‘There’s so many stories to tell!’ Author Isabel Best on Queens of Pain, the definitive look at women’s cycling through the ages

Despite huge strides in women’s cycling over the last few years, there’s still a shortage of books which comprehensively cover it’s fascinating history.

That’s now changed with the publication of Isabel Best’s Queens of Pain, which was released last month via Rapha Editions.

The book took Paris-based Best months of painstaking research and tells the story of the early pioneers of the sport – the women who fought and rode against the odds to some incredible feats and records – through to the dawn of the professional age in the 1990s.

As you would expect from Rapha and Blue Train, the result of that research is rather beautiful with some exceptional art direction which brings the project to life.

Allez! Allez! CC caught up with Best recently to chat about Queens of Pain, which has clearly been a labour of love.

She said: “It’s a bit crazy that there wasn’t anything out there and there’s such a huge literature on cycling and more books every year and yet there are these great figures from the past and all these exciting personalities and it feels like we don’t know enough about them.

“I was talking to Blue Train (the publishers) about a completely a different idea and they said that they were wanting to do this book called Queens of Pain and asked if I wanted to do so I said yes and it was just a really happy coincidence.

Millie Robinson breaks the hour record in Milan in 1958 (Rapha/Blue Train)

“The great thing about Rapha is that they’ve taken this risk of doing a book on women’s cycling because the feeling in the industry is that no-one would buy a book on women’s cycling so I’m really pleased that they’ve really invested in it by making it really beautiful and getting a designer on board who has been really ambitious with it.”

Research for the book took Best on a journey, sometimes just starting with a name and a Wikipedia page with sparse details, but more often than not ending with an amazing story to tell.

And Best admits that was part of the fun: “In the beginning it was initially quite hard to find information. But in the end with all the women that feature in the book, I had an amazing turning point with the research and all these terrific stories emerged.

“When you’re a journalist, especially in cycling, a lot of the stories are well-told so you’re just trying to bring something new to it. It gets harder and harder with men’s cycling because there’s all this mythology that gets re-worked so how do you get a fresh angle on things.

“The fun thing about women’s cycling is that there is a lot to write about. There’s been work in certain areas but no-one has tried to tell a history of it.

“I felt like I’d won the lottery in terms of subject matter. I really wanted to focus on champions. There are so many women I could have written about who have done remarkable things on bikes, but they weren’t really racing or they weren’t trying to set records.”

The book tracks the women’s sport from the 1800s right up to the 1990s and the dawn of the professional era. 

It’s packed with tales of women completing remarkable feats, mostly against a backdrop of resistance.

Valda Unthank and Hubert Opperman stop for ice creams in the 1930s (Rapha/Blue Train)

One of the early chapters details the remarkable feats of a group of Australian women in the early 20th Century who became obsessed with setting distance records and even picked up plenty of coverage for their exploits along the way.

Best said: “In the 1930s these women suddenly got really competitive about setting distance records so they’d go for place-to-place records like Sydney to Melbourne.

“And because Australia is so huge there was no limits to the kind of records they could go setting.

“It came straight after this kind of boom in cycling which followed a severe recession and the Great Depression.

“Australia was incredibly badly hit and it was a really desperate place with lots of people homeless, really high suicide rates and it was an awful moment in Australian history. A lot of great sporting figures emerged at that time who were really heroic and that was a real comfort for the Australians and it gave them pride in their national identity.

“These women were really part of that and bike manufacturers started sponsoring them so it was really circular because newspapers got really excited about it and they were really covering it and the bike makers did really well out of it as well.

“Some of the stuff I found in these incredible digital archives was fascinating – these women were setting like seven-day records riding day and night! It’s completely nuts and there’s one woman who would set this record and then that record would get broken and a few months late another rider breaks the record and the male rider record as well so it was amazing.

“It just shows that they were really determined these women riding through the night on unpaved roads doing these ultra distance things in terrible weather and their bikes would get all clogged up with mud or they’d crash or they’d have run-ins with kangaroos, but these were not women who are wrapped up in cotton wool.”

Beryl Burton rides to bronze at the 1970 World Championships (Blue Train/Rapha)

Closer to home – and a figure fans of the sport will already be aware of – is Beryl Burton.

A proud Yorkshirewoman, she won some 70-plus national titles, two World Championship jerseys and, it seems, whatever the men could do, Beryl could match.

Best said: “In 1968 she got invited to ride in the GP des Nations which was the de facto world time trial championships at the time and she’s the only woman in the race’s history that got invited to do that and she did it in this blinding time, a shade under 42kmph and it was 75km so it was a faster timethan the existing women’s hour record.

“It was in and around Paris and it was cobbles and tight corners so a real technical course and it wasn’t flat and it certainly wasn’t in a windless velodrome.

“The crazy thing was no-one was expecting her to ride that fast and in France you tended to have races end in a velodrome like with Paris-Roubaix so the race organisers would have track meetings going on while the audience was waiting for the race to arrive so Beryl’s doing this time trial – I think she was the first to set off – and she gets to the velodrome and they’re still doing these races because they’re not expecting her to arrive.

“I have this crazy mental image of her arriving and the guys on the track are having to move up the banking so that she can finish off her final lap.

“Her time was only like 10 minutes slower than Felice Gimondi who I think had won one of the major tours that year (he did – la Vuelta) and was at the peak of his career.

“The best riders in the world were taking part in this event,which was really prestigious and they’re all professionals so they’re paid to train and cycle full-time etc and Beryl is doing this and she’s a mum and a self-described housewife who works on a rhubarb farm picking rhubarb and does all the housework and cooking but there she is doing this incredible time.”

Belle and Keetie Hage, who were the first female riders allowed to train on the Amsterdam velodrome (Rapha/Blue Train)

Best spoke to a number of the riders who feature in the book or at the very least tracked down relatives.

But there was one champion who evaded her – French star Jeannie Longo.

Longo, a famously prickly character at the best of times, is very much persona non grata in the eyes of French cycling after an EPO scandal involving her husband – and former coach – Patrice Ciprelli.

Best said: “I think the only way I’d have been able to talk to her would have been to camp outside her house! It’s funny because the cycling federations don’t want to have anything to do with her and said that they had no contact details for her which did seem bullsh*t.

“She has a website which she clearly hasn’t updated in along time so she wouldn’t have got my messages through there; I tried going via various cycling companies and I worked out the village where she lives so I tried to go through the town hall to see if they’d put a word in for me. I tried so many difference avenues and just couldn’t connect with her.

“It would have been difficult for her to do an interview with me because of the scandal with her husband and EPO and it’s a bit of a shame really because I would have been very open and would have wanted her just to tell her story.

“I find myself sympathising with her actually. It was a very hard chapter to write. She’s a bit like Beryl Burton in lots of ways in terms of that complete obsession of winning at all costs.

“I think she’s a very interesting, complex character and the doping stuff isn’t really fair either because it was her husband who had the EPO but he was coaching other riders as well but there was no scrutiny to suggest the EPO went to her but you just have these suspicions.

“Some of the riders I talked to said there was this sense that Jeanie Longo was this very good rider but then there was this sudden moment in around 1987 when she just took off and there was this real rivalry between her and Maria Canins who this absolutely brilliant climber and she was always winning the Tour de France because she would just take off up the mountains and Jeannie couldn’t catch her.

“And then there was a moment when it was Jeannie leaving Maria behind and that’s when the eyebrows were raised. When you look at it, the timing of it, you automatically think that it must be EPO but actually I don’t think it could have been because EPO only came onto the market that year or the year before the men’s peloton hadn’t really got onto it until a couple of years later.

“We don’t really know because there’s this stuff that you try and work out from what people have said but she would have had to have been ahead of the men. Could she have been doing bloody doping? I think the logistics of it – keeping the bloody bags cool etc – would have made it very difficult.

“I just feel like it is very complicated with her and one should ask the questions but if you look at the men’s peloton, how many of those have come out of all this with their reputations unscathed? Let’s not be hypocritical about her and dismissing this incredible legacy because of these doubts when we carry on lionising male riders we knew were dodgy.

“I feel like she’s been hard done by. She was unpopular in the peloton but why should a supreme athlete be a nice person?”

Queens of Pain (Blue Train Publishing/Rapha Editions) is available now by clicking here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close