist magazine? Ow, my knees hurt.”

I wanted to like this book (I like history, food and cycling), but couldn’t get past Felix’s egotistical self-satisfaction and his superior attitude to his fellow travelers. At times the self-congratulatory tone is toe-curlingly awful. The writing style is mostly OK, but he’s no Tim Moore or Ned Boulting. I think part of the problem is that Felix embarked on this trip specifically in order to get a book out of it. But nothing much happened, so it’s not much of a book. Try “French Revolutions” or “Gironimo” by Tim Moore…they are so much better.

Anyway, my point is that despite being a not very good book, it scores a total of 4.5 out of 5.0 stars. So clearly I am wrong about this book. Am I fuck! It’s a nice idea done not very well by someone with a very high opinion of themselves. I kept on reading it, not because I particularly enjoyed it but because I wanted to see if Felix was going to spontaneously combust in a cloud of amour-propre. I suspect if Felix could have turned himself into one of the sickly desserts he describes in his book, he probably would have done…so that he could gobble himself up. Yum yum yum.

But the fact is that most reviewers, for whatever reason, thought it was marvelous. Which makes me wonder about all the other reviews on Amazon. And once you start to delve, you realise that people give one-star reviews to things simply because Amazon sent the wrong colour, or because the postman lost it, or any number of moronic reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the product itself. At least one review for this book is from someone who bought it for their dad as a present, who said he liked it (as opposed to telling your kid that you didn’t like it). But the good news is that the cycling book-buying public will buy, and enjoy, practically anything cycling related, which bodes well for my forthcoming book about the history and development of the quill stem, entitled Stem Sell Theranostics (Rotherham University Press, £49.95).