A hilly course: How female cyclists have kept overcoming obstacles in their path

In order to read a book on the history of women in cycling, Hannah Ross had to write one
A hilly course: How female cyclists have kept overcoming obstacles in their path

Revolutions: How Women Changed the World on Two Wheels is a book placing women at the centre of the cycling story.

When it came to writing her book, Hannah Ross co-opted the old Disraeli line on novels.

In order to read a book on the history of women in cycling, Ross had to write one. “There are biographies of women cyclists, or books of cycling history with chapters on women, or on the enthusiasm with which women picked up cycling in the 19th century - but not a book placing women at the centre of the cycling story.” 

Ross has changed that with Revolutions: How Women Changed the World on Two Wheels, which is out now. Ross’s terrific book does just what that subtitle promises, unfurling a story that ranges from political emancipation to solo exploration.

And which points out some less edifying elements along the way. How the sport of cycling influences the pastime of cycling, for instance.

“It’s obvious to me that fewer women cycle than men,” says Ross.

“Why is that?

“There are many reasons, but look at a race like the Tour de France and it’s a men-only event.

“That’s the kind of narrative we talk about when it comes to cycling - men battling for weeks to cycle across France, a narrative which overlooks facts such as cycling’s emergence hand in hand with the movement for female emancipation.

“Women have been fighting prejudice around cycling from then and they still do, particularly in professional cycling, where they’re asking for more opportunities, better pay and more exposure. So that’s an ongoing story, but I also wanted the book to be positive, to shine the spotlight on women who haven’t had that much exposure over the year because of that traditional focus on male cycling.” 

In that context, she points out that it’s not all negative: mountain biking and cyclocross, for instance, are a little better for women than road racing. 

“It’s complicated - from talking to those involved in cycling sports it looks partly to do with the fact that there’s so much money in road cycling, it makes that a difficult sport to change - and there seems to be little will to change it. 

"For the book I spoke to Helen Wyman, who’s now retired but who did amazing work to make cyclocross a more equal sport, and now it is.

“She secured coverage for women’s races and from there everything’s changed - the prize money changed, the types of races, and women’s cyclocross is pretty much the same as men’s.

“In terms of viewership, in mountain biking in particular some of the women’s races are as popular as men’s races.

“In road cycling that’s not the case, but again, go back to the dominance of an event like the Tour de France. It’s a joke that they offer women one small race (La Course, the women’s version of the Tour, is a one-day race). Every year there’s talk that that’ll change but I don’t think it’ll happen this year either.

“By contrast the Giro d’Italia is a significant road race for women, it certainly was in terms of length - but the prize money is an absolute joke, and you can’t watch it anywhere.

“How can you change people’s perception if these events don’t have any visibility?” 

Author Hannah Ross: “In the history of professional cycling it’s interesting that women were racing in the 1880s and 1890s, and were very keen on continuing to race, but they were continually excluded by the main racing authorities, who held the keys to professional racing"
Author Hannah Ross: “In the history of professional cycling it’s interesting that women were racing in the 1880s and 1890s, and were very keen on continuing to race, but they were continually excluded by the main racing authorities, who held the keys to professional racing"

What doesn’t help is the kind of attitude perpetuated by the likes of Jacques Anquetil when he said cycling was too difficult for women - an echo of the long opposition to including a marathon for women in the Olympics for similar reasons?

“I think so, but a lot of female pro riders don’t want to do the entire Tour de France either. I think it’s more the symbolic thing, the size of the disparity, and the fact that the will isn't there among the organisers to change that.

“The Giro Rosa (the female version of the Giro d’Italia) is ten days - that’s probably quite a nice length - but the ‘women aren’t up to it’ idea goes all the way back to the 19th century, when people believed that women over-exerting themselves on bicycles would end up mentally or physically damaged.

“Something that was often said then was that cycling would make women infertile, a serious situation given that having children was seen at that time as a woman’s main purpose in life.” 

Looping back to the start of the conversation, have we forgotten just how liberating the bicycle was to women - and men - when it became widely used late in the 1800?

“Absolutely, and it’s very hard for us now to imagine what that was like for people - it was revolutionary for everybody who could afford a bicycle, which was most people by the end of the nineteenth century.

“It was life-changing for people. You’re talking about a time when some people rarely left their home villages, but with a bicycle they could travel to the next village, or the village beyond, and meet new people.

“For women in particular, that freedom of movement was even more significant than for men, because in general women had less freedom than men in all aspects of their lives. Most women couldn’t pursue higher education or hold down many jobs - even their clothes at that point in time were restrictive and designed to stop them moving freely.

“So when you suddenly had this reasonably cheap object which could transport them to other places, with very little effort - then we can’t underestimate the impact that had.

“And that sense of freedom was increased by the physical sensation of cycling itself, with people travelling through the air at a faster speed than many of them had ever travelled before. It was thrilling.” 

Hence the importance of reclaiming the image of cycling for everyone.

“For a lot of people that image of cycling is the Tour de France, a race made up largely of white men,” says Ross.

“In the history of professional cycling it’s interesting that women were racing in the 1880s and 1890s, and were very keen on continuing to race, but they were continually excluded by the main racing authorities, who held the keys to professional racing. These women petitioned and pushed for professional cycling to be acknowledged, which happened in 1955 - but it still took until 1984 for women’s cycling to be included in the Olympic Games, which wasn’t that long ago.

“The lack of women cycling in Britain, though, is predominantly about safety. Our roads just aren’t safe - certainly compared with somewhere like Holland, which worked hard to make cycling safe for people. On top of that, women are much more concerned with safety than men.

“So those two things combine. If you don't see people who look like you represented in cycling you won’t be as interested, and if you do then it doesn’t seem very safe when you look around.

“I cycle everywhere and I’m constantly asked if it’s safe.” 

*Revolutions: How Women Changed the World on Two Wheels by Hannah Ross (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, €19 approx)

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