Chances are, you’ll have heard of Beryl Burton – one of the greatest cyclists, male or female, that ever lived. You might even know about Eileen Sheridan, the pint-sized rocket who broke numerous distance records in the post-war years of the 1950s.
Less likely to register on your cycling history radar, however, is Marguerite Wilson, the world’s first female professional cyclist and a long-distance specialist who smashed record after record during her peak years – much like Sheridan and Burton in following decades. Had World War Two not intervened, she’d have smashed many more, no doubt. As she told fellow racer Ethel Brambleby: “I’ll never be able to forgive Hitler.”
If Marguerite is to make it into the Rouleur Hall of Fame, I’m going to have to do a hard sell. Her story is one well worth reading, though, so do stick with me. Wilson is eminently worthy of your consideration, and your vote.
Growing up on the south coast of England, in 1934 Wilson joined the Bournemouth Arrow CC, one of the more enlightened clubs of the time that welcomed women to their fold. Many did not.
She took to racing immediately, the longer the distance, the better. Wilson thought nothing of riding over 100 miles laden with camping gear on a Saturday to win a time-trial the following day, pitching her tent near the start line, then riding home after.
Ultra-distance events are back in vogue now. Sorry, hipsters, but Wilson was way ahead of the curve when it comes to smashing out all-day rides.
In 1937, the 19-year-old was ready for her first 12-hour time-trial. “All the lads in the club said I may be good at a ‘25’, and almost equal their times, but it takes a man to ride a ‘12’,” Wilson wrote. “This rather got my goat, so, unknown to anybody, I entered.”
Wilson won, of course, and ‘the lads’ were silenced.
The following year, this still very young woman set about tackling records. City-to-city records were a big part of the sport back then, carrying major kudos for those capable of riding flat out for hundreds of miles.
London to York, 196 miles, was the first to fall to the ‘blonde bombshell from Bournemouth’, as Wilson became known. Having reached York, she ploughed on for another 66 miles to set a new 12-hour record at the same time. She also set a new 100 mile record later that year.
These early exploits caught the eye of Frank Southall, manager of the Hercules team – set up to take place-to-place records all over Britain. Wilson signed a contract, making her the first female professional cyclist ever, joined an all-male squad and set about earning her crust.
Bearing in mind the strict separation in place between amateurs and professionals at the time, it was a leap into the unknown. She would no longer be eligible to compete in time-trials. Record setting was the only competition available to this extremely competitive woman.
Wilson started by smashing her own London to York time, “sustained by water and just one sandwich and a banana”. Just eight days later, London to Brighton and back also fell to the new star. Five more records were taken over the summer, including the 24-hour – 396 miles.
Now came the big ones: Land’s End to John O’Groats as the hors d’oeuvres, with the 1,000 miles tagged on for afters – a phenomenal undertaking.
The first end-to-end record by a woman had been set earlier the same year – 3 days, 20 hours and 54 minutes – much to the annoyance of the male cycling establishment, who considered it beyond the capabilities of a female…
Wilson aimed to trim 17 hours off this time. Despite stiff headwinds, mechanicals and sleep deprivation, she reached Carlisle (470 miles) just up on schedule before taking three hours of much-needed rest.
She then stormed through Scotland, making easy work of the lumpy roads and less than ideal weather conditions, reaching John O’Groats in 2 days, 22 hours and 52 minutes.
Following breakfast, bath and a fresh set of clothes, Wilson was on her way once more. Another 130 miles to Wick and the 1,000 mile record was set.
It was September 1st, 1939. Two days later, Neville Chamberlain announced Britain was at war with Germany. Marguerite Wilson’s adventure had seemingly come to an end.
Having signed a new contract for 1940 with Claud Butler, Wilson set about breaking more records before joining the war effort, serving as an ambulance driver before returning to her hometown on the south coast to work for BOAC on the Catalina flying boats based in Poole Harbour.
It was here she met pilot Ronnie Stone who she would later marry following his posting to Canada. Seeking competition in Montreal, Wilson was granted an amateur licence and tried her hand at road racing – a novelty for a Brit where massed-start racing was banned. She finished fifth on her first attempt, against a field of men, riding a 78” fixed with no brakes…
Again, take that, Red Hook hipsters.
This was to be Wilson’s final racing hurrah. On return to the UK, the National Cycling Union ensured she took no further part in the amateur side of the sport following her pre-war professional status. Marguerite’s record breaking days were over. Tragically, Wilson took her own life in 1972 following a bout of depression. She was just 54-years-old.
Wilson was a true pioneer of women’s cycling; trailblazer, superstar, holder of 16 place-to-place records, and an absolute credit to the sport. Vote for Marguerite.
Over the coming months the Rouleur team will be making the case for each of the 18 Cycling Hall of Fame nominees. Vote for Liggett and Sherwen – or any of the other nominees – below.
Read more from our Cycling Hall of Fame 2019, “The case for…” series: