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Book Review
Queens of Pain:
Legends & Rebels of Cycling

Review by Peter Joffre Nye

Chairman Bill's note: Author Peter Joffre Nye's latest work is his biography of Albert Champion, The Fast Times of Albert Champion: From Record-Setting Racer to Dashing Tycoon, An Untold Story of Speed, Success, and Betrayal (Prometheus Books). It is available in hardcover and Kindle eBook.

Champion (1878-1927) was an incredible man, as a bicycle racer he was winner of Paris-Roubaix and set more than a hundred world records. He went on to found both the Champion Spark Plug Company and General Motors Division AC Delco Systems.

Just click on the Amazon link to the right to get your copy of this terrific book.

Also on this site is Mr. Nye's story of one of cycling's toughest-ever racers, Reggie McNamara. McNamara won over 700 races and was one of the greatest-ever six-day racers. Oh, and there's more! Nye's story of Joseph Magnani, the Illinois rider who challenged Coppi and Bartali.


QUEENS OF PAIN: Legends & Rebels of Cycling
By Isabel Best. 240 pp. Illustrated. Rapha Racing, Ltd., London.
Book review by Peter Joffre Nye

Queens of Pain

We’re accustomed to seeing bookshelves sagging under the weight of volumes published about the heroics of great men cyclists like Tom Simpson, Gino Bartali, Peter Sagan, and Greg LeMond. Considering that women comprise 53 percent of our population and have been racing since the 1890s, women have been overlooked. Now Isabel Best, a United Kingdom journalist, has published compelling profiles of some thirty fearless and inspiring women from around Europe, Australia, Russia, and the United States.

The feat of one of these velo queens remains unmatched: Alfonsina Strada rode a grand tour with men. Born Alfonsina Morini in 1891 in a country village near Bologna, she was ten when her father brought home a bicycle acquired in trade with a neighbor for chickens. She hopped on the bike, felt the wind ruffling her dark curly hair, and kept going.

Alfonsina Strada

Villagers referred to her as the devil in a skirt. At thirteen she moved to Bologna and apprenticed as a seamstress. In her free time, she mixed it up with men on rides and earned respect for keeping up. She scored headlines for finishing seventh in a road race with fifty men. Alfonsina competed against other women as keen as herself to test their speed and stamina on roads and tracks.

She married Luigi Strada, an artistic wood engraver fascinated with her adventurous spirit. He promoted her cycling. Their marriage bestowed her with the name Signora Strada, or Mrs. Road, as though she arrived from central casting. The 1924 Giro d’Italia organizers invited her to enter the twelve-stage, 3,613-kilometer edition to boost circulation in the sponsoring Gazetta dello Sport. Crowds lined country and city roads for hours to catch sight of her.

Alfonsina was hard pressed over the Giro’s terrible roads and soaring mountains, but she persevered while 60 of the 90 men starters abandoned. She finished dead last, in 30th place, and showed unwavering toughness.

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Isabel Best developed her writing skills depicting artisans of food, fashion, photography, and culture. She brings out the qualities of her subjects. They come alive on the page, such as her opening about France’s grand dame Lyli Herse:

“Cycling histories often have a fairy tale quality to them, and Lyli’s childhood fits this pattern. Between the age of one and six, Lyli was brought up by an aunt in Dieppe, some 170km away from her parents, who lived in the Parisian suburb of Levallois-Perret and were struggling to make ends meet. For five years they used packing cases for furniture.”

Lyli reunited with her parents, and during her decade of amateur races won 200-kilometer road events over legendary mountains including the Galibier and the Tourmalet. Short and slight, she forced the pace to wear down rivals before attacking and shattering rivals. In 1967, age thirty-nine, she won her eighth national road race title. Then she retired from racing.

Evelyn Hamilton

Endurance racer Evelyn Hamilton with Claude Butler

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England, like the United States, trailed Italy and France in offering mass-start road races. Best tells us about enterprising English maidens like Marguerite Wilson. Women participated in time trials over distances up to 12 hours. In the 1930s Wilson elevated time trialing. She pedaled her all-steel road bike 230 miles to claim the 12-hour national championship. Slim yet and strong looking, she had movie-star looks. Her pencil eyebrows and short-cropped blonde hair prompted news hounds to label her the Blonde Bombshell.

Wilson set so many national distance and place-to-place records that by 1939 she was sponsored by Hercules Cycles. Her greatest record was soloing for 2 days, 22 hours, 52 minutes in the United Kingdom’s legendary challenge, from Land’s End, in the south of England, up the mainland for 870 miles to the northernmost tip, in Scotland’s village of John o’Groats. Few men could equal her time. Author Best tells us that Wilson’s many accomplishments put England’s conservative cycling establishment on notice to open opportunities for women.

After World War II ended, England struggled with high unemployment and food shortages, which led to a decade of rationing food and fuel. Eileen Sheridan emerged as the poster girl for British grit.

Eileen Sheridan

“You only have to look at pictures of her pedaling in the rain,” Best writes, “hands down on the drops, gobbling up the road at a tidy lick, a big goofy grin on her face, to feel an urgent need to get on the bike yourself.” Sheridan set every official time-trial and place-to-place record across the country, some still standing, like herself, age 96 and living in southern England.

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This collection tells of leading women across four continents between the 1890s and 1990s. Among them are U.S. Bicycling Hall of Famer Audrey McElmury of La Jolla, California. In August 1969, the Woodstock Music Festival in upstate New York captured national attention as McElmury created American cycling history in Brno, Czechoslovakia where she won the women’s world championship road race. McElmury became the first U.S. rider, man or woman, to take home the world’s road race gold medal and rainbow jersey.

Audrey McElmury

She flew over the finish line in a downpour ahead of Bernadette Swinnerton Malvern of England, in second, and Nina Trofimova of Russia, third. Author Best points out that on the podium, McElmury put her arm around the shoulder of Trofimova—one cyclist congratulating another, ignoring the tense cold war fuming between their nations.

Queens of Pain: Legends & Rebels of Cycling presents an eye-catching layout with photos tinted in pastel pink, blue, and dashes of orange. The book compliments Roger Gilles’s recent Women on the Move: The Forgotten Era of Women’s Bicycle Racing (University of Nebraska Press), about professional women cyclists competing on an indoor-track circuit around America in the 1890s.

Isabel Best has written a rigorously researched and thoughtful tribute to women riders. Her book is available from VeloPress.