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Queens of Pain, by Isabel Best

Valda Unthank and Hubert Opperman in 1939. Both were sponsored by Barry Smalls, whose Malvern Star company had been behind sending Opperman to the Tour de France in 1928 Tour (a story partly told in David Coventry’s novel ‘The Invisible Mile’). As he had
Valda Unthank and Hubert Opperman in 1939. Both were sponsored by Barry Smalls, whose Malvern Star company had been behind sending Opperman to the Tour de France in 1928 Tour (a story partly told in David Coventry’s novel ‘The Invisible Mile’). As he had with Opperman, Smalls used Unthank and others to set distance and place-to-place records, as publicity for his range of bikes and chain of bike shops.

Title: Queens of Pain – Legends and Rebels of Cycling
Author: Isabel Best
Publisher: Rapha Editions, in association with Bluetrain Publishing
Year: 2018
Pages: 240
Order: Rapha
What it is: Twenty-something cycling icons, all of them women, each of them with a story as inspirational as you’ll find anywhere else in bike racing’s long history
Strengths: Like Herbie Sykes, you get the feeling that Best cares about these riders as people, they’re not just the source of bike-bound myths and legends, they exist in the real world, where things like being a parent can’t just be ignored in the way they are in stories from elsewhere in cycling’s history
Weaknesses: As always with these things, part of the fun is arguing over the choices, who missed out and who shouldn’t have got in

Word may have reached some of you at this stage that Bradley Wiggins – winner of the Tour de France in 2012, current holder of the Hour record, and author of multiple books reviewed on the Café Bookshelf – has published a new book, Icons, a paean in praise of twenty-one cyclists who rocked his world when he was a kid first falling in love with the sport. It will come as no surprise at all that his is a testosterone-fuelled selection, that every one of his chosen riders are men.

Did they have to be? Is it a case that, twenty-five years ago, when Wiggins was a thirteen-year-old kid from Kilburn drawing inspiration from the feats of others, there were no female cyclists with the palmarès or the panache to fire his fuse?

Consider this: Isabel Best’s selection of twenty-something riders to include in Queens of Pain - Legends & Rebels of Cycling is drawn from a century of cycling, the 1890s through to the 1990s. Her picks include six riders who, between them, set and reset the Hour record sixteen times. They include two Olympic champions. Eight world champions, whose haul of Benetton-coloured rainbow jumpers runs to seventeen in the individual pursuit, fifteen on the road, two on mountain bikes, one in the points race and a couple at masters level. There’s one veteran of the Giro di Lombardia and the Giro d’Italia. There’s another who took part in the invite-only Grand Prix des Nations, once the unofficial world championships of time trialling. There’s another who rode the Derby of the Road, Bordeaux-Paris, once considered one of the Monuments.

You want to move beyond palmarès and talk panache? There’s a couple of style icons to rival Coppi and Koblet for effortless cool and leave the Modfather looking like he’s trying too hard. Look at Evelyn Hamilton and Marguerite Wilson, two record-breaking long-distance stars of the thirties – an era when long-distance record-breaking was en vogue – and who were taking on records that had once been the domain of riders like the Australian Tour de France star Hubert Opperman.

Marguerite Wilson and Evelyn Hamilton
Riding in the 1930s Marguerite Wilson (left, pictured during her LEJOG ride in 1939) and Evelyn Hamilton (right, at the start of her LEJOG ride in 1935) were part of the craze for long-distance record-breaking that was a mainstay of the sport outside of its traditional European heartlands, knocking off records from 1,000 to 10,000 miles, or place-to-place records like Lands End to John o’ Groats (LEJOG). And like cycling in its European heartlands, Wilson and Hamilton were to the fore in dragging cycling’s image into a new age of effortless cool, helping the sport escape the image of the vagabonds of the road that had once been central to the myth of the sport.

You want riders to inspire you? Try Elsy Jacobs who, in 1958, became the first woman to officially be crowned a World Champion, winning the road race in Reims, pushing into second place the first woman to have an Hour record officially recognised by the UCI, Tamara Novikova. Jacobs’s path to victory was far from easy, she didn’t just have to beat the might of the USSR – Novikova’s team-mate Mariya Lukshina finished third – but she was also fighting against the cycling establishment. She won the right to wear the rainbow jumper at a time when her own national federation, Luxembourg, still wasn’t convinced women deserved the right to call themselves national champions. Try and imagine how much of a head wreck that must have been, to be crowned champion of the world while being barred from earning the right to call yourself champion of a little Grand Duchy. But Jacobs somehow prospered in this weird world and could rival Jacques Anquetil in her ability to get the better of race organisers:

She was so popular with race organisers that she had a regular income from racing, which was quite unheard of in women’s cycling at the time. She was a notoriously tough negotiator, good at extracting decent attendance fees. On one occasion she persuaded a promoter to pay top billing for her friend Jeannette Augusto, who she claimed was the Portuguese national champion. Never mind the fact that Portugal didn’t have a national championships for women, or that Augusto, despite her Portuguese roots, was as French as they came.

You want from your icons that they come with a history that stretches back to the very beginning of it all? Earlier this month we celebrated a century and a half since what is generally accepted to have been the first women’s bicycle race, an event that took place in Bordeaux in November 1868 a few months after the mythical Parc St Cloud races that are usually Year One for bike racing’s history. For most of the hundred-fifty years since, however, cycling’s governing bodies simply have not recognised women’s right to race. It was 1955 before the UCI first accepted women could break records, recognising among other things the Hour record, which women had been breaking since 1893. It was 1958 before women were allowed to compete for World Championships. It was 1984 before women were welcomed at the Olympics, initially only on the road, not allowed on the track until 1988 and only gaining access to the same number of events as men in 2012.

The struggle for recognition has been a constant since that first race in Bordeaux, it’s a story that has to be told alongside all the exploits on the road and the track, cannot be separated from those stories. Look at the case of Tillie Anderson in the 1890s, winner of dozens of Six Day races at a time when her own national federation refused to countenance the idea of women racing bicycles. In all of the history of men’s cycling there’s only one rider we talk about as having faced a similar struggle for recognition: Major Taylor. And yet in the history of women’s cycling, this is such an everyday story that we’ve almost become inured to.

Tillie Anderson
The story of Tillie Anderson has been told recently by Roger Gilles in ‘Women on the Move’ and before that in Sue Stauffacher’s ‘Tillie the Terrible Swede’. Despite this, and despite having been inducted into the US Bicycling Hall of Fame in 2000, Anderson’s story is still barely known today, even though her success in Sixes leaves Patrick Sercu looking like a dilettante.

On and off the bike, the riders selected by Best for Queens of Pain have had to show a level of determination and commitment to rival anything else you can find in cycling history. Consider the story of Lubow Kotchetova. She had just turned twelve when German forces laid siege to her home city of Leningrad and set about wiping it from the face of the earth. A million and a half people died in the siege. Kotchetova survived the flight from the city and the thousand kilometre journey to the edge of Siberia in a cattle truck. When the siege was lifted she survived the thousand kilometres back. That’s enough to put her up there with Fausto Coppi and his time as a prisoner of war in North Africa and his journey home up the length of the Italian peninsula.

Aged nineteen, after having taken up cycling the year before, Kotchetova became a champion of the USSR. That’s the USSR, the union of fifteen soviet socialist republics, representing 200 million citizens. She was a track prodigy, at home in the sprint, the kilo and the individual pursuit. Her husband was also a Soviet champion, they were the Laura and Jason Kenny of their day, a golden couple. The right to race for a rainbow jumper was still most of a decade away, the right to ride in the Olympics a lifetime beyond, but still she was a hero across the Soviet Union.

In 1953, her career hit a speed bump:

She was at the national championships in Moscow and had already won the 3,000m pursuit and was in the final in the sprint. Lubow’s rival was another woman from Tula called Lubow Rasouvayeva. They were at top speed, in the final convulsive moment of the race when Rasouvayeva touched Lubow’s wheel when she was least expecting it. She lost control of her bike and came down hard, catapulted at high velocity onto the unforgiving concrete. She lay unconscious, her face drained of all colour. Blood began to trickle from her ears. [Her husband] Evgeniy could not revive her. Much later, at the hospital, he learned her skull was badly fractured, and told to prepare for the worst: she would die within a week. Vasily Stalin himself worked the phones to get her the best doctors, but the city’s top surgeons could only agree that her situation was hopeless.

Five years later, in September 1958, Kotchetova was on the track of the Parc des Princes, in the final of the first individual pursuit World Championships for women. For six months after the accident she hadn’t been able to stand up, let alone walk. But two years after the accident Kotchetova had regained her crown at the national championships. She wasn’t what she used to be, the accident had taken the sprint and the kilo away from her, but she still had the pursuit. And on an end-of-summer Wednesday evening in Paris, Kotchetova became the first woman to officially be crowned IP world champion.

The history of women’s cycling is poorly represented on the Café Bookshelf. Out of 400-something cycling books I’ve written about over the last eight or nine years barely ten per cent offer any real insight into it. (The Tour de France? It was already past one hundred books five years ago.) Beryl Burton’s story has made it into maybe a dozen books I’ve reviewed, covered in miscellanies and general histories. Alfonsina Strada is probably the next most talked about rider, cropping up in eight or nine books, most of them Giro histories.

But even without the book publishing world recognising their achievements, I’d guess that of Best’s selection probably half the names should be familiar to most. Women’s cycling history, it’s not a hopeless story. Riders like Connie Carpenter-Phinney and Jeannie Longo, they’re not totally forgotten. Marianne Martin, she’s getting as much recognition in the last few years as she did when she won the Tour Fém in the 1980s.

Lyli Herse
Lyli Herse, one of Isabel Best’s Queens of Pain. The others are Tille Anderson, Hélène Dutrieux, Alfonsina Strada, Evelyn Hamilton, Marguerite Wilson, Doreen Middleton, Billie Samuel, Joyce Barry, Valda Unthank, Pat Hawkins, Eileen Sheridan, Millie Robinson, Elsy Jacobs, Beryl Burton, Yvonne Reynders, Lubow Kotchetova, Audrey McElmury, Bella Hage, Keetie Hage, Ciska Hage, Heleen Hage, Connie Carpenter-Phinney, Marianne Martin, Maria Canins, Jeannie Longo, and Inga Thompson

For the most part, the stories of Best’s Queens of Pain have been passed from one generation to the next in scrapbooks more often than they have been in autobiographies, biographies or general histories. This unfortunate truth has inspired the design of Queens of Pain, which has been put together for Rapha by the crew at Bluetrain Publishing: Taz Darling and Guy Andrews, along with their team of Melanie Mues, Linda Duong, and Anya Hayes, whose palmarès includes recent Café Bookshelf additions such as Paul Fournel’s Cartes du Tour and Herbie Sykes’s The Giro 100. Like both of those books, Queens of Pain has a scrapbook feel to it, right down to the captioning of the images.

For the images themselves, a bit of artistry has been applied, both to solve an age-old problem and to serve a specific story-telling purpose. The age-old problem comes from trying to tell a story that spans a century using photographs: pick up any illustrated Tour history and you’ll be struck by the way the images date the race, just by the images themselves, without having to interrogate their contents for clues. You move through the different eras of black and white photography, through the vibrant colour of the Kodachrome years, and on to the heightened reality of some modern digital images. Rather than allowing this transition from one era to the next to date the stories and distance them one from the other, the images used in Queens of Pain have been rendered using spot colours.

Queens of Pain
The colour treatment of the images in ‘Queens of Pain’ gives the book an almost handmade mimeographed quality.

As well as heightening the samizdat feel of the book – making it feel like something handmade and passed among a small few, in keeping with the way the history of women’s cycling has largely been been told so far – this enforces a continuity between the images, and by extension accentuates the real continuity between the stories being told. In the 1890s, for example, Tillie Anderson was fighting for recognition and a century later you can find Jeannie Longo asking for the same thing:

Like Beryl Burton, Jeannie was unable to walk away from the sport when she was at her peak, and like Burton, she ended up being bitterly resented by the younger generation of riders who felt she stood in their way. When she failed to get selected for the 2012 Olympics she admitted to having ‘black thoughts’ and in the same breath declared she understood why some athletes became suicidal at the end of their careers.

‘I am sad. I am unwanted. I’m resented for being here,’ she told L’Equipe. ‘In other sports, you say goodbye to athletes like me with a little tear in the eye and a bit of a ceremony. That’s not really what I’m asking for, but at least just a little bit of recognition.’

Women’s cycling has come a long way in the century and a half since that race in Bordeaux, for all that the story remains essentially the same. While that story lacks the depth of other parts of cycling history – by virtue of there having been fewer riders and fewer races to talk about – it is still as broad. And as full of myths (take Evelyn Hamilton’s wartime ‘career’ in the French Resistance), legends (try Beryl Burton and that bloody liquorice allsort), and all-round icons (take your pick from Best’s selection).

Twenty-five years from now, maybe some thirteen-year-old kid growing up today will publish a book setting out their cycling icons and no one will think it odd if it includes riders like Yvonne Reynders or Keetie van Oosten-Hage. Hopefully people will actually think it odd if the only inspirational riders that kid knew about growing up were the usual guys riding the usual races. As Best has shown in Queens of Pain, there’s a lot more inspirational riders out there than we usually credit. It’s high-time we really started recognising their achievements.

Queens of Pain - Legends & Rebels of Cycling, by Isabel Best, is published by Rapha Editions in association with Bluetrain Publishing and comes in a choice of three covers
Queens of Pain - Legends & Rebels of Cycling, by Isabel Best, is published by Rapha Editions in association with Bluetrain Publishing and comes in a choice of three covers