Revolutions by Hannah Ross review – the story of women on two wheels

I’ve been cycling for decades – as a student, commuter and partygoer. I’ve sallied forth in strappy heels and dorky helmet: returning home late, I’ve dodged foxes while flying drunk and euphoric down deserted streets. I’ve cycled with one hand holding closed my wrap dress, and with skirt tucked into tights, or tied in a knot. I’ve fallen over at the lights, slowly and to the side, because my skirt has been hooked over the back of the seat. I’ve cycled into a lamppost at the side of the road while admiring spring trees in bloom. I’ve carried a boxed trumpet and a large houseplant in my basket, and flashing bike lights in my mouth. I’ve balanced a week’s shopping on handlebars, and kneed myself in the bump when pregnant. And many journeys have been spent furiously pondering esprit de l’escalier retorts following altercations with taxi drivers.

Cycling for me has never been boring or neutral. A male cyclist is just a bloke on a bike, but a woman appears political, independent, a bluestocking, egregiously sporty, or suspiciously saucy. In this likable, informative and barnstorming book, Hannah Ross tells the story of how such meanings – sometimes eagerly adopted, sometimes patriarchally imposed – have become attached to what is often just the most efficient way of getting from A to B.

The historical sections are the most eye-opening. The invention of the boneshakers of the 1860s and penny farthings of the 1870s opened up new vistas of transport and recreation: sociologists credit the bicycle with a decrease in genetic faults associated with inbreeding. The late 19th century witnessed a global “bike boom”: there were weddings on wheels; even a christening with baby and nurse arriving on a tandem.

Women were active participants in the new cyclomania: the American feminist Susan B Anthony called bicycles “freedom machines” that did “more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”. Enthusiasts were often well-heeled: the Duchess of Somerset and friends enjoyed night rides through London, Chinese lanterns lighting the way. Women-only cycling clubs sprang up around the UK and US for fun and philanthropy: the Mowbray House Cycling Association, set up in 1892, provided bicycles to working women.

There was resistance. Pioneers were pelted with bricks, eggs and rotten vegetables as they rode. Opponents claimed cycling led to infertility, a manly gait, or promiscuity: Robert Dickinson, an American gynaecologist, suggested women positioned their saddles so as to “bring about constant friction over the clitoris and labia”. The sit up and beg position – hardly aerodynamic – was designed to avoid women developing a “bicycle hump”. Puck magazine depicted a stern-looking woman riding with a man half her size perched on her handlebars; the heading: “New Woman takes her husband for a ride”.

The campaign for acceptance was vocal on the right to wear trousers. The Rational Dress Society cited the dangers of skirts being set on fire or pulling their wearers under carts. During the 1850s, Amelia Jenks Bloomer took to wearing billowy Turkish-style trousers known as “freedom dress”. One outraged woman wrote to the Daily Telegraph to denounce those who “in addition to the degradation of riding a bicycle, have further unsexed themselves by doing so in man’s attire”.

Clarion cycling clubs, linked to the socialist weekly newspaper of the same name, admitted women from the start. Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst were Clarionettes, and they rode around distributing newsletters and holding rallies. The Women’s Social and Political Union’s arson attacks were also administered on wheels, including the so-called “pillar-box outrages” of 1913, when suffragettes poured ink and flammable liquids – sometimes using an inner tube – into post boxes.

Cycling liberated women to become explorers as well as activists. In 1894, Annie Kopchovsky, a Latvian Jewish immigrant, set off from Boston on a round-the-world trip. She worked for a newspaper selling advertising space, and funded her adventure by loading her bike with ad boards. She attracted considerable censure – both for leaving her husband and children behind, and for catching a few trains along the way – but she became a worldwide sensation under her acquired name, Annie Londonderry. In 1963, just as cycle touring was falling out of fashion, the travel writer Dervla Murphy embarked on a solo trip from Dunkirk to Delhi.

Then there are the racers such as Tessie Reynolds who, in 1893, aged 16, broke the Brighton-London-Brighton record in her wool knickerbockers; or Beryl Burton, dubbed the “Yorkshire housewife”. In a 1967 mixed race, Burton was up against the men’s favourite Mike McNamara – a man on course to set a new record – or so he thought. In one of the most legendary moments in cycling history, Beryl overtook him and as she did so offered him a Liquorice Allsort (he took it and thanked her). The record was hers.

Colourful characters populate this book: in the 1990s, the American mountain biker Missy Giove was notable not only for her doughty off-roading – she endured an estimated 38 broken bones during her career – but also for her tattoos, piercings and lucky charms, including the desiccated body of a pet piranha that hung from a necklace, and the ashes of a beloved dog that she sprinkled in her bra before each race.

Reading these stories juxtaposed with those of 19th-century trailblazers reminded me that where gender equality is concerned, society has done some back-pedaling. We’re familiar with the restrictions of the past, but not how they produced vibrant acts of defiance. Women’s cycling today is marked by many achievements, but also by sexist neglect and body-image fuelled inhibition.

In the 1880s, around a third of British and American bike owners were female. That proportion is lower today. According to a 2017 Department for Transport study, men make three times as many trips as women and travel four times as far. As a sport, women’s cycling is marred by fewer racing opportunities and less prize money, sponsorship and coverage. Women’s participation in the Tour de France is limited to a one-day event. Even the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics, supposedly the most gender-equal games yet, still has far fewer women racers. In 2017, the former Olympic cyclist Nicole Cooke bemoaned “a sport run by men, for men”.

Ross highlights inspiring attempts to challenge the under-representation of women – from Mexican-American women reclaiming their LA neighbourhood on wheels, to efforts to set up a women’s racing team in Saudi Arabia, to a Rwandan non-profit (Africa Rising) recruiting black women from across the continent into the sport. But there’s still a long road ahead.