We're not deviants, say the cycling ladies

Britain's oldest women's cycling club is up in arms at author's claims. Nicholas Pyke reports
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The Independent Online

But coming straight for him and pedalling vigorously is the peloton of the Rosslyn Ladies Cycling Club, the oldest women's group in Britain. And the most furious.

They have been enraged by Tim Hilton's One More Kilometre and We're in the Showers, which they claim portrays them as sexual deviants. And now, after more than 80 years of flying the flag for female cycling, they have felt moved to issue an unprecedented statement: they are neither lesbians nor nymphomanics, and they want an apology.

Most cycling histories promise nothing more controversial than sore legs and wonky gears. Hilton claims that his book, a mixture of personal memoir and cycling history, has given rise to an angry exchange of letters plus a poison-pen threat to "gouge his eyes out".

The author has previously won plaudits for his biography of John Ruskin, Victorian artist and man of letters. His mistake this time was to include a bit of entertaining hearsay to move the tale along: "In Rosslyn they were all lesbians, it was said. Or they were so voracious that no man was safe in their company. Warn your son against them. None of them are married ... They have now disbanded, apparently."

Unfortunately for Mr Hilton, Rosslyn Ladies Cycling Club is still very much around and, as he admits himself, his information came from no more reliable source than a stranger in a public lavatory at Waltham Abbey.

The club has demanded an explanation from both the author and his publisher, HarperCollins, describing the remarks as "completely inaccurate" and "derogatory".

June Grant, 68, a member for the past 53 years, said: "I was disgusted with it all. I really was. To say that we were all lesbians when we were all married, I don't know where he's coming from. If he's written it as a joke, it's pretty poor, isn't it?"

Speaking from the club headquarters in Saffron Walden, Mrs Pat Seeger, the Rosslyn president and a member since 1946, said that even though the stories were presented as rumour, the club's cyclists emerge as monsters.

"I don't deny the book's a good read," she said. "But the ladies and their husbands and relatives were incensed. So are the other clubs we see. I know it's all quoted as hearsay, but it's still not very nice to see it in print. Many people will take it literally." She is all the more insulted, she says, as Mr Hilton is a keen amateur rider in his own right.

Still cycling on her drop-handled racer at the age of 79, she admits Rosslyn is well past its heyday, but she said it still has around 30 members, staging regular outings and an annual dinner. It was the first women's cycling club in the country when it was formed in 1922, and in the early days its members had to fend off catcalls and stones hurdled at them for wearing trousers.

Mr Hilton, who lives in nearby Beccles, Suffolk, complained that he had received a number of unpleasant letters, including one threatening to disfigure him. "One of the rumours about the Rosslyn ladies and their dislike of men seems to be justified by the hate mail I'm getting," he said.

The Rosslyn club said it knew of only one threatening letter, sent by a former cyclist now in her 90s. "She threatened to poke his eyes out. That did go a bit far," said Mrs Seeger.