Eileen Sheridan – The Mighty Atom
The ride from Land’s End to John o’ Groats is the most iconic in the British Isles; from the bottom left-hand corner of England to the top right-hand corner of Scotland, the ‘End to End’ ride extends 870 miles through steadily morphing landscapes, stretching from the devilish Cornish hills to the vast Scottish mountain ranges. It’s the most popular long-distance challenge in the UK, and it typically takes touring cyclists between ten and 14 days to complete the distance. In 1954 Eileen Sheridan rode it in two days, 11 hours and 7 minutes.
It was a blustery, overcast day in June when Eileen set out, and the weather only grew worse as she travelled northwards, nearing Scotland in high winds and torrential rain. Fuelled by blackcurrant juice, soup, sugar and chicken legs, she rode day and night, taking few breaks and supported by her team, who supplied her with food and drink and eventually had to feed her when her numb fingers could no longer hold knife and fork. ‘It just went on, and on, and you felt that you were never going to get there,’ she said. With blistered hands, she reached John o’Groats: sleep-deprived, fatigued and with a new women’s record.
It was the most gruelling ride in a career that saw Sheridan break every single one of the 21 professional long-distance and place-to-place records on the books of the Women’s Road Records Association.
Joining Coventry Cycle Club with her husband Ken, it had never been Eileen’s intention to race. Touring and club runs were more her thing: ‘That’s where the club spirit is found,’ she said. Nonetheless, in 1944 she entered an informal 10 mile time trial; her approach was so nonchalant that she turned up without the required racing kit and a fellow club member had to lend her his. Much to everyone’s surprise, including her own, she finished in 28 minutes 30 seconds – a new club record.
A year later she formally entered a 25 mile event run by the Birmingham Time Trial Association. Again, she set a club record. The Yorkshire Federation 12-hour time trial in 1949 was her first big event, though she nearly didn’t go, as money was tight and travelling with a team to Yorkshire was expensive. Several of her clubmates at Coventry CC put the funds together, keen to see what ‘their Eileen’ could achieve. She rode 237.32 miles, breaking the previous record by 17 miles – a distance that would have earned her fifth place in the men’s race.
She began taking all the distance records: the 30-mile in 1948, the 50-mile in 1949 and the newly introduced 100-mile in 1950, which Eileen won in 4h 37m 53s. Nothing would stop her riding, not even the birth of her son: she was back in the saddle seven weeks afterwards and winning races again within five months. Many of her records came within touching distance of the men’s. The nation sat up and took notice – here was a woman who was proving again and again how capable the ‘weaker’ sex could be. Her diminutive and feminine appearance belied her strength and endeared her to the public; she seemed a regular housewife, not the powerhouse rider one might expect. The press labelled her the ‘Mighty Atom’.
Time trialling was the dominant sport of British road riding in those days, in contrast to the bunch-style racing favoured on the Continent. This style of racing suited Sheridan, who was never faster than when she had someone to chase:
‘No one ever passed me in time trials. I loved the thrill of chasing… I just had to try hard and win.’
It was only a matter of time before she attracted the attention of sponsors, and in 1951 Hercules Cycle Company gave her a three-year contract to promote their business by breaking records.
She spent those three years steadily demolishing the existing times. ‘Record breaking was a lonely business,’ she said, just her and the tarmac, her support crew in the Hercules van pacing her as she rode her way through the list: London to York, to Cardiff, to Edinburgh, to Birmingham, to Brighton and back – 25 miles, 50 miles, 100 miles, 12 hours, 24 hours. After that Land’s End to John o’Groats ride, Eileen had gone on to ride a further 130 miles, fighting hallucinations and exhaustion to take the 1,000 mile record. Her time of three days and 1 hour remained unbeaten for 48 years. Five of her records still stand.
Her final record was in 1954: the 25-mile time trial, her least favourite – she claimed it took her that long just to warm up. After two attempts, she secured the record, and with that, she retired – there were no records left to break.
This is an excerpt from my book ‘Pedal Power: inspirational stories from the world of cycling’