Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Vintage Greats: Eileen Sheridan

Recently on the Classic Rendezvous group there was quite a nice run of posts about a great racer from the past, Eileen Sheridan. In the 1940s and '50s Sheridan was a time-trialing powerhouse who not only was one of the best female cyclists in the sport, but also gave a lot of men a real run for the money too. With all the posts and photos being shared by the CR friends, I couldn't help but feel inspired to gather more about her and share it here on the Retrogrouch.

At just 4' 11", Sheridan was dubbed "The Mighty
Atom" by the newspapers.
Born in 1923, Sheridan joined the Coventry Cycling Club when she was still in her teens. Her main interest was originally just riding with the club and cyclotouring, which was a very popular pastime during the war - but after entering a club time trial, she found she had a natural talent for the competition. Throughout the '40s and '50s, time-trialing was the main form of racing in Britain, as Continental-style mass-start racing was essentially banned by the sport's main governing body, the National Cyclists' Union (NCU), and participation in mass-start races would get a rider banned from any NCU sanctioned events. Though she did also compete in some track racing, road time trials and timed point-to-point rides became her specialty.

Sheridan's official start in racing was in 1945 and she won her first National Championship in the 25-mile time trial that year. In 1947 she would set the record in the women's 50-mile, and improve her 25-mile record. By 1950, she would be the National Champion in the 50 and 100-mile races, and was breaking records in all the distances she raced. In her 1949 12-hour record, Sheridan rode 237.62 miles - which actually put her within only a handful of miles from the top-ranked men of the day. In subsequent years, she would improve on that one, too.

The Hercules Cycle Company hired Sheridan in 1950 as a professional rider, and her appointed mission was to break distance records (that, and sell lots of Hercules bicycles). Over the next three years, she would break the 12-hour record (250.5 miles), the 24-hour record (446.5 miles), and the London-Edinburgh record. In 1954 she broke the record for Land's End-to-John O'Groats, which famously traverses the entire island of Great Britain from end-to-end, which she completed in 2 days, 11 hours, 7 minutes. After arriving in John O'Groats, despite being terribly sleep-deprived and near complete exhaustion, she continued riding on to also break the 1000 mile record. By her third mostly sleepless night on the bike, she reported that she was at times weaving along the road, barely able to stay upright, and having hallucinations, but she finished the ride in 3 days, 1 hour - a record that stood for 48 years. Not only that, but she was only 2 hours, 20 minutes off the men's record at the time. All told, between 1945 and 1955, she broke 21 women's long distance and place-to-place records. Many of these stood for decades, some through the end of the century, and a few of them, such as her London-Liverpool and London-Edinburgh runs, still stand today.


Prior to her Hercules sponsorship, Sheridan rode a few different bikes. I saw an interview on CyclingUK where she mentioned and old BSA that she started out with, and a Claude Butler that her husband bought for her when she first began racing. And searching the internet, I spotted a couple of photos of her racing on a bike built by Mercian. But she's mainly remembered for her Hercules deal.

Eileen's Mercian, which she used for several National Championships and record-breaking runs as an amateur. At different times the bike was equipped with a Sturmey-Archer multi-speed hub (like it is here), and in some instances, she used it as a fixed gear single-speed.

The Hercules model most often associated with Eileen was their "Maestro" - though it's generally known that she was not actually racing on any off-the-rack production line bike. The more common practice was that something was built special for her, and painted/labeled with the company name.

One of Eileen's bikes is on display at the Coventry Transport Museum. Though hard to see in this photo, the lugs on the frame definitely mark it as something other than a regular production Hercules Maestro. I'm quite certain a production Maestro would also weigh a good bit more, too. One can see how she used bars with an extremely deep drop. She was very proud of her position on the bike, with her back low and flat, just like the best time-trialists of today.

Female athletes have long had to battle with indifference and sexism, and it was certainly no different in Sheridan's day. The thing is, Eileen Sheridan, and many women like her, really deserves tremendous credit considering that, unlike most male athletes, she really was expected to balance her dedication to her sport with the "duties" of a wife and mother. Sheridan gave birth to a son in 1946, right after her first season as an amateur racer. Within months, she was back on the bike to pick up where she'd left off. Her second child, a daughter, was born in 1955, right at the end of her contract with Hercules, and at that point, having broken all the records that were available to be broken, she decided against renewing it. Difficulty in regaining her earlier form was also a factor in the decision.

On YouTube, you can find a brief clip from an old British Pathé newsreel about Eileen, "The Housewife Cyclist." The sexist and patronizing tone is kind of hard to stomach, but gives a good idea of the attitudes that female athletes like Eileen probably had to fight every day. The newsreel clip opens with a shot of Eileen feeding her new baby daughter . . .


Then goes on to show her training in her garage gymnasium . . .

The narrator says: "Some men believe a woman's place is in the home. But Eileen's husband likes to get her out of the house, even if it's only into the garage. For in this home-made gymnasium, he supervises the exacting training that has brought her eleven championship medals and twenty three national place-to-place records. . . . No wonder she wins races. She has to, to get back in time to catch up with her housework."
Sheridan has said in interviews that she would have loved to have been able to compete in the Olympics. The indifference that female athletes faced (and still face) meant that there was no women's cycling in the Olympics until 1984. And even now, the UCI has limits on their support of women's racing, and indifference by advertisers means a lack of coverage of it on television.

After her amazing John O'Groats ride, and while pregnant with her second child, Sheridan wrote her autobiography, Wonder Wheels. It was released in 1956. I believe the book is no longer in print, but it was re-issued briefly about 10 years ago. Used copies seem to be available if one knows where to look.

There's a very nicely done short documentary about Eileen called Come On, Eileen, directed by Anthony Collins in 2014. It seems that I am unable to embed the video right here, but it can be found on the Vimeo site, and here's a link: https://vimeo.com/98539448. The film combines archive footage, photos, interviews, and some dramatic re-enactments to tell Eileen's story. It's only about 20 minutes long, and well worth watching.

Eileen in her 90s, with a bike built to replicate one she might have raced on.

There's Eileen in recent years - a screenshot from the short documentary Come On, Eileen.

As I understand, at 94 Eileen still remains at least somewhat active in the cycling community - attending special events when she can, and she was for many years the president of the Coventry Cycling Club. She provides inspiration for a lot of female cyclists, particularly those who are now breaking (or at least attempting to break) some of her great records.

5 comments:

  1. She’s quite an accomplished rider, that’s for sure. And in every single photograph I’ve ever seen of her, she’s smiling!

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  2. Great post, thank you. I wonder if any of her children took up cycling?

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  3. She is something! Interestingly, she was riding a decade or so before Beryl Burton, who is probably better-known. I wonder whether she was inspired by Eileen.

    Like you, Retrogrouch, I suspect that her Hercules was made by some British custom bike builder--perhaps Mercian or Claud Butler--just as the "Windsor" Eddy Merckx used for his hour record was really a Colnago.

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    1. Sheridan surely was an inspiration to Burton, and I understand they did know each other. I read somewhere that Eileen Sheridan read the eulogy at Beryl Burton's funeral.

      I couldn't find out for sure who built Sheridan's Hercules bike(s), but I wouldn't be that surprised to learn that it was Mercian.

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  4. Very nice spin on the rollers. For anybody who has ridden a 24 hour, her distance is staggering.

    Her weight lifting form at the end made me cringe. What a way to hurt your low back.

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