What was Marguerite like to know? ‘Very much like my wife, very reserved, yes, I would say she was a bit on the reserved side, but not a snob or any thing like that, and there was nothing coarse or crude about her, she had a class, sort of, I don’t know, you can’t quit put your finger on it… I don’t know if anybody else has said that but she was a smart girl and I think I wasn’t the only one…
I think it must have been 1941, I had a bike frame. I scraped it all off, painted it, went down to Bill Harvel’s shop in Portsmouth, bought some wheels and bits and pieces. I was working damned long hours, but I could finish work say at seven, go home, put my shorts on and go out. It reminded me of Marguerite because I used to love to ride all round Braishfield, Romsey, Stockbridge and back to the Braishfield Arms. I used to just thoroughly enjoy that and from reading your book Marguerite was precisely the same, she used to just like riding.
One day a week we were allowed off, I forget what day it was, but I was going out along Hursley and, low-and-behold but who comes towards me but Marguerite! I was over the moon because I hadn’t seen her for a couple of years. I looked round and she was stopping, so I whipped round, and of course there was no cars, you could turn round easy then and I rode with her. She was going up to some place, I think it was to see her fiancee or boyfriend up near Alton, so I rode with her I think it was 20 odd miles up to near Four Marks. We said cheerio, I had to get back to Eastleigh, that was about 20 odd miles.
Oh Marguerite, we’d ride together, she said I can’t understand why your fastest time is only 1 hr 7 min, no, 1 hr 9 min it was then. She said ‘I can’t understand it, you’re killing me! ha,ha ha, I can’t keep up’, but I lacked the concentration on time trialling.
BIO- Jim Ayley was raised in Hampshire and was apprenticed to become a precision fitter in the aeronautical industry. His was in a reserved occupation during the war. Jim with his colleagues would often work night and day to prepare or modify fighter aircraft. He married in 1942. He and his wife Margaret raised a son and two daughters in Southampton. Jim's passion for cycling was passed on to his children,
his son Colin became a very accomplished Chamnipoinship winning cyclist. Valerie's childhood was equally steeped in the sport, she continued to be heavily involved in cycling in Canada. A true cycling family.
Among his varied career, he ran a bicycle shop, designing and building his own frames. In 1965 Jim was seconded to work in Detroit for the Ford Motor Company. Jim's skills were highly valued in the USA, where he worked both in the aerospace and automotive industries taking up American citizenship.
In his youth Jim raced against many of the leading cyclists of the era. He promoted track meetings and races. He was involved in some of the very first road races to emerge when breakaway groups from the NCU were formed. Jim was a founder member of the Southern Paragon Cycling club. After cycling Jim's interest moved on to other interests including fly-fishing.
Now widowed, Jim lives back in the UK. In common with many of his generation cycling laid the foundation for excellent health. He lives independently, doing his own shopping and cooking, also taking on new projects. When I visited in the summer of 2016 Jim had been busy designing and making a dolly with casters for his plasm screen tv. I really enjoyed meeting Jim and spending the day with him.. We had a pub lunch together, Jim enjoying a pint of bitter. What a rare opportunity, to speak to a contemporary of Marguerite and someone who was at the heart of the cycling in the 1930s and 40's.
Quite frankly William, I found I used to get more fun riding round like that on my own than I did from the club runs and all that. It got, well in ’37, ’38, it got bitchy and the pleasure was gone and I do feel that it's a shame when it's all money and sponsorship. But having said that I joined the Clarion. I wanted to ride a 25, it was at Barnstable, north Devon, the firm give me the time off and I caught a train on the Friday and a manager of Alfred’s arranged some digs for me, they were good too, cockles and cream, mussels and I had a nice long weekend and won 1st handicap in the 25. But to be able to do that I had to join a club, I joined the Clarion and I didn’t really know their political line, they were out and out, I don’t like to use the word, ‘commies’ really, and although they were on one hand like that, they were grabbing with the other. I stuck that for about a year, then we formed the Southern Paragon and I was in touch with Marguerite through dinners at Elford bridge and the annual club dinner. We made her president of the new Southern Paragon which went on to enjoy success .
I remember the Bournemouth 25. Marguerite had a private trial, she often done that, she wasn’t allowed to enter, (As a profesional cyclist she was barred from all amateur cycling Ed). I don’t known what time she did, but she often done that, she wasn’t allowed to enter them, and that was about the period when we got the racing tights abolished, we could wear shorts down to the knee, and stockings up to the knee -rubbish! - I was in the event, I was just staging a bit of a comeback, I watched her finish. After the race we went down to Burt’s cafe. A little group, we sat down out on the grass verge, the sun was shining, a lot of the club people, the racers and Marguerite our President was there. We all done pretty well, oh we won the team prize. And those wonderful legs!, they always seemed to be brown, I don’t know if she had some special paint ha ha ha, but I think a lot of it was cycling in shorts so much and yeh, we stopped there for quite a while just joking and talking, they were great days. And when it came to breaking it up I had to push the boy’s eyes in to get them to see to go home! Yeh she was some girl!'
I came across all sorts of interesting material during research for my book Marguerite Wilson - The First Star of Women's Cycling, much of which, whilst fascinating was not relative to the narrative of the book. This Blog allows me to explore those interesting topics, all loosely connected to MW in more detail. Bill Harvell crops up several times in the book, he had the distinction of having ridden in the 1932 Loss Angeles Olympic games whilst a member of Poole Wheelers CC, winning a Bronze medal in the 4000m team pursuit. Marguerite knew Bill well, they rode in the same Dorset track meetings and the 1930s and in later years Marguerite would visit Bill at his bike shop in Portsmouth.
I've been unable to find an account of his experiences at the games but in the process of research I developed an interest in the cycling events of the '32 Olympics and in the Games in general. To find out more about Bill Harvell read my next blog andfollow the link (below) to read Roger Watts' appreciation.
The Loss Angeles Olympic games were held in 1932 during the Great Depression. It is important to realise the depths of the depression, many were struggling to put food on the table so funding an team to travel to compete at the Olympics was well down the list of priorities for many nations. For this reason fewer than half the number of athletes competed here than in the preceding Amsterdam games. Britain's team Captain Lord Beulieu refers to funding difficulties in the Pathe film (link below). California was very remote in the time before air travel. Many teams arrived by ship and received an enthusiastic welcome at the docks and then again at the Olympic Village. (The purpose built Olympic Village was a new innovation for theses games). Many cycling teams whilst aboard ship trained on rollers during their voyage. The Canadian squad drove down from Canada in an old truck taking turns to follow on behind by bike, partly as training and partly because there wasn't room for everyone in the truck!
You might have thought that the USA team would be well funded, but this was not the case. Despite a very vibrant track scene principally on the East coast (e.g. Madison Square Garden) riders were individuals completely self funded. Eddie Testa in an interview given in 1988 recalled how how he got into cycling encouraged by his father an Italian who had raced in Italy before emigrating. His bike was made by an elder brother using Reynolds 501 tubing imported from England. Eddie commented that it had a fixed gear and lightweight wood rimmed sprint wheels which he said had more life in them and stayed more true than steels. He was self coached and apart from being issued with his USA Jersey and a sleeveless sweater, completely self funded.
Cycling took place between he 1st and 4th August and was contested by 63 men from 13 nations. (It was not until Games returned to Loss Angeles in 1984 that women could take part). Track events took place over three days at the Pasadena Rose bowel on a board track constructed especially for the games. There were four track events, the 1000m sprint, the 1000m time trial, the tandem and the 4,000m team pursuit. The Road Race on the final day was in fact a 100km individual time trial starting at Moorpark the hills then along the Pacific coast highway towards Santa Monica.
The club captain in those early years was Bert Bennett, an ex Dorset Regiment sergeant who married one of the lady members, Gwen Hawkins. They decided to take a tandem honeymoon. The ceremony was at St. John’s Church, Ashley Road, the crowd almost closed the road. I remember the Wheelers passing the tandem over the crowd to allow the couple to cycle off, preceded by the Pathe’ News van with the camera man standing on top winding the camera and followed by many of the Wheelers on their bikes. Later we were invited by the manager of the Gaumont Cinema in Bournemouth to view the Pathe News item and remain for the film, which was, by the way, mine and others’ first ‘talkie’.
One of the best things about writing the book has been meeting people and making new friends. Over the past two years I have struck up a friendship with George Bolton and his wife Joyce. They are both longterm cyclists with Bournemouth Arrow cc. This of course, was Marguerite's club. George recalls Marguerite effortlessly sweeping by his group of club mates on the way to Club Tea one Sunday. George is a retired aeronautical engineer and Joyce was Headmistress at their local primary school for many years. They live in what I nick-named 'The Enchanted Cottage' on the edge of the New forest.
George never throws anything away and has archive material from the club going all the way back to the 1930s. George has been so enthusiastic and helpful in providing information for the book. Just as importantly, he was able to give me a real sense of cycling culture and club life in the early days.
One day the topic of conversation turned to sprints. Sprints were light-weight, wood rimmed wheels used by Marguerite for her record breaking rides. And, as if by magic, George conjured up a sprint wheel (see below). He also showed me a pair of wheel carriers - off-set brackets which allow the precious sprints to be transported to a race attached to the front hub beside the forks, (there is an illustration of this in the book).
The wood rimmed sprint is certainly a thing of great beauty, and something that I was unaware of before meeting Gorge and writing the book. They are still manufactured in Italy by Ghisallo, (see the links below to view two fantastic films documenting their manufacture).
Through my work as a Doctor and through writing, I am inspired by people, and learn some of life's lessons from them. Not least from George, who is the full-time carer for Joyce who has dementia. I am inspired by his kindness and complete devotion to her, and this reminds me that my interest in cycling is as much about people and friendships as it is about bikes and riding.
A day to remember
In July 2015 I had the great privilege of spending a day with Mrs Eileen Sheridan. In case you don't know, Eileen is one of our greatest living cyclists. In the 1950's she re-wrote the record books, taking one by one, all of the records that had been recorded by Marguerite Wilson between 1938 and 1941. Just as importantly, she is the most delightful person you could ever hope to meet. Eileen wrote the foreword to my book, and of course, she writes brilliantly, with the authority of someone who knows what it takes to be a champion and to break the toughest of records.
I wrote a letter of introduction and before long I had a phone call. I'd just got back from a long ride when Christine, my wife, said 'your girlfriend rang!' It was none other than Mrs Eileen Sheridan, famous cyclist, in fact the most famous person I have ever spoken to. We had a lovely chat on the phone and by the end Eileen had to insist that I stop calling her Mrs Sheridan preferring just Eileen. Marguerite was a great hero in Eileen's eyes and she had no hesitation is agreeing to help me with the book.
One year later and the book was completed. I have presented a copy to all who helped in its production and first recipient of course had to be Eileen. I spent a lovely day with Eileen at her home beside the river Thames. Still sprightly and energetic despite being in her tenth decade, we spent the day talking about all sorts of things as well as cycling. She is so interesting and accomplished. Not only is she a record breaking sportswoman but she managed to bring up her children at the same time. After she retired from cycling she wrote her engaging autobiography Wonder Wheels. He second career was as a crystal glass engraver. Eileen showed me her workshop and examples of her engravings which are truly stunning in their artistry and craftsmanship- world class.
Eileen was delighted with the book and in return presented me with a copy of Eileen Sheridan - A cycling Life and signed it with her elegant signature. We enjoyed a pub lunch together beside the river, then went back for a cup of tea.
I spotted the WRRA London-Bath-London Trophy and saw that Eileen's and Marguerite's names were engraved side by side on shields at its base. I thought this would make a good photo. So ensued much hilarity as we tried to take a picture without my reflection in it. It ended up with me lying on the floor hiding from my own reflection whilst Eileen held the Trophy against variety of black velvet coats. Here is our best effort (left).
What comes across after speaking with Eileen was that Marguerite was greatly loved and admired by all who knew her. Marguerite and Eileen not only have their record breaking achievements in common, more importantly they combined it with great character.