The women of the End to End

The ‘End to End’ is a goal for many cyclists in the UK. Most people wisely ride from Land’s End to John o’Groats in 1 or 2 weeks, taking their time to enjoy the great scenery along the way. But the UK also has a rich history of people doing the End to End (which can be done as LEJOG or JOGLE) as a record attempt. Whilst there have been many male record holders, each nudging the time down a little (or a lot) further to the now frightening fast 44 hours 4 minutes and 20 seconds, there have been only 8 (!) solo female record holders ever since the very first End to End record attempt in 1885.  With my own attempt at lowering the women’s End to End record coming ever closer, it is a good time to honour the strong and brave women who successfully set out from the same start line before me.

The limited number of female record holders is in part due to the general resistance (by men) against women riding bikes that was still rife less than a century ago. The Women’s Road Records Association was only formed in 1934, with the End to End record added in 1937. By 1989, the WRRA finally merged into the RRA which recognises separate records for men and women.

Lilian Dredge – 1938 – 3 days 20 hours 54 minutes

Lilian Dredge was the female trailblazer of the End to End record. On the 19th of July 1938, the 32-year old set off on her 6-speed Claud Butler bike. 3 days 20 hours and 54 minutes later she was the first female record holder of the End to End, the blue ribbon distance among place to place records. She didn’t stop there either. She continued for the 1000 mile record, which she claimed in a time of 4 days, 19 hours and 14 minutes. Although her record has been beaten a number of times since, it remains a hell of a lot faster than most of the people reading this blog would even consider driving the length of the country!

Lilian was a true pioneer for women’s cycling in the 1930s. Not only was she the first woman to ride the End to End, she claimed 6 more place to place records, and did so at a time where there was a lot of opposition from the male cycling community against women’s racing. Lilian proved that women are more than capable of racing the End to End, but to avoid male criticism she also had to take care not to appear ‘unladylike’ and sleep each night instead of carrying on. Who knows how quick she could have gone if she didn’t feel pressured to care about how she looked ?!

Marguerite Wilson – 1939 – 2 days 22 hours 52 minutes

A year later the End to End record was bettered by Marguerite Wilson, who is described by many as ‘the first star of women’s cycling’ for not only was she the fastest woman of her day, she was also quite witty as evidenced by articles she wrote. When you see photos of her there is no denying she was very beautiful, but it is her achievements on the bicycle that earned her the rightful title as ‘the first star of women’s cycling’ along with being the first female winner of the prestigious F.T. Bidlake Memorial Trophy. What is remarkable about Marguerite’s record ride is that she set off from Land’s End just before the second world war and arrived at John o’Groats  by the time black out restrictions were being put into place. What is more, she was only 21.

William Wilson kindly sent me a copy of his book about Marguerite Wilson. It details not only her End to End record, but her many amazing cycling achievements. What I like most about the book though is how strongly her personality comes through, both in her own writings and the memories others hold of her. Marguerite had a reputation for knowing her own mind and having confidence in her own ability. Whereas I am waiting for favourable conditions with at least a good tailwind for part of my journey, Marguerite excelled in riding in hard conditions, tackling a lot of her records against adverse winds. She may have been a tough cookie, but she appears kind too. I love this quote from her in William Wilson’s book:

“I was very grateful for all the help given by club folk in the way of marshalling in the towns right the way through the run, especially as I knew that due to my being so much in arrears of schedule at the commencement, many of them had to wait 3 or 4 hours before I arrived. It really did buck me up to see these people who had interested themselves in my ride and did not mind waiting all that time and loosing sleep in order to marshal me”.

Like Lilian Dredge, Marguerite continued for the 1000 mile record, which she broke in 3 days 11 hours and 44 minutes. Apparently she was riding faster at the time of the 1000 mile finish than at the beginning of the ride and declared she was just getting into her stride and could easily continue for another 1000 miles!

Edith Atkins – 1953 – 2 days 18 hours 4 minutes

Whereas Lilian and Marguerite were both professionals enjoying dedicated sponsors, finance and support teams, Edith Atkins was the first woman to tackle the amateur End to End record. There now is no longer a distinction between professional and amateur. Edith may not have been ‘signed’ by a bike sponsor and professional outfit, but she was no stranger to place to place records, having already held 6 national road records before she set off for the End to End in July 1953, aged 33. She enjoyed a strong southwesterly to start with and covered 347 miles in the first 24 hours. The wind became less favourable when she reached the Scottish border, and she rode through much of the remainder of the journey in strong rain and wind. After a 5.5 hour sleep stop at John o’Groats, she continued for the 1000 mile record, but had to abandon due to awful conditions, severe hypothermia and exhaustion. Because of prevailing male opposition even in the 1950s, the WRRA insisted that nothing should affect the image of women breaking records and ending up looking less feminine for it. Edith therefore had to play down the effort she had put in to break the End to End, likening it to a weekend’s hard ride to the coast and back.

One of the things I enjoyed reading most about Edith’s record attempt was that Lilian Dredge, the very first female record holder, was part of her band of helpers. For anyone with an interest in cycling history and memorabilia, Edith’s R.O Harrison racing bike is now on display in the Coventry Transport Museum, as is Eileen Sheridan’s record-breaking Hercules.

Eileen Sheridan – 1954 – 2 days 11 hours 7 minutes

Eileen Sheridan, my inspiration. Listening to Eileen at a local event in 2013 is what planted the seed for my own attempt. I have written about Eileen Sheridan before (here and here). Eileen was the absolute star of her era and built a career out of beating pretty much all place to place records, some of which still remain unbroken today. Nicknamed ‘the pocket Hercules’, as she is only 4ft11  tall and was sponsored by Hercules, she was 31 by the time she attacked the End to End record.  Of all the many time trial and place to place records Eileen broke, she is most famous for her 1954 Land’s End to John o’Groats ride that she completed in 2 days, 11 hours and 7 minutes with hardly any rest stops. After that, she cycled on to beat the 1000 mile record in 3 days and 1 hour, a record which stood until 2002. Some of the facts from Eileen’s End to End record that fascinate me most include: Lilian Dredge was again one of the helpers on the team; Eileen ate pieces of chicken with sliced banana (to take away the dryness); she rode through 2 nights with only 15 minutes of actual sleep; high winds and long downpours through the Scottish borders caused her hands to blister so badly that her team had to cover her handlebars with sponges to dampen the vibrations; she walked up the steep hairpin sections of Berriedale as her manager/coach reckoned the energy saved by walking was worth the few extra minutes taken; she gained 8 pounds during the ride (fluid retention);  and she held a beautiful low flat back position, totally embracing the aerodynamic gains.

As a nonagenarian, Eileen is as witty as ever and continues to provide inspiration for female cyclists like me, who can only dream they would ever be capable of achieving a fraction of what she did. Whoever beats the End to End record next, there will never be a female cyclist of Eileen’s calibre and dominance in place to place records again, if only for the sad fact that today’s road situation and traffic conditions render some impossible to break.

I received a beautiful hand-drawn card from Eileen and spoke to her on the phone shortly after my first attempt at the End to End record last year. I hope to follow it up with a visit soon, as she lives barely a 15-minute cycle away from me. If I manage to break the record, it would be really nice to celebrate it with the person I blame for getting me to think about the record in the first place.

Janet Tebbutt – 1976 – 2 days 15 hours 24 minutes 20 seconds

At the time Janet Tebbutt set out for the End to End there were still 2 different records, one for professionals and one for amateurs. Janet’s record is slower than Eileen’s, but that is because she went for the amateur record which was held by Edith Atkins in 2 days and 18 hours.

At 40, Janet was the oldest woman to attack the record but already held the 1000 mile record for amateur women (3 days 9 hours and 29 minutes) and excelled at long distance time trials. Starting at 5am with a tailwind on a hot summer day in July she managed to escape the effects of heatstroke which had halted her End to End record attempt in the Lancaster area the previous year. I love this passage from John Taylor’s book ‘25 momentous years of cycling road records 1988 to 2013‘ about Janet’s record where he writes:

“The traffic was so quiet in Exeter, Ivy Thorpe [crew] managed to take a photo standing in the middle of the main road [A30] “. 

Haha, you won’t see that happen on my record attempt! At the time of Janet’s record attempt cyclists were still permitted on the fast A74 (also known historically as the Glasgow to Carlisle Road), which is now replaced by a parallel motor way, the A74(M), with the old A74 mostly downgraded into the flat but covered in potholes like a Swiss cheese B7076 and B7078. Apparently the traffic on the A74 was so heavy at the time of Janet’s record attempt that she had to have a break at one point (which reminds me a lot of my solo adventure without crew on the A9 during peak traffic time 2 years ago..). 

Pauline Strong – 1990 – 2 days 6 hours 49 minutes 45 seconds

By the time Pauline attacked the End to End record there no longer was a distinction between the amateur and professional records, as the WRRA activities were taken over by the men’s body, the RRA, which never recognised separate records for amateurs and professionals and only recorded the fastest rides. As such, Pauline was going for Eileen Sheridan’s meanwhile 36-year old End to End record.

Pauline had been a professional rider for Raleigh though and rode, among other races, the Tour de Feminine for Great Britain. When Pauline set out on her End to End record attempt she was 34. Despite her road racing experience and having ridden some time trials, she had never done any ultra long distance events, not even a 24-hour time trial.

The start of Pauline’s record attempt, which took place from 28 to 30 July (i.e. during the school holidays), was marred by traffic jams in Cornwall, which slowed her progress and meant she was 2 hours down on schedule by the time she reached the top of Shap Fell. She picked up a favourable wind from here which saw her regain time, but then encountered heavy rain for much of her ride and was forced to stop regularly to change clothes.

I absolutely love Eileen’s reaction to Pauline breaking ‘her’ End to End record:

“No one likes to lose a record, but I loved holding it. I can’t grumble, I held it for a long while, but I have always said that I know it could be well and truly smashed, and she’s beaten the record well. It was a marvellous ride and she rode through a bad patch early on and fought back. Now that takes guts”.

Lynne Taylor  – 2001 & 2002 – from 2 days 5 hours 48 minutes and 21 seconds to 2 days 4 hours 45 minutes and 11 seconds

Nobody can tell the tale of Lynne’s End to End record rides as well as her dad John Taylor (perhaps not even Lynne as she may no longer remember parts of it due to fatigue and hallucinations). If you have some time, I would highly recommend a read of John’s story of Lynne’s 2002 record attempt.

When she started her first solo End to End record attempt in September 2001, Lynne already had the benefit of the successful tandem End to End record with Andy Wilkinson in May 2000 (in 2 days 3 hours 19 minutes and 23 seconds). This gave her first-hand insight into the route, the town and cities to negotiate, her stamina and what it takes to break an End to End record (including 27 hours of saddle sore, wow!).

At this time, the RRA rules didn’t allow for two riders to start their record attempts on the same day, so Lynne started a day earlier than planned, with Gethin Butler setting off for his successful and still standing End to End record the next day.  Lynne started in damp conditions.

In sharp contrast to Janet Tebbutt’s passing through Exeter on quiet roads, Lynne experienced heavy traffic here and in Bristol, where she also encountered a diversion due to a landslide. Having covered 420 miles after 24 hours, it was still very wet, so much so that by Carlisle she was 4.5 hours down on schedule. It wasn’t until after crossing the Forth Road Bridge that she got to enjoy dry roads and tailwind in parts. Despite all the early adversities, Lynne beat the record and what’s more, she came back the next year to become the first woman ever to beat her own End to End record! You can read all about that in the link above.

The most impressive thing about Lynne’s records (apart from the fact that they have stood unchallenged for more than 15 years), is her ability to keep going, to stay strong and motivated even when being hours down on schedule and battling the weather.

Christine Roberts – 1997 – abandoned

Although Christine never became an End to End record holder, I still include her in this blog as one of the ‘women of the End to End’, as she made a very good attempt at the record, but was forced to pull out near Edinburgh.

Disappointing as that may be, she came away from it with the RRA 24 hour record (467.3 miles), which was a little longer than her CTT (Cycling Time Trials) record of 461.45 miles (set in 1993). Both records still stand today.

Who knows what Christine could have lowered the End to End record to if she had been able to keep going beyond Edinburgh? And then again, perhaps she wouldn’t have broken Pauline Strong’s record at all, as there are so many unknown factors in racing, especially over such a long distance. Either way, judging from her still standing 24-hour records alone, she was a very strong rider and deserves a mention as one of the very few brave women attacking the End to End record since 1934.

Jane Moore – 2014 – 3 days 16 hours 45 minutes 12 seconds

In July 2014, Jane became the very first female End to End record holder on a tricycle. No previous record attempts had ever been made before by a woman on a trike. When I had the opportunity to (attempt to) ride her trike for a bit on a parking lot last year, I understood why. Tricycles are very difficult to ride; I couldn’t even make it out of the parking lot, let alone race all the way from Land’s End to John o’Groats! Respect.

And that’s it. The women of the End to End record. Whatever the impressive statistics, what inspires me most is the stories about these women and their attempts, and I don’t even know half of how it really must have been for them.

I apologise for focusing on solo women attempts only and please get in touch if I forgot to mention any unsuccessful solo women’s End to End record attempts. Of course I hope to become the 9th solo female End to End record holder, but I also have hope that there will be many more to come after me. Records are there to inspire and to be broken after all…

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