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queens of pain - isabel best

though ostensibly formed for apparently nefarious purposes, i believe more than one episode of 'midsomer murders' has featured a 'book club', always women and usually a society in which one or two of its members meet a disturbing end. book clubs exist in all strains of society, again, predominantly consisting of female members and mostly choosing works of fiction, whether the classics, crime or romance. though it maybe says more about me than i'd like to think, i don't actually know of any gents' book clubs.

queens of pain - isabel best

it's a societal thing that has not ignored islay, at least once in the recent past, where a village-based book club grew into a book festival, initially staying put in the selfsame village, but under new management (so to speak), a couple of years ago it became the islay book festival. i am not a habitual reader of fiction, if for no other reason than my days are well-filled with cycling literature for review in these very pixels. i'd be fibbing if i said i could recall when i last read a work of fiction; if push ever comes to shove, that's my excuse for having not attended any of these events.

but, without wishing to dismiss an entire genre of writing with one fell swoop, fiction is 'simply' a case of making stuff up. granted, it has to be legible, literate and well composed stuff, but there's no real need (as far as i can see), to base any of the narrative in real fact. non-fiction, on the other hand, seems a tad more onerous; days, hours, weeks, months or even years of research and interviews, a pressing need to have all one's chronologies in the right order and no end of other distractions that need to be appraised, before deadlines (self-imposed and publisher led) hang over the intrepid author's head like the sword of damocles.

however, unlike my saturday morning bike ride, these things are rarely, if ever, undertaken alone. for starters, there is an appreciable difference between the expectant author clamouring for an agreement from any publisher willing to offer them a lifeline and the bona-fide publisher with a commercially curated idea on the lookout for an author with the capability to turn that idea into a saleable commodity. i am insufficiently well informed to know whether a 'meeting of like minds' is a commonality, but such seems to have been the case with the recently released and reviewed, bluetrain/rapha editions publication 'queens of pain'. though the name on the cover is that of isabel best, that hides a wealth of interest and intrigue behind the three cover options.

queens of pain - isabel best

for starters, what prompted isabel to approach this subject matter?

"The idea for the book actually came from Taz (Darling) and Guy (Andrews). I was talking to them about quite a different idea, (nothing to do with women's cycling), and they asked if I'd be interested in writing what has become 'Queens of Pain'.
"For a while, I had been wanting to write a book about female champions, which I'd been told would be a hard sell, etc, etc., so I was really excited when Bluetrain asked if I'd be interested in this Rapha Editions publication."

the book's editor, taz darling concurred. "As with Andy McGrath's 'Tom Simpson', the concept for Queens of Pain was already fully formed (in my head at least) and Rapha were keen to publish it. We all agreed that it was a 'response', if you like, to their ten-year old publication 'Kings of Pain'.
"While researching who we could commission to write it, Isabel approached us about a completely different idea. She came across as someone with the passion and enthusiasm to be involved, so I suggested the idea to her. She 'got it' straight away. I've never had any doubt that I made the right choice and she has done a terrific job, for which I hope she will receive deserved recognition."

while there's no doubt that, on completion of one book, a professional author will probably immediately look at what might come next, publishers and editors are likely no different. but though isabel, in common with many other sports writers, could well be looking towards an entirely different athletic discipline, as a publisher seemingly firmly entrenched in the velocipedinal milieu, bluetrain likely have cycling uppermost in mind and spreadsheet. given the subject matter of isabel's 'queens of pain', did taz find her editorial approach to this book differed from that practised on others she's edited?

queens of pain - isabel best

"It was similar to my approach to Andy McGrath's 'Tom Simpson' in that Guy and I knew exactly what we wanted to create, but needed to find the right author to share our passion for the subject. As with TS, where Andy did such a great job of researching, interviewing and writing, Isabel was untiring in her approach. Her energy for research, her attention to detail and her determination to pursue the story is remarkable.
"For me the most interesting part was offering both Isabel and Andy the opportunity to write their first books. It concerns me that traditional publishers are not willing to support or encourage new talent; that makes no creative sense. The result is usually just 'more of the same', unless you take risks."

i doubt that there's a secret formula, instigation of which will always result in a publication guaranteed to receive plaudits from the book buying public, independent of the subject matter under discussion. but i'd imagine that there's an increased chance of success, however, you choose to measure it, if, in the process of reading this hypothetical publication, the reader is afforded the opportunity to discover hitherto unknown facts. though i've reviewed one or two books on bicycle repairs, in those cases, it's more about the delivery than learning that my bicycle features a bottom bracket.

a major point of interest fostered by isabel's 'queens of pain' was reading about riders of whom i had not previously heard, a state of affairs i'm sure i share with others. bearing this relative anonymity in mind, was her research made any more difficult than she'd expected?

"Before I really got my teeth into the project, I suspect my knowledge was similar to yours. I initially thought it would be a much shorter book and that I might be scraping around for material. I even asked Taz if we could have micro-chapters with just a couple of paragraphs, where the pictures were great but the story more of a mystery. In the end, I think the final manuscript was more than twice as long as what had been originally discussed.
queens of pain - isabel best "So yes and no.
"Of course, the lack of recognition made research difficult. Sometimes I'd start out with random scraps of information: a compelling photograph or a one-line Wikipedia entry. Often all I had to go on was someone's name in a list of world champions. I scoured newspaper archives and tried to contact riders and descendants. Sometimes there was very little press coverage, so in some places the book has an oral history quality to it, since I had to rely on what riders told me.
"On other occasions I got lucky, where riders kept scrapbooks of their cuttings and their descendants still have them. I benefitted from the work of specialists and enthusiasts and I explored stories on blogs or self-published books. I also spent a lot of time gazing at pictures and watching Pathé newsreels trying to immerse myself in the worlds of those riders.
"To give you just one example, I had a total headache trying to track down any Russian riders. Obviously it doesn't help that I don't speak Russian, but the sports bodies and local councils where riders lived, seemed completely indifferent. Ultimately, a Russian acquaintance went on a mission for me, intermittently sending me emails about how rubbish her compatriots were. Amazingly she finally put me in touch with a local historian from Tula, who passed on an email address for the daughter of Lubow Kotchetova, the first world champion in the 3,000m individual pursuit.
"We ended up having a series of epic Skype calls where she talked in great detail about her mother's extraordinary life, as well as those of her colleagues. Lubow's story was incredible. As a young girl, she survived the siege of Leningrad, and as a rider she came back from a crash which should have killed her, eventually becoming world champion."

the contents page of 'queens of pain' informs the reader that they can expect to read the career stories of two-dozen female riders. and as mentioned above, more than just a few of them will be wholly unknown to the majority of us. it's also unlikely that history has given us only 24 women riders of whom special note should be taken, so, in her editorial capacity, did taz suggest any of those included, or did isabel have all her ducks in a row before commencing?

queens of pain - isabel best

"The hardest choices were who to exclude and what the time period cut-off point should be. It came down to space (as ever with a book) because there are only so many stories you can do justice to in one volume. We chose to concentrate on the largely forgotten stories rather than the more recent ones with more information, footage or imagery available. I felt duty bound to deliver these stories in particular before they are lost, and to use the space well to explore the richness of each. We all got to include our favourites but then Isabel uncovered such fantastic detail and so many great new stories that our favourites changed along the way too."

few amongst the surprisingly large library of cycling books arrive bereft of illustration. when discussing the lives and feats of more obscure personalities, i'd imagine it's almost compulsory that they are accompanied by relevant illustrations. in this day of facebook, instagram, flickr and the like, finding appropriate images is probably a far less onerous task, but the first rider featured in 'queens of pain' raced 129 times in 1895, an era not noted for its plethora of attendant photography. i asked isabel if photographic records of the cyclists weren't somewhat thin on the ground?

"We found a lot of great images from riders' archives. They were often pictures published in magazines that have long since ceased publication and whose archives are dispersed, but sometimes the editor or photographer would send prints to the riders as a nice memento. This was common in men's cycling in the 1950s and 60s, since photographers wanted to nurture great relationships with the riders. There are pictures in Millie Robinson's archive, held by her nephew, that I'm almost certain were taken by the great cycling journalist and magazine editor, Jock Wadley. Taz could tell you more about the picture research for the book since she really drove this, but I know that another problem is the disappearance of great photo agencies in this age of Instagram and Pinterest and a universal expectation to get pictures for free these days. That certainly didn't help."

one of the book's major features has to be the decision to creatively print the imagery using five spot colours, none of which were black. colour plates are more usually printed with process cmyk. i asked taz what prompted this 'non-standard' choice of reproduction?

queens of pain - isabel best

"There is nothing 'standard' about the women's stories, so to me it would have been insulting to collect them in an ugly book. We wanted to represent the historic images in a more contemporary way, creating an equality amongst the stories, irrespective of their time in history. A Pantone spot colour (rather than a CMYK mix) remains a constant, no matter the machinery or process surrounding it - rather like our heroines. We were fortunate enough to have commissioned Melanie Mues to work on the design. Her work is very sophisticated which is what this book cried out for, simply to do it justice. Melanie is incredibly creative in her approach and worked passionately on the colour and treatment of all the images, drawing from the text and being inspired by each individual character. And I need also to mention the wonderful Jo. She helped uncover some of the great imagery including the old soviet era images which sit in filing cabinets in Russia still. I think it is a strong, bold and honest book. All of the women Isabel wrote about have a resonance in contemporary cycling in one way or another. I knew I didn't want the images to 'trap' the protagonists in history and separate them from 'now'; the colour treatment allows for a consistent look in the timeline and so it feels less like 'just a history book."

was isabel complicit in this choice of colour reproduction? "I wasn't that closely involved in the design process, although I knew from the start that Taz had ambitions to experiment and rethink what a cycling book might look like. I think Mel Mues has done a brilliant job with the design, uniting so many diverse images from very different eras and giving it all a bit of a punkish attitude."

i have known several authors who rued the day they met their book's editor and one in particular who was subjected to three different individuals over the course of one project. this was allegedly due to endless disagreements over points of view, though i have my doubts over who was really to blame for the situation. i'm not sure who'd be sure to have the final say, but in order to produce a successful book, it would be ideal if both got along just ginger peachy, thank you very much. both singing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak.

queens of pain - isabel best

were taz and isabel possessed of the same ideals? was this a labour of love between editor and author, or did the book more or less produce itself? "I think it was a labour of love between the whole team who worked on it." said taz. "Mel worked so passionately to produce a visual representation of the incredible stories that Isabel had unearthed and put together. Anja, the sub-editor, worked tirelessly on keeping the words to scale; there was so much we had to leave out and keeping the stories full and punchy was a challenge all-round. Guy and I just steered the ship. For me, this is a very important subject and the book is certainly not some exercise in tokenism. It says as much about where we are now in cycling, as to where we were then. And if I never get to make another book, I'd be so satisfied that I got to do this one."

finally, it's not unusual for a book to serve a dual purpose, even if one of those purposes might have been unintended at the original point of conception. each chapter in 'queens of pain' features a historical tenacity that truly deserves to be recorded for posterity, something brilliantly achieved here. but does isabel have hopes that her book becomes an inspiration for young, female, would-be cyclists of the 21st century?

"The quick answer to this is, yes, of course! I have three young daughters, so they were also very much at the back of my mind when writing the book. They're very keen readers, who love stories of all types, so sometimes I would talk about a rider who I was researching and see how they responded before starting to write.
"Naturally I'd love it if this book inspires them and others. Cycling is such a generous sport, one that anyone can do, whether you're just using the bike for weekend excursions, or you have an urge to be the fastest thing on two wheels. I also hope the book will be enjoyed as much by male readers as females.
queens of pain - isabel best "Many of the women I spoke to never thought of themselves as 'female' riders; they were racing cyclists who happened to be women. One book which I think reflects this point of view and has certainly influenced me, is Tim Hilton's 'One More Kilometre and We're in the Showers'. I love that he mixes up women's and men's stories with little fanfare, like it's totally normal the women's stories should be included too. I'm just as inspired by Eileen Sheridan riding long and hard to break records as I am by Roger Walkowiak winning the Tour de France through pluck and determination. I don't see why men shouldn't be similarly inspired."

queens of pain

saturday 20 october 2018

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................