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’.
Bert and Gwen
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.