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The best cycling books by women

Redressing the gender imbalance, here are our top picks of the best cycling books by women

I’ll read anything if it’s got a bicycle on the cover, but I have to admit, pro cyclist memoirs (even the juicy confessional ones) tend to start blurring into one when you’ve read a few, and books about cycling across continents mostly just tell the same story again and again.

Still, cycling channels so much of what’s important in life – triumph and failure; suffering and humour; rivalry, camaraderie and redemption – that it’s no wonder it’s accompanied by a rich and original seam of literature.

Tim Krabbé’s The Rider is widely agreed to be a perfect rendition of the inner world of the racing cyclist, Max Leonard’s Lanterne Rouge recounts the Tour de France from the novel perspective of the last rider in, and Rob Penn’s It’s All About The Bike offers us the history of the bike via its constituent parts.

What follows is a list of some of the more original, engaging and substantial books about cycling that you might not have heard of.

Oh, and they’re all by women.

The best cycling books by women

The Breakaway: My Story – Nicole Cooke

‘Tyler Hamilton will make more money from a book describing how he cheated than I will make in all my years of honest labour.’ So said one of Britain’s greatest cyclists as she retired, offering a stinging – and utterly characteristic – parting shot at the corruption and inequality she had fought against throughout her career.

Cooke’s autobiography is a shocking and satisfying read – shocking because of the unreasonable and systematic ways in which she was held back by British Cycling, and satisfying because of the energy and persistence with which she fought against them.

Although there’s still work to be done, we have much to thank her for.

Alongside her righteous anger, Cooke manages to convey her longstanding love for the sport that she dominated throughout the early 2000s.

The account of her winning the 2006 Grande Boucle Féminine with a solo breakaway on Mont Ventoux, inspired by her own childhood ambitions, will bring a tear to your eye and a smile to your lips as you read it.

Lone Traveller: One Woman, Two Wheels, and The World – Anne Mustoe

Dervla Murphy’s 1965 travelogue Full Tilt – featured further down this list – single-handedly launched a genre, and is responsible for countless women and men taking to their bicycles and striking out for far off lands.

But just as inspiring – and far more relatable – is the story of Anne Mustoe, the retired headmistress who cycled round the world twice, despite (she claimed) not knowing how to fix a puncture when she started.

It was Murphy who made me dream of cycling round the world myself, but it was Mustoe who showed me it was possible.

As well as the usual tales of adventure and hardship, Mustoe, a former classics teacher, brought academic clout and cultural depth to her journeys. Lone Traveller is the account of her second circumnavigation, following historical routes across Europe, South America, Oceania and Asia.

The Carbon Cycle – Kate Rawles

‘I used the bike ride like a Trojan horse, to get to people who would not necessarily pick up a book about climate change, and get them to talk about it with me.’

So says Kate Rawles of her 4,553-mile bicycle journey across North America, which followed the spine of the Rockies from El Paso to Anchorage. But far more ambitious than mileage or mountains was Rawles’ pledge to talk to Americans about climate change as she went.

It’s 2006, and the American way of life is ‘not up for negotiation’, and Rawles meets with surprising levels of denial and ignorance as she makes her way north, though The Carbon Cycle also includes encounters with the climate activist Mayor of Alberquerque, a wind-powered brewery, and other projects offering faint glimmers of hope amongst the oilfields and RVs.

This Road I Ride – Juliana Buhring

Juliana Buhring has stories coming out of her ears, and setting the women’s record for cycling round the world is the least of them. Buhring, who had already written a bestselling memoir about growing up in a religious cult, embarked on her journey after losing the man she loved to a crocodile attack in the Congo. She had barely ridden a bike before.

What sounds like an improbable piece of fiction is handled deftly and convincingly in This Road I Ride, with memories from Buhring’s earlier life woven in amongst her tales of headwinds and punctures, as she is hosted across the globe by her numerous siblings and other cult survivors, and reminisces about the various countries in which she spent her peripatetic childhood.

Most long-distance memoirs invoke the kindness of strangers but Buhring’s experience is particularly poignant, as the people she meets gradually lift her out of despair, and set her on a new course.

Me, My Bike and a Street Dog Called Lucy – Ishbel Holmes

You could argue that this book isn’t even about cycling, save for the fact that its events take place during a bike trip across Turkey – and its author is a former member of the Iranian track cycling team.

Ishbel Holmes – not a dog person – finds herself storming into a pack of Turkish hounds to stop them attacking an injured mongrel, and what ensues is a road trip with a twist, as odd couple Ishbel and Lucy make their way (by bike) across Turkey to deposit Lucy in the dog sanctuary that will (we hope) be her new home.

Along the way they find they have much in common. We discover how Ishbel’s memories of her difficult childhood drew her to cycling and to Lucy, and watch both of them thrive as their bond deepens.

I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say, I was laughing and crying from the very first chapter.

Bikes and Bloomers: Victorian Women Inventors and Their Extraordinary Cycle Wear – Kat Jungnickel

This book encapsulates everything that’s excellent about cycling culture, combining unashamed geekiness and academic rigour with creativity, style and flair.

We’ve all heard the soundbites about the bicycle being a vehicle of women’s liberation – Jungnickel takes a closer look at the practicalities of this, showing us how female inventors redesigned their clothing to suit the dual purposes of (safely) riding a bike and placating social norms.

As well as burrowing through archives to unearth the patents with which these innovators registered their inventions, Jungnickel has recreated their designs, bringing their technologies back to life, and her book features photographs of Victorian cycle wear in action in modern-day London.

Lands of Lost Borders – Kate Harris

Lands of Lost Borders is being hailed as a classic. Kate Harris’s luminous prose traces her voyage from suburban Toronto to the Tibetan Plateau, as she follows in the footsteps of explorers like Marco Polo and Alexandra David-Néel, deploring the borders that frustrate and bisect her journey and seeking the sublime.

What could have been yet another self-absorbed bike-touring chronicle is redeemed by the quality of Harris’s writing, the acuity of her observations, and the intellectual heft borne of her years in academia.

To read Lands of Lost Borders is to fall in love all over again with wildness, wide open spaces, and the endless lure of a distant horizon. I daresay Dervla Murphy would be impressed.

Back In The Frame – Jools Walker

Cycling, even when it manages to include women, remains a very white sport, and Jools Walker isn’t afraid to confront this.

Her much-anticipated memoir will recall the challenges she’s faced as a woman of colour who rides a bike, introduce the friends and mentors she’s met along the way, and offer a welcome alternative to the stereotypes and unwritten rules that make so many people feel they don’t belong here.

Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy

‘Ironically enough, I had always thought that there was something faintly comical in the idea of being devoured by wolves.

‘As I slipped off my glove, pulled my .25 out of my pocket, flicked up the safety-catch and shot the first animal through the skull, I was possessed by the curious conviction that none of this was true, while at the same time all my actions were governed by sheer panic.’

One of the most jaw-dropping books I have ever read, Murphy’s Full Tilt recalls, in diary form, the experience of travelling through the coldest winter in 80 years, through frozen Europe and into Afghanistan and Pakistan on her bike Roz.

Tales of concealed weapons, rooming with strangers and embracing their hospitality, injuries and wild animals line the pages which I found myself turning at speed.

Revolutions: How Women Changed the World on Two Wheels by Hannah Ross

Few cycling books are as all-encompassing as Revolutions – a historic look at how women changed the world on two wheels, detailing movements such as the New Woman and ‘bike boom’.

Accounting for women’s cycling’s early rise as a political statement on the emancipation of women while detailing the backlash women faced as a result, Ross takes us on a journey through the years to include a wide range of stories from trailblazers to cycle tourism embracers.

Take Dervla Murphy, also mentioned previously in this article. Her journey from Dunkirk to Delhi is a remarkable tale of determination and survival.

Or Emma Eades, regarded as one of the first women to cycle in London, who experienced bricks thrown by both women and men who told her to go home, but onwards she persisted.

1001 Cycling Tips by Hannah Reynolds

Reynolds’ book champions itself as an ‘essential cyclists’ guide’ and it’s easy to see why.

Packed with – you guessed it – 1001 cycling tips, the guide covers everything from fitness, gear, navigation and maintenance advice for gravel, road and mountain bikers.

Want to know how to sit comfortably? She’s got you covered. What about shaving? That’s in there as well. Alright, what about pregnancy? Of course it’s included too.

Emily Chappell is the author of What Goes Around: A London Cycle Courier’s Story.

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