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The best cycling books - by women

Emily Chappell
25 Mar 2020

Redressing the balance, 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) all blur 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 most 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

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'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 battled 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 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.

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

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It’s typical for lists like this to feature eight or nine male authors and Dervla Murphy, whose 1965 travelogue Full Tilt 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 Anne Mustoe, the retired headmistress who cycled round the world twice, despite (she claimed) not knowing how to fix a puncture.

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.

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The Carbon Cycle - Kate Rawles

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'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, following the spine of the Rockies from El Paso to Anchorage. But far more ambitious than mileage or mountains was her pledge to talk to Americans about climate change as she went.

It’s 2006, the American way of life is 'not up for negotiation', and Rawles meets with surprisingly 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.

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This Road I Ride - Juliana Buhring

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Juliana Buhring has stories coming out of her ears, and setting the women’s record for cycling round the world is the least of it. 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 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 – Buhring’s experience is particularly poignant, as the people she meets gradually lift her out of despair, and set her on a new course.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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Lands of Lost Borders - Kate Harris

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It’s only been out a year, and already 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.

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Back In The Frame - Jools Walker

Buy now from Waterstones

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.

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

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