Today, Britain’s elite cyclists are highly-paid celebrities. It was very different back in 1950s, when Eileen Sheridan dominated the sport – and doing it the hard way.
She’s only four-foot-eleven, but Eileen Sheridan is a giant in British women’s cycling. Yet, despite her formidable palmares, she’s almost unknown outside the sport – and not that well-known to the current generation of Middle Aged Men In Lycra, either.
And that’s a shame, because hers is a remarkable story. Born in 1923, she joined Coventry Cycling Club in 1944. Within a year, she was both club and National 25-mile time-trial champion: in 1948, The Bicycle magazine declared that she had ‘rocked the racing world, setting up completely new standards for women’s records’. Three years later, she turned professional with the legendary Hercules team specifically to break records, which she did in spectacular fashion. Her 1,000-mile record of 3 days and 1 hour stood for 48 years: her time of 20h 11m 35s between London and Edinburgh, which she set in 1954, is one of her five records that have never been broken.
What more, Eileen had none of the space-age technology, clothing and nutritional products available even to rank amateurs today. “We used to ride in our baggy shorts, not padded of course, and a sweater with a pocket on the front where we kept our food. It opened like a sail as we cycled!” she told one interviewer. “I wore chamois leather shorts when I was racing, but that’s as smart as it got. There were no showers or anything. We used to finish, find out our time and ride home.’‘ According to another champion racer, now cycling historian, Ramin Minovi: “Her hands were blistered because there was no padding on the bars, just a winding of rough tape, and she kept going on blackcurrant juice, soup, sugar and chicken legs.”
In many ways, hers is a quintessentially British tale: the plucky, sporty girl from the Midlands who reached the top by her own efforts, yet was always modest about her achievements. But make no mistake: this is one steely lady. She once said she’d always regretted that women were never allowed to race against men: “The rules were very strict, which was a shame, because it would definitely draw out the speed. To chase is built into my personality.”
But Eileen wasn’t just a racing cyclist: she also rode for the sheer fun of it, going on long tours with her husband, whom she met through the cycling club and married when she was just 19. She’s a great reminder that life itself is an adventure – and that even when you’re working at the very highest level, you’ve got to love what you do.