When Tucson cyclist Kathryn Bertine set out to write her fourth book about her life and work in activism, she never imagined that the journey to publication would mirror the contents of the book itself.
Bertine was met with rejection after rejection when she pitched the idea of a memoir about her activism to traditional publishing houses. She was told that a book about women who fight for change was unmarketable and that “there’s no room on the shelf,” Bertine said.
“I got turned down by over 25 corporate publishers. They all said, ‘Bertine’s a good writer, but this topic won’t sell,’” Bertine said.
So she went it alone, and four years later, her efforts have paid off. “STAND: A memoir on activism. A manual for progress. What really happens when we stand on the front lines of change” went on sale Feb. 1.
Bertine said her experience with the publishers was “a huge motivator” to write the book.
“I got to the point that I was so disappointed, I thought the only way we can flip the switch is to prove them wrong,” she said.
Bertine is a five year-veteran of professional cycling. But cycling wasn’t her first passion. Her first book, “All the Sundays Yet to Come,” tells the story of her time as a professional ice skater.
Three years after it was published, Bertine went to work for ESPN as a columnist. One assignment had her attempting to qualify for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Bertine tried out most of the summer sports over a period of six months before settling on road cycling. Bertine was granted dual citizenship of St. Kitts and Nevis and the United States, giving her a path to represent the island nation in the Olympics.
While Bertine didn’t make the Olympics, she discovered her new passion — activism — after learning more about what she described as deeply rooted gender inequity within the world of professional cycling and sports.
Bertine came out of the experience with two new goals — becoming a professional cyclist and getting women into the Tour de France.
The first happened soon enough. She signed her first professional cycling contract in 2012 at the age of 37, and rode with domestic and World Tour teams Colavita, Wiggle-Honda, BMW and Cylance Pro Cycling.
The second would prove to be much harder. The Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s governing body, initially had no intention of recognizing or including women in the sport. It ignored her attempts to discuss the issue, and after she signed her first professional contract, she was urged to keep quiet about inequity in women’s sports.
She said she was benched for a year, subjected to verbal and physical abuse from the team’s manager and staff, but pushed ahead.
“This is never really about cycling anyway; this was about women not being allowed to race in the Tour de France,” Bertine said.
In 2012, she set out to make a documentary about the topic.
“I started interviewing Olympic champions, world champions and people with a huge impact in the sport and it dawned on me that if we banded together, we could create change better than if I individually tried doing it on my own,” Bertine said.
She aligned herself with world-class athletes Marianne Vos, Emma Pooley and Chrissie Wellington and got to work.
“These people were huge, at pinnacle of the sport, and then there was me,” Bertine said. “But what I did have was an expertise in organization, writing and communication. For me, that was my role. They’re all greatness, but somebody has got to drive the bus.”
Their group, Le Tour Entier — The Whole Tour — formed in 2013 and soon released a petition for equal opportunity in the Tour de France. The petition got nearly 100,000 signatures.
In July 2014, a women’s race, La Course by Tour de France, made its debut. Her documentary, “Half the Road,” was picked up for international distribution that same year and went on to win several awards.
“One of the core themes in ‘STAND’ is that we all have the power to create change. We don’t have to be famous, wealthy, politicians, movie stars or gold medal Olympians. I’m absolute proof of that,” Bertine said. “If I was able to affect change at the Tour de France as a struggling waitress and writer working two jobs in Tucson, hopefully that serves as the example that we all can.”
But it wasn’t an easy quest. Bertine said she was harassed, bullied, abandoned and fell into a deep depression. She struggled for years, until a 2016 bicycle crash and brain injury opened her mind to the healing powers of activism.
“I couldn’t just write about activism and that we made change happen and it was great. I needed to get into the weeds of what really happens when we fight for change,” she said. “Any activist fighting for a cause close to heart blurs the line between public world and private. I’m so happy that finally society is more open and vulnerable to talking about mental health.”
Bertine founded a nonprofit that provides free housing to female professional athletes. Then she wrote a proposal for “STAND” that her agent began shopping.
While she found success with traditional publishers with her first three books, she was not as lucky with “STAND.” Rejected by publishers this time around, Bertine started her own independent publishing label, New Shelf Press, and got to work writing and producing her book all while working several other jobs. She continued to work as a freelance writer and public speaker while serving as CEO of the Homestretch Foundation.
Just like with the Tour de France, Bertine needed a team of people behind her to make her book happen. She brought on an editor, copy editor, graphic designer and a person she calls her “tech guru” to upload the book in proper formatting for its various forms.
“The very content of ‘STAND’ and the publishing journey are almost one in the same,” Bertine said. “I totally understand that in this field, it’s very rare that you make a decent living as a writer. Pushing sales for this book is much less about financial element than it is about proving traditionalists wrong that a book like this won’t sell.”
With “STAND” available for purchase at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and at local bookstores, Bertine is able to finally relax, but just a little bit. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
“A lot of people will use the common refrain, ‘It’s 2021; of course everything’s equal by now,’” Bertine said. “It’s within those confines that inequity still lives and thrives, because people don’t wish to see that we’re not even in an equal playing field yet in so many areas.”
Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at email@example.com or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlincschmidt.