The Cycling Diaries interviews Stephanie Theobald, the successful author and journalist who has made her reputation by writing about women who have a good time. Stephanie is also a keen cyclist and has taken up Victoria Pendleton’s challenge to cycle the 40 kms Cycletta – a women’s only cycling event on September 11th at Whipsnade Zoo.
Stephanie – when did you start writing and when did you realise you would be a successful writer?
When I went to live in Paris after my French degree, I used to keep a diary of my night-time antics and one day a friend told me I should turn it into a novel. I had visions of Jackie Collins and buying a million dollar pad in the South of France on the proceeds. That never happened but I did write Biche, which the Guardian dubbed ‘Existential Jackie Collins’ and which meant I didn’t have to teach English any more to pay the rent.
Your books – and certainly your latest novel “A Partial Indulgence” has been described as “clever, erotic and decadent” – are you happy with that description?
I’ve written four novels now and I’ve noticed that they tend to be about women having a good time. I don’t know why anyone would want to write about women having a boring time. My female characters tend to have a lot of sex, but food’s also important to them. I think it’s nice to read about pleasure. I’m glad you found the adjective ‘clever’ because I find that when men write about sex it’s seen as somehow deep and metaphysical and part of the Great American Novel tradition and suchlike. But when women do the same thing they’re being silly and shallow and chick –litty.
Slightly changing the subject have you always been a keen cyclist?
On the front of Biche, there is a picture of a girl with curly hair on a bicycle – with a big grin on her face. And yes, that was supposed to be me. In the book, I refer to my bike as ‘my metal friend’ because it was my constant companion in all my Parisian adventures. It’s hard to explain how much I love my bike. I always thought in an ideal world my body would be half- human, half-bicycle. It would be such an efficient and slick Super Body. People often refer to the concept of ‘freedom’ but you don’t really understand what freedom is until you’re zooming down hill really fast on a bicycle.As a woman living in an urban environment, (as I always have – in Paris, New York and London) a bike can sometimes function as a kind of weapon, or at least it makes you feel safe. Even if you walk on the pavement wheeling your bike late at night, you feel less vulnerable than if you’re just walking on your own (hence the, ‘metal friend’ idea). Even today, I normally go out at night on my bike. It feels much safer than taking the tube or bus or walking, and in a taxi you always feel you should be making conversation but on a bike you can be a perfect misanthrope!
Should this country/government do more for cyclists and women in particular?
I have to admit I have been pleasantly surprised by what Boris Johnson has done for cyclists. The Boris Bike scheme is great (although my fob key often doesn’t work for some reason) and the blue super highways came as a great surprise. So wide. Cycling along the Embankment can sometimes feel like a ride in the country – such a feeling of space and that ‘freedom’ word again. They mayor’s next enterprise should be setting up more cycle maintenance workshops. Back in the right-on 1980s, there used to be women-only cycle maintenance workshops because the idea was that a bicycle gave you the ultimate in independence but only if you knew how to mend a flat tyre when you got one. All-women cycle classes would also be a good one to offer chicks in offices. Say, in a lunch hour instead of going to the gym. British women love women-only activities and this would be a good Sex and the City-type thing to do -possibly more useful than downing a dozen Cosmopolitans. Actually, maybe everyone could all have a bike-inspired cocktail afterwards. Something like a Rusty Chain. I see rum, I see coffee liqueur, a little club soda…
I definitely want to champion chicks on bikes. And yes, I think women need a bit of help. Most of the people I see on Boris Bikes are men. Whenever I get overtaken by a man on a bike in the city, I get riled and try and overtake him but I love it when a woman overtakes me-gives me a very ‘Go, Girl!’ feeling.
I was talking to an ambulance paramedic the other day who told me that 13 women have been killed by lorries so far in London. He said it was because women are ‘too nice’ on the roads. Often, he said, they will stay on the inside lane at traffic lights so as not to be too pushy, but they get squashed when the lorry doesn’t see them when it turns left. The paramedic said that men will be cockier and station themselves in front of the traffic at the lights- a much safer thing to do. So yes, I think we need to see more women, and all different types of women, on bikes in cities because that will increase confidence levels. But it is starting to happen.
You are cycling the Cycletta event lead by Victoria Pendleton – do you think more women will be inspired to ride bikes as a result.
I certainly hope so after setting off at 9AM on a Sunday morning to ride 40 kilometres! But yes, there hasn’t been a famous female cyclist like Victoria before and that role model thing really does work. Also, I think there’s a special sort of power you get from women hanging out with other women. We can be ourselves, get strength from that and then take that strength back to the roads.
A Partial Indulgence by Stephanie Theobald
If you want to find out more about Stephanie Theobald and read an extract from her latest book go to her website:
The Cycling Diaries interviews Tim Moore – the travel writer just before he is about to embark on one of the most perilous cycling adventures know to man or woman – the children are coming too!
Q1: OK Tim – lets start at the beginning – how did you start writing?
It was my dad’s fault. After university I went home to my parents and just hung about doing nothing and getting under foot – a bit like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, but without the Alfa Romeo, or the swimming pool, or the older woman. In the end, like after about 18 months, my dad had enough, and without telling me sent a load of silly postcards and stuff I’d written for my family off to Punch magazine. It still makes me cringe. They wrote back saying they couldn’t use any of it, but I was sufficiently taken in by the kind praise tacked on to their apology that I wrote some more stuff and sent it off to a load of other random magazines. On the strength of this Record Mirror took me on as a TV columnist (obviously). It’s probably a coincidence that both Record Mirror and Punch folded shortly afterwards.
Q2: And how did you come up with the idea of cycling Le Tour De France – didn’t know you were a world champion cyclist?
I’ve been into the Tour de France since my student days, largely because Channel 4 started showing highlights straight after Countdown, at a time of my life when getting off my behind to change channels represented a breach of human rights. I didn’t actually do any cycling then, though. Some years on, for my first book, I had to ride a bike across Iceland – in fact across Europe’s largest (Arctic) desert. That was the first time I’d ever gone further than the shops. Can’t pretend it was plain sailing, but I managed it without incurring any lasting physical damage. The Tour idea emerged out of that.
Q3: Why do you think the book has done so well?
I accidentally tapped into a hidden passion – amongst men of a certain age – for pro cycling in general and the Tour in particular. I think there was also a sort of appealing perversity in an unfit and totally unprepared idiot tackling one of the most fearsome physical challenges known to man.
Q4: And now you are going to cycle across the top of Sardinia with your family – is this going to be different?
In the language of pro cycling terms, I suppose I’ll be the team leader. Actually, what am I saying? The leader gets all his teammates to fetch him food and drinks, give up their bikes if his breaks, take the wind in their face so he can sit in their slipstream… So in fact I’ll be what they call a ‘domestique’, who does all the dirty work and gets none of the glory.
Q5: You, Birna (your partner) and three teenagers all straining in the saddle – its got all the potential for some family rows?
Absolutely, given that the five of us can drum up a decent holiday row just sitting on a beach. Getting away from the hotel every morning before midday is certain to present some lively scenes. I also know, from bitter experience, that getting back into the saddle after a long morning and a big lunch is never easy. Also, our route takes in some impressively steep geography, which is likely to spark off a few complaints – especially as I’ve promised everyone it’s going to be flat all the way.
Q6: Have you given your wife and children any tips on cycling 40 miles a day?
Yes. Number one – I haven’t told them it’s 40 miles a day. Even when I said it was only 25 they all squawked in horror. To be fair I had the same reaction when I plotted out that ride across Iceland. The statistics always sound grim if you’ve never cycled a long way before. What I’ve said to the family is that the slowest you can possibly go on a bike without actually falling over is about 5 miles an hour, so on that basis covering 25 miles in a whole day is nothing (and, er, 40 isn’t much more than nothing). When I did my Tour ride, I regularly managed to cover 100 miles or more a day, and that was at an appropriately modest pace and factoring in a massive boozy lunch break.
I really do think it’s going to be a fantastic family bonding experience – as most fearsome shared ordeals generally are! Plus I’m fairly confident that at least three-fifths of us will come away with a great sense of achievement. It’s quite a thing to cycle all the way across a fairly big island. Of course it helps that this island is in the Med, with all the culinary and meteorological benefits that implies. And that the wind should be behind us all the way…
Good luck Tim – thanks very much and look forward to reading the account when you come back.
Tim Moore is the author of “French Revolutions”. Self confessed loafer Tim Moore, seduced by the speed and glamour of the biggest annual sporting event in the world sets out to cycle the course of the Tour De France. All 3630 kms of it. Racing old men on butcher’s bikes and being chased by cows – Moore soon resorts to standard race tactics – cheating and drugs.