Eileen Sheridan, Who Dominated Cycling in Postwar Britain, Dies at 99

Eileen Sheridan, who dominated women’s cycling in Britain during the decade after World War II and is still considered one of the best cyclists, male or female, that the country ever produced, died on Sunday at her home in Isleworth, a suburb of London. She was 99.

Bob Allen, the chairman of the Coventry Cycling Club, an amateur riding group of which Mrs. Sheridan was a longtime member and former president, confirmed the death.

At 4 feet 11 inches tall, Mrs. Sheridan was known as the Mighty Atom, and like her namesake she caught the attention of a country trying to make sense of the war and its aftermath. It was the golden age of cycling, when millions of British people took every chance to pedal beyond their bombed-out cities to the peaceful countryside, and many looked to Mrs. Sheridan for inspiration.

She was single-minded and physically gifted, but she seemed driven less by competitive ambition than by the sheer joy of the ride. She was brought into the sport by her husband, Kenneth, and started as a casual rider with the Coventry club. But she took up racing after her fellow club members noticed her preternatural speed and endurance.

“I was one of those people who, if I was in an event, even if I was tiny, I had to do my hardest,” she said in an interview included in “Come On Eileen,” a 2014 documentary short about her life.

In 1945, her first year of competitive cycling, Mrs. Sheridan won the women’s national time-trial championship for 25 miles, and in the coming years she won at 50 and 100 miles as well. After going professional in 1951, she broke 21 women’s time-trial records, five of which she still holds.

She is best remembered for her epic ride in July 1954 from Land’s End, at England’s southwestern tip, to John O’Groats, at the northern edge of Scotland — an 870-mile trek that she completed in just 2 days, 11 hours and 7 minutes, almost 12 hours faster than the previous record.

She had spent six months training, but the trip was nevertheless grueling, with mountain ranges and rough stretches of road, not to mention cold nights even in the middle of the summer. She developed blisters on her palms so painful that she had to hold on to her handlebars by just her thumbs until her support crew could wrap the grips in sponge.

“We had a nurse,” she said in the documentary, “and she actually wept.”

When she arrived at John O’Groats, after getting just 15 minutes of sleep over the previous two days, she decided to push farther, to see if she could set a women’s record for the fastest 1,000 miles. She took an hour-and-48-minute break, enough to eat a quick dinner and rest. Then she remounted her bike and took off into the night.

She began to wobble toward the side. She had hallucinations of friends urging her on and strangers pointing her in the wrong direction; she even imagined a polar bear. But she stayed the course and made it to her final destination, the John O’Groats Hotel, the next morning, after riding for three days and one hour. She celebrated with a glass of cherry brandy, on the house.

Her 1,000-mile record stood for 48 years, until Lynne Taylor of Scotland finally broke it in 2002.

Constance Eileen Shaw was born on Oct. 18, 1923, in Coventry, England. Her father worked for a car manufacturer, and her mother was a homemaker.

Her earliest athletic love was swimming, but that changed after her father bought her a bicycle when she was 14.

She was working in an office in Coventry when World War II began. During the night of Nov. 14, 1940, the Germans dropped hundreds of high-explosive bombs on the city, unleashing a fire that burned down its cathedral. She picked her way through the rubble on her way to work the next morning, and counted the hours until she was free to ride out of the city.

“Bikes and cycling were our blessing,” she told The Telegraph, a London newspaper, in 2021.

She married Kenneth Sheridan, an engineer, in 1942; he died in 2012. Her survivors include a son, Clive, and a daughter, Louise Sheridan.

Mrs. Sheridan joined the Coventry Cycling Club in 1944. She broke the club record for the 25-mile time trial in her first competition, finishing in just an hour, 13 minutes and 34 seconds. Two years later she broke her own record, coming in at an hour, 7 minutes and 35 seconds.

Over the next few years she won virtually every competition open to women, though she often struggled with the sexist expectations of a society that made little room for female athletes. (The Olympics, for instance, did not add women’s cycling until 1984.)

In a 2013 interview for the radio program “The Bike Show,” she recalled one instance in 1950 when, at a reception in London where she was to present an award, she fell into conversation with a man seated beside her.

“We were chatting away and I was just about to get up and he whispered in my ear, ‘I can’t stand these lady champions, I like my ladies to be feminine,’” she said. “I looked at him, put my hand on his shoulder and said, ‘I’m sorry.’ When I returned he was gone.”

When Mrs. Sheridan decided to go pro in 1951, she signed a three-year contract with Hercules, a bicycle manufacturer, even though it meant she would be forever barred from racing. Hercules wanted her to tackle as many records as she could, using its bicycles, and she made quick work of the task.

“They would give me a day’s notice and say ‘You will be riding from London to Edinburgh’ or ‘London to Bath and back’, which is a record I still hold,” she told The Western Mail of Cardiff, Wales, in 2008.

“I mustn’t grumble,” she added. “I had a lovely time and it’s a great sport.”

She retired after the contract ended, though she occasionally joined promotional or charity races. She spent the rest of her time supporting women’s cycling as a spokeswoman, watching in awe and admiration as younger generations of cyclists streamed through the doors she had pushed open.

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