An Introduction to Cycling’s Queens of Pain

Excerpted from Queens of Pain: Legends & Rebels of Cycling by Isabel Best, published with permission of Rapha.


There’s a certain classic photograph of a racing cyclist from the 1920s. It is raining and the rider wears a mud-caked woolen jersey and shorts. A thousand-yard stare issues from a face worn with the indescribable effort of a race just completed. It has obviously been a filthy day. The perfect day for a flahute—a leathery tough sort in the mold of Lucien Buysse, who won the 1926 Tour de France thanks to an epic Pyreneen ride in apocalyptic weather. Our picture was taken in 1926 though it is not of Buysse but of a woman, the French Champion Suzanne Hudry. But that’s probably all we’ll ever know of her. Her name doesn’t appear in any history books. She isn’t on any official lists of French champions. I haven’t found her in any newspaper or magazine archives, and the championship race she won is a mystery, since (as far as the French Cycling Federation is concerned) there were no national championships for women before 1951. If it wasn’t for this photograph, Suzanne Hudry wouldn’t exist. Everything that was painfully real to her at the time, the training hours she would have had to fit around her low-status, low-paid job, her “men’s” racing bike that would have cost a month’s wages or more, the race itself and all her worthy adversaries—all this has been forgotten. Yet her picture is evidence that women were racing—seriously—in France in the 1920s.

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In the process of writing this book I have frequently felt like a detective, hunting for clues. Sometimes the trail goes cold. At other times I’ve met eloquent witnesses, watched beguiling clips of newsreel, or stumbled across treasure troves of archive material. What I have discovered is that there have always been women like Suzanne Hudry, and that they have been giving it their all since bike racing was invented.

I’m not talking about novelty races where the ladies “got to have a go,” but proper blood-and-guts racing, for serious money, often drawing in audiences of thousands, sometimes generating detailed commentary and press reports—and at one point even provoking a riot. And that was in 1896, before the Tour de France had even begun.

Women’s racing gets such scant mention in cycling literature you’d be forgiven for thinking it had no history. How many people know, for example, that there was a women’s Tour de France between 1984 and 1989? Who knew that the women rode the same roads and on the same days as the men? Where is the folklore about the epic rivalry played out between two riders who should be up there in the Pantheon of the greats: Maria Canins and Jeannie Longo?

There are official histories, and there are unofficial histories. If you believe the official histories, women’s world record attempts only began in 1955. Women’s international road racing began in 1958 and it only became suitable for Olympic inclusion in 1984. Time trials were only introduced to the world championships in 1994 and to the Olympics in 1996. Thirty years too late for Beryl Burton, 40 years too late for Eileen Sheridan, 60 years too late for Marguerite Wilson and Valda Unthank, 70 years too late for Alfonsina Strada, and 100 years overdue for Tillie Anderson—riders who almost certainly could have added TT gold to their palmares.

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What makes a champion? At what point does a rider become “great” if they have all the qualities, but not the stage on which to express their brilliance? You can’t ride like Fausto Coppi if your race only goes round a housing estate. The women in this book demonstrated their athletic prowess by dominating the races that were allowed them, or riding 1,000 miles continuously in terrible weather to set point to point records. They trained at 5 am before going to work, or at 8 pm after their children were in bed. They broke men’s records, rode through blizzards, and had all the race cunning of a veteran directeur sportif.

They would ride for 100 miles to take part in a 10-mile time trial and work 12-hour days, six days a week, travel on night trains so they could race on Sundays, then get the sleeper back for work on Monday morning. They set up their own clubs and races. They paid their own travel costs for the privilege of representing their country at international races. They pretended to be men so they could train on their local velodromes. They rode with broken collarbones or with their hands strapped to their handlebars after crashes. For their efforts, they were rewarded with pepper grinders, silk stockings, ironing boards, and, if they got really lucky, a year’s supply of laundry detergent.

This book finishes in the early 1990s, when women’s cycling finally became a professional sport to which (some) riders were able to dedicate their careers, not just weekends and holidays. However if there is a lesson to be drawn from these pages it is that women will get on their bikes and rise to the opportunities available to them. Parity with men’s racing remains a distant goal but there will be no shortage of available heroines the closer it gets.

—Isabel Best