Thursday 2 February 2012

On this day...

On this day in 1896, during an interview with the New York World newspaper, the civil rights leader and suffragist Susan B. Anthony said the words that have become the most famous of the quotations attributed to her and one of the most famous to metnion bicycles...
"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel... the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."

Twenty-four years later,  Edith Atkins was born in Bilston, Great Britain, and would later become famous for setting numerous long-distance cycling records during the 1950s. She had competed at international level in gymnastics during childhood, aided by her diminutive size (even in adulthood, she was less than than 1.52m tall) but, like many female cyclists of her day, she found her way into cycling by chance when her mother gave her a bike won while playing the card game whist. She discovered her racing potential when she was loaned a better bike by local cyclist Roland Atkins, whom she would later marry - though only after he admitted she was faster than him.

Edith Atkins is passed a bidon by husband Roland
Atkins seems to have joined the Coventry Meteors club some time in the middle of the 1930s, then became part of the Coventry Road Club in 1938. Racing was limited by the Second World War and she didn't begin competing until 1946. Very soon, she found herself with a rival - Eileen Sheridan, a professional with the Hercules company that would later supply bikes for Britain's first Tour de France team and, in the 1950s, sponsored team member Brian Robinson who would become the first Briton to both finish a Tour and win a stage. Atkins, meanwhile, could not find a sponsor and even went so far as to remortgage her home so she could continue racing. Sheridan was sponsored to set records, so Atkins reasoned that the best way to attract a sponsor of her own was to break those records.

On the 25th of September 1952, she broke her first by riding from Land's End in Cornwall to London, a distance of 462km, in 17'13'31" - an average speed of almost 27kph. The next year, she broke the record times for Holyhead to London (425.3km, 13h31'57" = 31.4kph). Soon afterwards, she set out to beat the London-York record and did so (314km, 9h56'20" = 31.6kph) and then kept going. After 21h37' she reached Edinburgh, thus setting a new London-Edinburgh time. Still she kept going and, after having been riding for 24 hours, had covered 679km: her third record of the day. Since the previous women's distance record over 24 hours was 640km, she ended up setting four. After spending a few days in Scotland, she decided to have a go at the Edinburgh-Glasgow-Edinburgh record and beat that too, covering the 141.6km in 4h38'56". Two days later she rode between John O'Groats and Land's End (1,402km) and beat the previous record (set by a professional cyclist) by 4h48'.

Atkins continued setting records for many more years and became as acclaimed as one of the finest cyclists Britain has produced of either gender. Sheridan, meanwhile, is all but forgotten. She continued cycling for the rest of her life, still riding a minimum of 160km each week when she was 76 years old - the same year she entered 40 races. Three years later, she was hit by a car and killed as she wheeled her bike over the A45 road near Ryton-on-Dunsmore in Warwickshire.

For more daily cycling facts, see Cyclopunk.

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