Dr Hutch: Why women were the pioneers of bike racing

If it wasn't for female riders, we'd all still be falling off our Penny Farthings

Doctor Hutch
(Image credit: Alamy)

Women’s bike racing goes back further than you probably think. It all started with the first classic “men’s” road race from Paris to Rouen in 1869, which wasn’t a men’s event at all but was open to anyone. There were, in fact, practically no rules about anything other than that you couldn’t catch the train, use a sail, or harness up a dog team. It was essentially the Wacky Races.

It takes nothing away from the fairground atmosphere that the first woman to sink her brandy in the finish café in Rouen had entered under the name Miss America, despite being more normally called Elizabeth Turner. She was married to a British bike importer, and finished in the same time as her husband. I like to believe she nicked him in the sprint and needled him about it for the rest of their lives.

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The British put a stop to this sort of thing, mainly by inventing a) a social code requiring women to wear a full-length skirt and a substantial hat at all times, and b) the penny-farthing. This combination meant they could just let the whole problem look after itself. 

While there was a side-saddle penny-farthing for ladies, with both pedals on the same side of the wheel on a crankshaft, it was almost impossible to get onto and utterly impossible to get off. Since the wheels weren’t actually one behind the other, it was also harder to control while you were up there in your big hat than a Dutch cycling fan on Alpe d’Huez.

But in some ways the greatest contribution of women to early cycling was ten years of eye-rolling exasperation directed at men riding penny-farthings, and their reaction to the eventual

invention of the chain-driven safety bike. That’s because when the safety bike arrived, most men maintained that they were going to stick with the penny-farthing on the basis that the penny-farthing was proper cycling and the safety bike was for the feeble.

Manly men, they said, would always ride the penny-farthing, irrespective of the risks and inconveniences. If you think of the penny-farthing as the “barbecue-and-a-plastic-bottle-of-petrol” as opposed to the “kitchen” of the safety bicycle, you’ll not be far off the right area.

“Right you are,” said legions of feeble women, and started riding safety bikes. It would be going too far to say that if this hadn’t happened we’d all still be on penny-farthings, but it meant that some sort of sanity was enforced a bit sooner than it might have been otherwise.

It’s hard to say if women did more for bicycles, or bicycles for women. The squads of very, very posh ladies who took to riding in the London parks of a summer made bicycles respectable and aspirational.

There was a certain amount of lunacy (the Victorians, you understand) like when grand families started having bicycle balls where the dancing was on bikes in the ballroom. But for the most part it was nice and normal. The women established cycling as something anyone could do, rather than an extreme sport for those who were prepared to concuss themselves every time they came to a low-hanging tree. You’ve no idea how important this female-driven change was. Without it there’s every chance that when the motorcar arrived, cycling would have largely vanished.

On the other hand, there were women who used their freedom to the full – like the teenage Tessie Reynolds, who rode 120 miles from London to Brighton and back in not much more than eight hours in 1893. I’m not sure how many of us would do any better. She caused a full-on scandal – women weren’t supposed to do things like that, let alone (you may want to look away) while wearing trousers.

This very magazine said it had been “disgusted” by her ride. I very much hope that that made it all the sweeter.

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