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Queens of Pain

How did the great female champions of seasons past stay fit over the winter? Author Isabel Best revisits some of her favourite tales of winter riding from the female cycling icons celebrated in her book, Queens of Pain.

18 December 2020

Getting the miles in in the colder months isn’t easy. But women have always had to be resourceful in order to train: until the 1990s professional female cyclists were exceptionally rare, and even the most successful riders usually had to fit their training around jobs that paid the rent.

“Coping with a young daughter, domestic chores and a heavy job as well as all the training would tax all my resources,” the great Beryl Burton wrote in her autobiography. With such challenges to her training, she never let a spot of bad weather—and I’ve heard tell it can sometimes rain in Yorkshire—get in the way of an opportunity to ride her bike.

“We went out no matter what the weather, as I can remember,” says Denise Burton-Cole, Beryl’s daughter, who was a national champion in her own right in the 1970s. “We used to have those big capes that everyone used to wear, that went over the front handlebars.”

“It kept you super dry but was difficult when it was windy. It was like a sail!” she says laughing. “I always remember collecting the water as it made a puddle in the front there and if I was thirsty I’d drink the water out of the cape!”

Winter riding can, of course, raise safety concerns, especially if you’re out in the dark or on slippery roads, and sadly lone female riders have to be more vigilant than their male counterparts.

Eileen Sheridan, the legendary British rider from the 1950s, told me that winters were much colder when she was racing, and roads were often treacherous. She once hitched a lift home in a lorry after she came off her bike on some black ice. The driver was perfectly honourable but her husband was understandably anxious about the idea of her being at the mercy of strangers.

To help his wife stay in optimal condition, Ken Sheridan turned their garage into a gym, where Eileen could ride on rollers or work on her strength with dumbbells and Olympic lifting.

Lots of women were wise to the benefits of strength training as a compliment to riding. “I think it is a delightful sport and the best possible exercise, though I regularly practice club-swinging, dumb-bell lifting, a little boxing, take lots of outdoor exercise, and look after my health as best I can,” Tillie Anderson told a newspaper interviewer in the 1890s.

She was a Swedish émigré who arrived in Chicago in 1891 where she discovered cycling and rapidly became the star of an emergent track-racing scene. She was helped in her ascent by her boyfriend, a racing cyclist who gave up his own career to become her coach and manager. He got her training seriously; “I was very weak when I began, but now I never suffer from pains and aches as most women do,” she said.
For those of us in total lockdown, turbo trainers have often been the only way to maintain fitness. The more technically talented (and brave) have used rollers, which have been a rainy day back-up pretty much since the dawn of bike racing.

Women were also a target market for manufacturers, who promoted rollers as an ideal solution for the housewife to stay trim, in between presumably feeding the baby and steaming puddings. Pro rider Evelyn Hamilton, who set a series of ultra distance records in the 1930s riding Claud Butler bikes, was frequently hired to give roller demonstrations in department stores.

The great star of that era was the equally glamorous Marguerite Wilson, who nonchalantly broke time trial and place-to-place records like the rest of us clock a day at the office. She needed little excuse to get on her bike, regardless of the weather, and once wrote an entertaining account of a wartime winter ride from Bournemouth to Torquay, which she undertook to deliver some eggs for a friend.

“I have ridden from London to Bournemouth with a six-weeks-old puppy in my saddlebag; I have carted almost a full-size Christmas tree home from the New Forest; I have arrived back after an autumn tour in Devon with two panniers and a saddlebag bulging with ripe apples (don’t I wish I had them now!) – but never have I acted Carter-Paterson for six dozen precious eggs with strict instructions to ‘deliver them safely – or else...!’”

For the record, she reached her destination with only two eggs broken. And though her preference was to be outdoors, Wilson didn’t turn her nose up at indoor training. She had frequented a gym before she became a cyclist, which may have played a role in her powerful riding style.

“It seems to me that most cyclists are either apathetic towards gymnasium work, or else they are under the impression that it has no beneficial results on their riding,” she wrote in The Cyclist. “It had quite the opposite result with myself, and I find that an hour or so once or twice a week at the local keep-fit or gym class, or even a few minutes doing simple exercises each morning on rising, does a lot to promote and retain that exhilarating feeling of fitness of body which is the envy of all.”

The Belgian rider Yvonne Reynders, who became a multiple world champion in the late 1950s and early 60s, also performed on rollers in the off-season as a way of earning money. She had a routine that involved doing improbable stunts, such as taking off a shoe, fixing a puncture or removing her handlebars, pedalling all the while.

Many riders are great believers in cyclo-cross as a way of keeping winter fitness. As you thrash your way through muddy fields and woodland paths and clamber over obstacles in the space of an hour (40-50 minutes for women), you not only avoid getting too cold, but also have to ride with explosive cobweb-clearing intensity that can prove useful later on the road in the spring.

There was a particularly strong cyclo-cross racing scene around Paris in the early and middle years of the twentieth century and Lyli Herse, who would win her national road race championship nine times, started out doing amateur mixed-tandem racing. A wonderful photo of her racing cyclo-cross on a tandem from the 1940s shows her with bare arms and legs, in the snow... And the most striking aspect of that picture is how much fun everyone seemed to be having.

Beryl Burton, too, made her winter training fun. In her autobiography she recalls the cycling club parties that took place pretty much every weekend over the off-season, at which she was invariably guest of honour. “We cycled everywhere across Yorkshire and into Lancashire in the depths of winter, arriving home in time to meet the milkman,” she wrote.

“The dinners at clubs in Leeds were always hilarious affairs, with some of the Morely lads going along with us. Usually I had been presented with a bouquet during the evening and I would ride back to Morely with it stuffed down the back of my jacket so that it was sticking above my head – I looked like a flower pot on wheels!

“Some of the lads would start telling jokes and after a time I would become helpless with laughter and the whole convoy would stop while I stood at the roadside to compose myself. There were some damn good bike riders in the club but a few of them were even better comedians!”

Queens of Pain

Book by Isabel Best

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