Revolutions is the incredible book from Hannah Ross, a gloriously celebratory and inspirational book about women through history who broke from convention and cycled their way to freedom.
From Simone de Beauvoir to Annie ‘Londonderry’ Kopchovsky who became the first woman to cycle around the world, many of these women were told they couldn’t or shouldn’t cycle but they did so anyway.
These stories are an inspiration and Hannah introduces us to the women who are part of the rich and varied history of cycling, many of whom have been pushed to the margins or forgotten.
This extract is taken from Revolutions, by kind permission of Orion Publishing Group and Hannah herself:
Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1855-1936), an American biographer, art critic and food writer, was also a keen and ambitious cycle tourer. Very much a ‘New Woman’, she had no desire to play homemaker. She left the US for Europe after getting married, where she split her time between France and London, travelling whenever and wherever she could.
In 1897, along with her husband Joseph, she undertook an energy-intensive five-week tour crossing nine Swiss Alpine peaks. An account she published as a book the following year. This was a time when adventuring, and publishing accounts of foreign travels, was a male occupation for the most part.
Elizabeth thought she might have been the first woman to have crossed the Alps in this way ‘I am told I made a record. I think I have, and one to be proud of. I went over nine passes – six in less than
a week. I worked at times as hard as a dock labourer . . . any woman who rides – and knows how to ride . . . and who is not afraid of work, may learn what pleasure there is in the exploit.’ Whether she did break a record I’m not able to verify, though, according to her account, she didn’t see any other women cyclists when slogging up the various mountain passes.
She was certainly proud of her athleticism, boasting that on one day they ascended two passes
before lunch, declaring that she was willing to die in the attempt rather than give up: ‘People may object that I rode too fast. But I had not come out to play the enthusiast and record my emotions on postcards; I had come to ride over the Alps on a bicycle.’
Elizabeth’s achievement is all the more impressive considering the sort of bike she was riding. Her ladies’ drop-frame bicycle weighed even more than Joseph’s, and neither of them had gears to assist with the ascents. She had to push her bike up the steeper climbs, making for very long days
on the endlessly zigzagging roads into the clouds. It’s no wonder some of the other cyclists hired carriages to get their bikes up the mountains.
The descents were no less problematic, with a deficient braking system in which a leather strap was used to pull a brake to the tyre (rather than the wheel rim, like many of today’s bikes). Often they were forced to rely on backpedalling. And Elizabeth did all this in her long skirts.
She admits her temper was prone to fray due to the physical exertion, but nothing was going to deter her from achieving her goal. Snow and wind, icy precipices and hairpin bends – with wooden crosses marking the sites where previous travellers had perished – didn’t put her off her pedal strokes, even if her heart was in her mouth on the downhill runs.
On St Gotthard, a 2,100-metre peak they tackled in the worst weather, where Joseph admitted he was never so close to giving up, she refused a lift from a passing cart – ‘I was doing this thing myself; I had not come to have it done for me.’ So much for the old adage that women were the ‘weaker sex’.
Though she disapproved of bicycle racing, Elizabeth wasn’t keen on other cyclists passing her. To her ill-concealed delight, one Swiss cyclist fell off after overtaking her on a descent. When he called out for help, she cycled straight past him. Similarly, when they met a Parisian who was responsible for gifting the Statue of Liberty to the USA on behalf of the French, having spent over an hour talking to
the man, they left him floundering in the mud after a fall without a backward glance.
Switzerland, thanks to steam trains and Thomas Cook’s tours, was one of the most visited places in Europe at this time, with the moneyed middle class making a beeline to see the Alpine peaks celebrated in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Wordsworth. Elizabeth huffed at
the way in which tourists had turned the place into the ‘playground of Europe’, as they ‘swarmed’ over its majestic mountains and formed a ‘constant procession’ on horseback, in carriages, on foot and bike.
Much to her annoyance, these tourists were constantly ambling in their way. The Pennells did their best to avoid fraternising with the masses; Elizabeth said she would rather have a modest meal with the monks on the Simplon Pass than ‘dine with the fifty or sixty tourists that you find any summer evening at the St Bernard, all eating and drinking like pigs’.
While she may be a bit of a snob, she’s often witty and acerbic. I dread to think what she’d have made of our ‘selfie culture’, having read her observation that tour groups who had once ‘wept over the sublimities of nature which they could not see for their tears’, now barely glanced at the landscape, preferring to ‘let their feelings loose upon illustrated postcards’.
This would be Elizabeth’s last cycling travelogue. Perhaps she’d achieved the goal she’d set herself, or perhaps her publisher felt that a decline in the craze for cycle touring meant they were no longer commercially viable in the early twentieth century. I do know that the Pennells continued to enjoy cycling, even if they weren’t writing about it.
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