THE MIGHTY ATOM
Born Constance Eileen Shaw in Coventry her parents were Percy, who worked for Armstrong-Siddeley engineering company and Jeannie Morton, a milliner. Eileen (as she was known) was a tiny girl and even in adulthood only reached 4 foot 11 inches.
Her grandfather Frederick Shaw was a bike builder and racer in the 1890s.
She remembered hiding under the stairs in the terrifying Coventry Blitz.
At school she was very sporty, particularly excelling in swimming. She wanted to go to art school but the family refused to let her, so, at 15, she ended up as a secretary in a car showroom.
She had been given a bicycle for her 14th birthday but only took up riding when she got a job – as a relaxation from work.
Then she joined Coventry Cycling Club. She wasn’t initially interested in racing but just enjoyed club rides. “It is on club runs that club spirit is found, if they have a spirit at all, and retained for all time. Coventry club runs number among the happiest moments of my life.”
It was at the club that she met Ken Sheridan. He was a decent cyclist but soon realised she was leaving him behind – and was soon outpacing every male rider in the club.
Ken and Eileen got married. She was just 19, and soon after they had a son called Clive. It was a very difficult birth requiring a caesarean section and she was told to give up the bike for a while during recovery. She was back on the bike 2 weeks later.
And she came back with a vengeance.
Her first race was a club 10 miles Time Trial (TT) which she completed in 28 minutes and 30 seconds, “to the great amazement of the club as well as myself.”
So, the Coventry Cycling Club put her forward for interclub races, but it being wartime they kept being cancelled.
Finally, in 1945, she got her chance, racing in a 25-mile TT in Birmingham. Being a novice, she set off first. She set herself a target of 1 hour 15 minutes but actually completed it in 1 hour, 13 minutes and 34 seconds. She won the event (breaking the club record).
On her birthday in 1945, she started road racing. ‘The Bicycle’ magazine said (later), “She rocked the racing world, setting up completely new standards for women’s cycling.”
She followed this up by winning the national time trial. “I rode as never before.”
By 1947 she had reduced her 25-mile time to 1 hour, 7 minutes and 35 seconds. She also rode 50 miles in 2 hours, 22 minutes and 53 seconds. She was also the Birmingham and Midlands Track Champion.
She was the Great Britain Time Trial champion in 1949 and 1950. She was the national champion at 50 miles and 100 miles, holding the record times and held the record for 30 miles as well.
She rode the Yorkshire Cycling Federation 12-hour ride (1949) and rode 237.32 miles – a new world record. She was only beaten by Des Robinson, the male champion, who beat her by just 6 miles.
And then she rode the 12 hours again, extending her record to 237.62 miles).
By 1949, she had won every possible women’s race.
She built a gym in her garage, with husband Ken, so that she could keep training.
In 1950 she won the Bidlake Memorial Prize, “for creating a new high standard in women’s cycle racing with an outstanding series of 3 championships and 5 record performances on the road in 1950.” She was proud of this. Frederick Bidlake was a race administrator who set up the prize – but was very anti-women competing in sport. She was the first woman to win it.
In 1952 she appeared in a documentary film about British cycling entitled ‘Spinning Wheels’. She was the only woman featured.
But Eileen was unable to make a living with her amateur status so decided to go professional. She joined the Hercules Cycling Team in 1953, although Raleigh tried to persuade her to join them. Hercules just offered more money.
Her first record attempt with her new team was the Land’s End to John O’Groats ride. Her time beat the record by 23 minutes but was disallowed because there had been an article about her attempt in the Daily Mirror. The rules of the Road Records Association stated that there was no publicity allowed before an attempt.
So she tried again in 1954 – and broke the record. She rode from Land’s End to Carlisle (470 miles) without stopping and even then only stopped to fix her lights, put on her rain gear and go to the toilet. She had a Hercules vehicle following her. A cycling magazine commented, “Hercules supplied the most bizarre support vehicle ever. A caravan was strapped to a vast Bedford low-loader with a large toilet 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.”
She completed the ride in 2 days, 11 hours and 7 minutes (842 miles) – but Hercules wouldn’t let her stop at John O’Groats. They wanted her to break the 1,000 miles record. She said,”Oh well, I suppose it’s only another 130 miles.”
But exhaustion set in. She started hallucinating in the saddle, seeing a troop of soldiers marching in fields beside her and following a large glass tumbler rolling down the road in front of her.
Nevertheless, she did it, in 3 days and 1 hour – and was rewarded with a meal of eggs and bacon. She had only just missed beating the man’s record as well.
She rode from Land’s End to London in 14 and a half hours and then decided to keep going and take the 24-hour record. She ended up in Cromer having cycled 442 miles in a day.
She also broke the record for the Edinburgh-Glasgow-Edinburgh ride, despite getting lost on the way.
By 1955, she had broken all 21 existing women’s road racing records, including the 12-hour record which she took to 250 and a half miles.
Her 1,000 mile record stood for 48 years until Lynne Taylor broke it in 2002. 5 of her records have still not been broken.
She had various nicknames including ‘The Pocket Rocket’ and ‘The Mighty Atom’. Pathe News did a story on her and said she was, “No ordinary woman.” They commented she was seen smiling in every picture of her.
And her achievements led to a massive upsurge in the sale of women’s bikes.
Also in 1955, Eileen appeared in an advert for Player’s cigarettes.
In 1956 she became pregnant again (she had a daughter, Louise) and decided to retire for good. She claimed there were no more challenges for her. She published her autobiography at the same time, called ‘Wonder Wheels’.
Eileen and Ken bought a house in Isleworth with her winnings, which they lived in for the rest of their lives. She rediscovered her love for art and trained in stained glass design. She had a workshop in her garden and produced intricate and much-admired pieces of stained glass for the next 40 years.
She didn’t give up sport though. She took up canoeing and kayaking. She won the British 500 metres double kayak championship in 1956.
She continued cycling but not at a competitive level. She became President of the Coventry Cycling Club (and a life member) and Vice President of the Roads Record Association and was always an active spokesperson for cycling.
Ken died in 2012, after 70 years of marriage.
In 2016, Eileen was inducted into the Great Britain Cycling Hall of Fame. She said, “I never felt like a champion because I was not allowed to wear the rainbow jersey.”
She also mused, “Where is a woman’s place? Is it in the home? Is it in industry or sport? If I have shown in my life that it can be – and successfully so – in all three, then I am happy.”
A film was made of her life entitled ‘Come On Eileen’.
In 2019, leading women’s cyclist Christina Murray tried to break Eileen’s Land’s End – John O’Groats record. She rode it with a carbon framed 27-gear bike (unlike Eileen’s 3-speed steel framed bike which weighed 6 kilos heavier), and wearing lycra (unlike Eileen’s woollen kit). Christina still finished 26 minutes short of Eileen’s record and declared it, “impossible to break.”
There is a steel statue of her on part of the National Cycle Network that runs through Warwickshire. She was nominated by the cycling charity Sustrans. It is next to the statue of Coventry’s Olympic athlete, David Moorcroft.
Her bike is in Coventry Transport Museum, along with many of her trophies.
Adam Tranter, the West Midlands Cycling Commissioner said, “She’s not a household name, but what she achieved means she should be…I can’t think of a better role model and metaphor for everything that’s good about cycling – perseverance, a lot on her own, her against the clock – the purest form of sport if you like.”
She is regarded as, “a legend in the cycling world.” Cycling Weekly went further, calling Eileen, “Britain’s greatest ever cyclist.”
RIP – Records Invincible & Permanent