Hannah Ross

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99

Review by Susan Swarbrick

While reading Hannah Ross’s new book, Revolutions, I find myself thinking about all the incredible women cyclists from around Scotland whose paths I’ve been privileged to cross over the years.

There’s the maverick Katie Archibald, an Olympic champion and multiple world, European and Commonwealth Games medallist, and the indomitable Hannah Dines, a whip-smart and fearless trike rider who competed at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

The big-hearted and bold Ishbel Holmes, who has pedalled around the world, saving street dogs wherever she’s gone, and the tenacious Lee Craigie, a former competitive mountain bike rider who is now Active Nation Commissioner for Scotland (or “cycling czar” as she is sometimes known).

Craigie gets a name-check in Revolutions, as does Dines. It was a joyous moment to see their names in print alongside so many greats from throughout history.

The invention of the wheel may have been a revelation for humankind, but it wasn’t until two wheels came along together – in the form of the bicycle – that a revolution truly began.

It is this that Ross seeks to chart and celebrate, in a heart-soaring tribute to the trailblazers who seized upon a chance to break convention and pedal their way to newfound freedom (hence the book’s glorious subtitle: How Women Changed The World On Two Wheels).

HeraldScotland: Revolutions celebrates the adventurers, campaigners and other female trailblazers who broke convention on two wheels. Picture: Getty Revolutions celebrates the adventurers, campaigners and other female trailblazers who broke convention on two wheels. Picture: Getty

The myriad stories within Revolutions are awe-inspiring. Such as a teenage Tessie Reynolds who, legs going like the clappers in her knee-length woollen knickerbockers, set a new women’s cycling record from Brighton to London (and back) in 1893.

Or Beryl Burton, disparagingly dubbed the “Yorkshire housewife” by media commentators, casually offering her male opponent a Liquorice Allsort as she passed him to win a 1967 race.

In Nazi-occupied Paris, the writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir learned how to ride a bike, discovering an intoxicating sense of unfettered escapism as she glided through the city streets (not even a tooth lost in a later accident dampened her love of cycling). 

Meanwhile, a young Audrey Hepburn utilised a two-wheeled steed to deliver resistance leaflets in her hometown of Arnhem during the Second World War.

Fast forward to more recent decades and we have the likes of adventurer and campaigner, Shannon Galpin, who runs a series of projects in Afghanistan helping to shatter deep-rooted taboos and get the country’s girls and women on bikes.

Or the clutch of pro cyclists, Marianne Vos, Emma Pooley and Kathryn Bertine, alongside the triathlete Chrissie Wellington, who successfully lobbied for the creation of La Course in 2014, an elite one-day women’s race that gets to share a stage with the Tour de France.

READ MORE: Shannon Galpin on pedalling a cycling revolution in Afghanistan

All their achievements leap off the pages and with good reason. From its inception, cycling has been a feminist issue. The late 19th-century suffragist Susan B Anthony called the bicycle a “freedom machine” that has “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”.

The historical sections on the early development of the bicycle are fascinating, detailing how the “bone-shakers” of the late-1860s and the penny farthings of the early-1870s – an enduring Victorian emblem – gave way to more practical designs from the 1880s onwards.

By the late 19th century, as many were “bitten by the cycling bug”, a global boom ensued. In the 1890s, around a third of bike owners in the UK and North America were women.

READ MORE: Kathryn Bertine lays bare the issues, obstacles and struggles faced by professional women cyclists

It was, as Ross writes, “an impressive statistic at a time when women’s behaviour was heavily policed, and the sight of a woman cycling was liable to provoke more than just a few raised eyebrows”.

The burgeoning popularity of women’s bicycles around this time was further boosted by what the author describes as “the enthusiasm with which certain members of the upper echelons of society embraced the sport”.

This well-heeled crowd included The Duchess of Somerset, who often hosted 50 or so friends for breakfast at the lake house in London’s Battersea Park, before setting off for a group cycle. The women also enjoyed night rides through the city, with Chinese lanterns lighting their way.

However, the independence and liberation that bicycles bestowed was not without peril or cost. Many women of this era had insults – even stones – hurled at them as they pedalled along.

HeraldScotland: Hannah Dines racing on her trike. Picture: GettyHannah Dines racing on her trike. Picture: Getty

Opponents claimed riding a bike could ruin a woman’s looks, leave her infertile or lead to promiscuity. Dr Robert Dickinson, an American gynaecologist, absurdly believed that women went to great lengths to set up their saddles so as to “bring about constant friction” around the genitalia.

This notion may seem preposterous and even laughable now, yet it may come as a surprise that, even with the many great technological advances of the modern era, saddles are still not always designed with the best interests of female anatomy in mind.

Hannah Dines penned a powerful column for The Guardian in 2019 where she spoke candidly about how the pain and swelling caused by years of saddle pressure as a professional cyclist had necessitated her to undergo reconstructive surgery of her vulva.

Before then, it was a conversation that women often only had in hushed tones. Dines, who hails from Glasgow, has become a vocal campaigner, leading calls for urgent research into developing saddles that facilitate better wellbeing for female cyclists from all walks of life.

It is a subject that Ross addresses, citing Dines and Dr Frances Oakley, who was both a doctor and a woman who cycled in the 19th century. Oakley, in an 1896 edition of Harper’s Bazaar, gave short shrift to the “saddle-stimulation myth” purported by Dickinson and the Victorian bike manufacturers who were cashing in on its controversy.

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There is something hugely jarring about the fact that, in articles published more than 120 years apart, women are still having to fight for the right to sit comfortably on bike saddles.

Unsurprisingly, equality is a theme that looms large throughout the book. This collection of cycling pioneers and their remarkable feats serve to remind us how, even today, women on bikes remain stuck on the slow road when it comes to parity. Revolutions is a rallying cry.