Wonder Wheels, Eileen Sheridan (1956)
A charming, period piece of an autobiography by the dominant force in UK women’s cycling during the early 1950s
Nicholas Kaye Sexto 158pp
Eileen Sheridan was a sporting sensation. The 4″11′ Coventry girl drifted into cycle racing as a cycle tourist who noticed that she seemed to have no trouble ‘keeping up with the boys’. Thereafter, she was unbeatable in time trials over any distance, and set an unparalleled set of point-to-point records – most notably riding from Lands End to John O’Groats. She covered the 870 miles in 2 days, 11 hours and 24 minutes, nearly 12 hours faster than the previous record holder.
Her achievements can be studied elsewhere. The delight of this book is the fresh-from-the 1950s quality that spills from its pages. When she was still a cycle tourist, for example, she decided that she needed something more like drop handlebars. Fearing the reaction of her mother and husband, however, she contrived to fit a succession of bars, each allowing her to adopt a slightly lower position than the last. Her partner was not to be fooled, however.
“Then Ken spoke. ‘Now look Eileen’, he said. ‘I have been watching you all along, and so far its been jolly funny, but don’t you really think these things are ridiculous?’
“Squashed. Squashed as flat as a pancake (I was). But not defeated. What I needed was the reinforcement of expert opinion to back me up. So we decided to join a cycle club .”
Happily she finds the CTC – “the world’s greatest cycling club” – and is soon among like-minded comrades.
There is no wrestling with inner demons here. After a long ride through an unexpected rain storm: “once again good hard riding and a hearty meal restored our natural exuberance”. Even trials of parenting at the peak of her racing career are dismissed as minor inconveniences – much as were her competitors in the 12 hour time trails in which she first made her name.
This book was published shortly after her LEJOG record – undertaken as a professional, riding for the Hercules team. It is the gripping account of her marathon that is the books highlight. A list of towns accompanied by notes on increasing physical weariness could make the course seem even longer than it was. She is a deft writer (I have no idea if there was a ghost, it’s consistent quality suggests that there might have been) and carries readers along the main roads on which she made took her record.
Here she is in the southern highlands: “The bitter cold persisted as I began the downward swoop to Dalwhinnie. And now the continuous vibration of the handlebar had caused a huge blister to appear on the palm of each hand, compelling me to grip the bar with my thumbs only, in order to alleviate the pain. At last, feeling very miserable, I halted at Dalwhinnie. I had cycled 673 miles and had gone though two whole nights with but fifteen minutes sleep altogether.”
She left me wanting to know much, much more. Perhaps the current enthusiasm for cycling biographies’ will persuade someone to give her life proper assessment. At very least, consideration should be given to republishing this hard-to-find volume. Until then, your search to find a copy could be a long one – but the reward when you succeed will feel all the more worthwhile.
PS June 09