On a February evening in 1951, 7,000 people packed the Royal Albert Hall for a celebration of 60 years of Cycling, the house journal of the sport in Britain. Despite the post-war austerity, no expense was spared. There was an orchestra, roller racing, acrobats, trapeze artists and dancing girls. In a highlight of the evening, Fausto Coppi, on his first visit to Britain, took to the stage for a demonstration. Dressed in the celeste and blue of his Bianchi team and under dimmed lights, Il Campionissimo rode a snow white track bike on a special set of red, white and green rollers.
The rollers were mounted on a slowly revolving platform to ensure everyone got a complete view of the world’s most complete cyclist, with moving spotlights of continually changing colours illuminating his graceful figure. The crowd roared its appreciation.
Coppi’s show was followed by the finale of the evening: the presentation of prizes to the 12 fastest racers of the season just gone. A photograph shows them lined up in front of the orchestra, trophies in hand.
Standing out among the men in suits is a woman in a strapless fuscia ballgown with matching lace gloves and shoes. She is a shade under five feet tall with brown wavy hair, dimpled cheeks, and a toothy smile. She is Eileen Sheridan of the Coventry Cycling Club.
Sixty one years later, near enough to the day, 1 photographer Wig Worland and I are at the door of a pastel pink terraced house on the banks of the Thames in west London. It’s a sunny winter morning. A small model bicycle stands in the net curtained front window, next to a couple of pot plants. I ring the bell.
Now 85 [note: she is now 92 – ed] – and still with something of that charming, toothy smile – Eileen Sheridan opens the door and invites us in. We greet her husband Ken, who is standing just behind, and follow the pair into their small sitting room. It’s unseasonably warm outside but warmer still inside. The two bar electric fire is putting out some serious heat and the low winter sunshine streams in through full length windows that open onto a lovingly kept garden extending right up to the river.
Water has been a constant in their long life together. Eileen Shaw met Ken Sheridan at an open air swimming pool in Coventry during the Second World War. She had grown up in the city and Ken, from Richmond in south west London, was working there as an engineer. In her autobiography Eileen recalls noticing a “dark eyed black haired young man who swam like an otter”.
When the swimming pool closed for the winter they took to their bicycles and toured the rolling countryside south of Coventry. Weekend youth hostel runs took them to the Malvern Hills and into Herefordshire. They were made for each other and were soon married. As members of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, they didn’t do any racing, though they did take part in the CTC’s ‘standard rides’ such as the ‘140 in 12’ (the closest English equivalent of the audax rides devised by Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange).
In 1944 Ken bought Eileen her first lightweight bicycle and, somewhat tentatively, they began riding with the Coventry Cycling Club. In that first season Eileen raced just once, in the club’s own ten mile time trial, turning up at the start without the regulation black jersey and shorts. A fellow club member lent her his black alpaca jacket and Eileen rode to victory, setting a new women’s club record.
“I enjoyed racing,” she says now. “I loved the thrill of chasing. I just had to try hard and win. It was just in me to chase; I think you’re born with that.” In 1945, her first full season as an amateur, she won the national 25 mile time trial championship. The following year her son Clive was born but she was back training within seven weeks.
More successes came at 50 and 100 mile distances. She raced on the track and not owning “a posh track bike” she just rode up on her road bike. She recalls Reg Harris, the burly sprinter from Manchester, helping to remove her mudguards. The race that gave the clearest sign of things to come was the Yorkshire Cycling Federation’s 12 hour time trial in 1949.
Ken was initially wary about his wife riding a ‘twelve’. It was far further than she had ever raced and anyway the couple were saving to buy a house. Money was tight and there were expenses involved in travelling up to Yorkshire with a team of helpers. In the end, a small handful of Coventry CC club-mates, desperate to see what ‘their Eileen’ could achieve, offered to help get her to the start line. Ken was placated. Riding a 79.7 inch fixed wheel, she covered 237.32 miles, breaking the previous record by 17 miles. In the men’s race she would have placed fifth out of 80, having covered just six miles less than the winner.
Coventry was one of the cities which ultimately drove the motor boom that virtually eradicated cycling from British society. But in the early post-war years the roads were empty of motor traffic and there were more miles travelled by bicycle than by car. No road was out of bounds. At weekends Eileen and Ken would ride the 100 miles from Coventry down to Richmond-on-Thames where his family lived.
On these longer riders Ken found it hard to match Eileen’s pace. He sweated so much that his top tube became corroded while Eileen would arrive at her in-laws as fresh as a daisy.
In what sounds like a real life version of the famous scene in 1970s American bicycling teen flick Breaking Away, Eileen laughs as she recalls how she would draft lorries for miles on end on her training runs. “I must have been breathing all the black smoke coming out of the back but the drivers were helpful in those days. They seemed to know you were there.”
As a racer, Eileen showed the same fearlessness that had seen her ride her aunt’s bicycle into the centre of Coventry as a seven-year-old. The saddle was far too high for her so she bobbed up and down on the pedals peering over the handlebars to see where she was going. She was spotted riding in between the tram tracks down Broadgate, the city’s main thoroughfare. When her parents found out they told her in no uncertain terms that this was an adventure not to be repeated.
“I didn’t see that there was anything wrong with it,” she says. “I suppose I just loved the excitement of riding a bicycle.”
Eileen had an office job in a Coventry car dealership and this meant many of her training runs were done at night. Night riding is a thrill I know well myself. There’s a weightless feeling and a sense of still concentration. These days, it’s really also the only way to experience something of the empty roads of the post-war years.
Once, having ridden through the night, I found myself on the course of an early morning time trial. I watched as serious looking racers bombed up and down a dual carriageway, hoping that the drivers of the articulated lorries were sufficiently alert not to run them down. To me, it looked less a form of sporting recreation and more a form of penance for crimes unknown.
Today, time trialling possesses something of the secret society atmosphere it had in its early days in the late 19th century. It is now relegated to a minority pursuit, something for the traditionalists; the purists some might say. Yet for many years time trialling was simply the way British people raced their bicycles on the road. If ever the country has enjoyed an era of mass participation in cycle sport it was the late 1940s and ’50s. On any weekend, across the country, it was not uncommon for as many as 150,000 people to be taking part in a time trial.
The bigger races were held on major roads to ensure fast times, the most important among them the Bath Road (now the A4), the Portsmouth Road (now the A3) and the Great North Road (now the A1). They were a far cry from the hostile dual carriageways they have since become. The iron grip of the time trial was in large part down to the National Cyclists’ Union, which was vehemently opposed to continental style bunch racing. The Road Time Trials Council issued a 3,500 word statement entitled The Council’s Statement on the Menace of Mass Start Racing on the Highway, and asserted that “road races violate every one of the principles of clean amateurism, authenticity, and regard for public safety.”
It shows how wide was the gulf between Britain and continental Europe, which had embraced bunch racing from the beginning and had turned it into one of the world’s great sporting spectacles. Percy Stallard’s breakaway British League of Racing Cyclists was founded in 1942 and did hold bunch races but participation meant instant excommunication from the NCU (and most likely from your local club). And it offered no racing for women.
In any case the ‘race of truth’ suited Eileen, who says she was never faster than when she had someone to chase. “No-one ever passed me in time trials, I used to chase and catch. It was a great thrill, it really was.” She confesses a lack of guile on the track, never quite getting her positioning right for the finishing sprint. But combining obvious athletic prowess with a winning personality, it was only a matter of time before she was offered commercial sponsorship deals.
A few months after watching Fausto Coppi ride the rollers at the Royal Albert Hall, Eileen joined him among the ranks of professional cyclists, thanks to a three year contract with the Hercules Cycle and Motor Company. At the time Hercules was one of the biggest cycle manufacturers in the country, selling cheap, mass produced bikes to the British market but also exporting two million overseas. The firm wanted Eileen to promote their products with a series of attempts on the professional distance records held by Marguerite Wilson, a pre-war rider who had also ridden for the company.
Eileen was signed along with Ken Joy of Medway Wheelers but in Hercules’ advertising they are given equal billing – something that is difficult to imagine happening today. The public was fascinated by Eileen’s diminutive, girlish appearance, which was at quite at odds with what many thought a strong endurance athlete should look like. Newspapers dubbed her ‘The Mighty Atom’ and Sir Adolphe Abrahams, the founder of British sports medicine, wrote a feature in Cycling detailing her lung capacity, heart rate, musculature, psychological profile and other factors that combined to make “a human machine of the highest grade capable of superlative performance”.
For Eileen, the Hercules contract represented the big time. It didn’t put her in the same financial league as today’s sporting stars but it was enough for her and Ken to buy their riverside home, a car, and to guarantee a degree of security. She still smarts at the thought of the tax she paid in those three lucrative years but, ever the hard worker, she not only paid those but also repaid her sponsors handsomely.
She broke every one of the 21 professional long distance and place-to-place records on the books of the Womens’ Road Records Association. In fact, her performances took her within touching distance of many of the men’s records, sparking quite a debate in the newspapers about women in sport. Throughout her career, she was subjected to a casual sexism that would have been demoralising had it not been for her carefree attitude. At a sporting panel event one of the questions asked whether a woman’s proper place was “at the kitchen sink and not in sport”.
In a Pathé newsreel from 1956, the narrator remarks on how “in addition to her household duties she finds the time to be a champion professional cyclist” and concludes, “no wonder she wins races. She has to – to get back in time to catch up with the housework”.
These attitudes go a long way to explaining why women’s cycling was so slow to develop on the world stage. The first UCI Women’s Road Race World Championship wasn’t held until 1958 and there was no women’s time trial event until 1994. Women’s cycling didn’t become an Olympic sport until 1984 and it still rarely features on television, denying it crucial sponsorship money.
This lingering sexism, which afflicts cycling more severely than it does many other sports, serves to make the achievements of pioneers such as Eileen all the more impressive. Of course, and as ever in professional cycling, there were some commercial imperatives at work.
Hercules were selling bikes to men but also to women (for the most part, touring and utility models) and wanted a record breaking woman to front their campaigns aimed at the female market. The fact that Eileen looked like an ‘ordinary woman’ and not some kind of Amazonian powerhouse must have been part of her attraction to her sponsors. “They were so pleased about me because I looked feminine,” she says.
One of the more zany of the Hercules promotional campaigns features what must be a very early 3D pamphlet, complete with a pair of green and red lensed cardboard spectacles with which to look at it. The advertisement proclaims that when Eileen breaks records she is “testing a Hercules for you”. Yet the reality was that she never raced on a real Hercules, but on a lightweight machine badged up as a Hercules.
The advertisement is one of many now preserved with the rest of Eileen’s papers at the Coventry Transport Museum: carefully compiled scrapbooks filled with photographs, yellowing newspaper clippings and other ephemera. Besides the scrapbooks there is a box of trophies and medals and a pair of leather racing shoes, so tiny they look more like ballet shoes than anything made for cycling.
The Museum also holds her record breaking bicycle, in metallic purple with the deep drop handlebars that gave Eileen a low position on the bike. “They all laughed at my handlebars, my great big handlebars. But I got into a lovely flat position when I was on that bike. And I used to lie almost on the tip of the saddle. And all the fast men now, when you see their position, they are down, very flat and they are right on the tip of their saddle. It’s incredible. But that’s how I found I was doing the fastest times. I hated it when Frank or any of the others messed around with my bicycle.”
Frank is Frank Southall, who had been hired by Hercules to manage Eileen’s record attempts. A former racer from renowned London club Norwood Paragon, he had won Olympic medals on both the road and on the track before turning professional and setting nine distance records in the 1930s.
Eileen’s papers show how meticulously her own record attempts were planned, with detailed time schedules, hand drawn maps of the turns and other tricky route sections, and elaborate systems for time keeping and certification that she had covered the distance.
Telegrams conveyed news of her successes back to the Hercules head office. The rules of the day strictly forbade any advance publicity of a record attempt so there was little in the way of support and encouragement out on the road, other than what was organised by her own team of helpers. Local cycling clubs would sometimes be tipped off so they could marshall her runs through larger towns and sympathetic policemen would hold up the traffic.
Of all the record attempts, the greatest was surely her ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats. It began at 10am on a blustery, overcast day in June, 1954. She rode the 470 miles to Carlisle without taking a break, stopping only to attach lights and wet weather clothing when it started to rain. From Penrith onwards her entourage was joined by a very strange vehicle: a customised caravan equipped with beds, a gas fire, a kitchen and a separate toilet hut, all mounted on a large lorry.
The weather was terrible, with high winds and torrential rain slowing her progress through the Scottish borders. Wearing no gloves and with no padding on her handlebars, Eileen’s hands became so blistered that she could only grip the bars using the heel of her hands and her thumb, formed into a primitive claw. The final miles to John O’Groats dragged on and on, with each hill giving way to another.
In the event she broke both the professional record of Marguerite Wilson and the (faster) amateur record set by fellow Coventrian Edith Atkins the previous year. She was more than 11 hours faster than Wilson and just under seven hours faster than Atkins. Reaching John O’Groats wasn’t the end of the ride, for Hercules wanted her to set a new record for 1,000 miles. And so after an hour and three quarters’ rest she was back on the bike for another 130 miles.
At one point Southall told her that if she could increase her speed by just a third of a mile per hour she’d beat the men’s 1,000 mile record. But she was already at her limit, hallucinating freely, greeting imaginary people on the road and struggling against an overpowering urge to ride off the road and into the verge.
She could manage only 60 miles before being forced to take another hour’s rest. Then another 30 miles. With just 40 miles to go and Eileen feeling desperately hungry, Southall proposed another rest and a meal – of fried eggs and bacon. Eileen was incapable of holding a knife and fork and so Southall cut up her food and fed her as her head lolled forward into sleep.
But the meal had the desired effect. In those final miles she picked up speed and wound up having ridden the 1,000 miles in three days and one hour, demolishing the women’s record and coming within two hours 20 minutes of the best men’s time. It still stands as one of the greatest ever rides by a British endurance athlete and it was a record that stood for 48 years until it was broken by Lynne Taylor in 2002.
Five of Eileen’s place-to-place records are yet to be broken, including London to Edinburgh (20 hours 11 minutes and 35 seconds), London to Liverpool (9 hours 39 minutes) and London to Bath and back (10 hours 41 minutes and 22 seconds). At 25 miles, her final record breaking ride as a professional was the shortest. It was a distance she never favoured, saying it usually took her that long just to get warmed up.
It took two attempts to break the record and with that, her racing career was over. There were no records left to break and, having signed as a pro, nobody to race.
Hercules offered to extend her contract if she would take on a purely promotional role but she declined saying it would take her away from home for too long. In any case, there was little fun in an endless series of public appearances and photo shoots. In 1955 the birth of a daughter required a second caesarean section and Eileen gives this as the reason she was never able to regain her best form on the bike.
What happens when a successful bike racer stops racing? Too often the answer is an overwhelming feeling of emptiness and loss. Worse still, a nosedive into deep depression. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of sad tales of athletes who have not been able to handle the transition from exceptional human machine to ordinary human being. It is an issue I am keen to put to Eileen, especially since she gives every impression of having dealt with the change extremely well.
“If you have no other interests it must be very upsetting, very frustrating,” she says. “But I had so many other interests – drawing, swimming, canoeing, and then I took up glass engraving. I’ve had so many things I can do, I’ve never had time to feel down.”
I have more cycling I want to talk about but Eileen has pulled out two hefty albums filled with photographs of the innumerable glasses she has engraved. It’s difficult to take them all in. Some were made to commemorate great moments in cycling. There is something inescapably kitsch about a portrait of Chris Boardman with his futuristic Lotus pursuit bike elaborately engraved on a large, lead crystal goblet.
No matter, the glass engraving gave Eileen an outlet for her innate enthusiasm, a new – and infinite – set of tasks to complete. Something to chase. She seems every bit as proud of her glass engraving as she is of her record breaking. Both represented something to do and she just got on and did it.
Others were not so fortunate, including Marguerite Wilson, Eileen’s record breaking predecessor. “She was really marvellous, ‘the great Marguerite Wilson’ as far as I was concerned. Beautiful, with lovely blond hair, and very tall. A very powerful rider. I think if she’d have been riding when I was riding she’d have got everything. But she got depressed and then she suddenly committed suicide. A lovely, lovely girl. So very sad.”
For the first time in two hours Eileen falls silent and I can see the beginnings of tears welling in her eyes. I try to move the conversation on but soon enough we come to the subject of Beryl Burton, the seven time world champion whose dominance of pursuit and road racing puts her among the very greatest athletes Britain has ever produced.
Burton won the British Best All-Rounder Competition for 25 consecutive years from 1959 to 1983. She died of heart failure while out on a social ride delivering invitations to her 59th birthday. Eileen recalls Beryl complaining about feeling unwell and urging her to take it easier, to have a break from competition.
“But she murmured about having just this race and just that race to do and I suppose in the end she just overdid it.” Eileen gave the eulogy at Beryl’s funeral.
It is impossible to look at Eileen Sheridan’s racing career as anything other than a shaft of brilliant light that brightened what was already the golden age of British cycling. As is always the way, it wasn’t what she achieved but how she did it.
Her feats of speed and endurance were achieved with a strong determination leavened by the innocent pleasure of the chase. She was an amateur at heart but took to the life of a professional quite naturally.
Cycle sport has long revelled in its manufactured images of heroic, hyper-virile male physical prowess, emphasising pain and suffering as the price of glory. The memory of a youthful, ever-smiling Eileen Sheridan – at less than five foot tall with a furious cadence and indomitable fighting spirit – reminds us of the possibility of a lighter side to the sport. No less talented, no less determined, no less committed, but hers is a more joyful vision of cycling.
“We’ve been very lucky and had some wonderful times, haven’t we, Ken?” says Eileen as she looks over to her husband, now into his 90s, who was once the black haired young man who swam and dived like an otter.
Throughout the interview, Ken has been sitting quietly in his armchair, watching his wife with the affection, quiet admiration and love which I sense is the foundation of a shared happiness that began with those long days at the pool and the long rides out the open road.
As he has been listening to our conversation, perhaps he has been wondering what exactly it is that I find so interesting in a bygone time; in what was, after all, just an early part of their lives that passed into history so many years ago.
He has some justification in wondering. Time passes. Things change. As a society we have made a succession of choices that, taken together, have fundamentally altered the texture of our everyday lives. Is it sentimentality that makes me want to hear about those times and to mourn that they will never come back? Is it futile to rage against the monopolisation of our roads by motor vehicles at the expense of cyclists?
Has every bicycle boom in my lifetime been nothing more than a giant marketing opportunity hitched to a severe case of wishful thinking? Is this boom any different from the others? I’ve spent the morning asking Eileen questions, but those are questions for my own generation to answer.
Originally published in issue 33 of 1