A celebrated and award-winning cyclist lives in Old Isleworth. Her name stands alongside other British cycling legends like Reg Harris, Beryl Burton, Victoria Pendleton and Sir Bradley Wiggins. In her time she has established over 30 speed and distance cycling records. Although she effectively retired from competitive cycling in 1955, 60 years ago, many of her records still stand to this day. Her name is Eileen Sheridan.
Eileen was born in Coventry on 18th October 1923 and took her first ride when a schoolgirl upon an old fashioned ‘sit-up-and-beg’ bicycle given to her family by an aunt. Eileen described it as “Sedate and sluggish, it had the usual huge loop frame and handlebars that curved gracefully upwards and backwards – dignity expressed in ironmongery.”
When she was 14 her father, who had always encouraged her, gave Eileen a lighter BSA semi-sports model. Although by today’s standards it was still heavy it did open up a new world to Eileen who discovered that she not only enjoyed cycling but she was rather good at it. When she rode her first race in 1945, a 25 Mile Time Trial with the Coventry Cycling Club, she not only won the event but also broke the club’s record. This was just the beginning. She then entered the National 25 Mile Time Trial and won this too, “Riding as I’ve never ridden before”. Equipped in August 1944 with a ‘super lightweight’ Claude Butler ‘Continental’ Racing bike, a 21st birthday present from her new husband Ken, she was off, “Rocking the racing world, setting up completely new standards for women’s records,” as the ‘Bicycle" magazine had it. First she became the 25 Mile Champion, then took the 30 Mile Record, the 50 Mile Record, the 12 Hour Record (Eileen covered 237.6 miles at an average speed of 19.8 mph) and the 100 Mile Championship. In 1949 and 1950 Eileen won the women’s “Best All Rounder” Trophy. As a result she was awarded the Bidlake Memorial Prize “For creating a new high standard in women’s cycle racing.”
For all her speed and staying power Eileen Sheridan is petite – just under 5 feet tall and described as ‘a dainty lady’ – and so she remains to this day. Unlike sprint cyclists who develop heavily muscled thighs Eileen’s success lay in the extraordinary length of her leg muscles which gave her endurance and what sports scientists call “continuity of cadence.” That combined with a determination to press on and an unwavering joy in riding made her a winner. As one observer said as he watched her powering from Lands End to John O’Groats, “She smiles through the miles!”
In 1952 Eileen went professional for the Hercules Cycle Company with the intention of breaking as many distance and ‘place-to-place’ records as she could – which she did! Although she missed the friendship and fun of amateur cycling it didn’t slow her down. Between 1952 and her eventual retirement from professional cycling in 1955 she managed to break all 21 of the existing women’s records including the 24 hour record covering 446.25 miles at an average speed of 18.6 mph,. She also established new records for London to Edinburgh record in 20 hours and 11 minutes and London to Holyhead in 13 hours and 20 minutes. In 1952 Eileen knocked 23 minutes off the existing Land’s End to London record but her accomplishment was disallowed by the Women’s Road Records Association. Without her realising it, the ‘Daily Mirror’ had printed a story about her attempt on the record before she set out – and this was against the WRRA rules.
Undismayed, in 1954 Eileen had a crack at the Land’s End to John O’Groats ‘End to End’ record which at the time stood at 2 days, 22 hours and 52 minutes established in 1939 by Marguerite Wilson. Accompanied by a comfort wagon in the form of a caravan tied onto the back of a Pickford’s truck she covered the 872 miles in 2 days, 11 hours and 7 minutes – this included any sleep that she might have been able to grab – knocking over 11 hours off Marguerite’s record. After getting her breath back she cycled on a further 128 miles and set a new 1000 mile record of 3 days and 1 hour. This last achievement stood for 48 years until it was broken in 2002 by Lynne Taylor.
“Hercules supplied the most bizarre support vehicle ever seen until the Mad Max movies. A caravan was strapped to a vast Bedford low-loader, and a large toilet ostentatiously installed on the front. Access to the monster was via a ladder, and when Eileen needed a comfort break, then the whole world knew about it. 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 – adding bananas, honey and salt when needed.”
RAMIN MINOVI – cycling historian
Shortly afterwards, and demonstrating that the long distance record hadn’t spoiled her appetite for speed, Eileen then set a new 50 mile record at 1 hour and 55 minutes – an average speed of 26 mph!
With so many thousands of cycling miles and so many records behind her Eileen now enjoys a quiet retirement in Isleworth, engraving glass for pleasure and keeping in touch with the many friends that she has made over the years for fun. The ever present smile on her face is a reminder that for all her achievements cycling has always been about friendship and the joy of the open road. Looking back on her life on two wheels Eileen Sheridan’s reflection is “I was always happy!”
“It may well be that Eileen Sheridan will go down in cycling history as the greatest of all women riders.”
BERNARD THOMPSON – cycling historian
— from Martyn Day