Obituary: Eileen Gray, MBE, CBE, cyclist

Eileen Gray, trailblazer for women's cycling who first got into bicycles through necessity. Picture: PA
Eileen Gray, trailblazer for women's cycling who first got into bicycles through necessity. Picture: PA
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Born: 25 April, 1920, in London. Died: 20 May, 2015, in London, aged 95.

Eileen Gray was a trailblazer for women in sport, in particular in cycling, in an era when women were still expected to be “seen but not heard”.

Through tireless lobbying, calm and dogged determination, pragmatism and incredible vision, Gray made a significant contribution to establishing women’s cycle racing in the UK and on the international stage, forging a path for the likes of Victoria Pendleton, Rebecca Romero, Nicole Cooke and Beryl Burton to have the opportunity participate in and enjoy success in the sport.

From 1976 to 1986, Gray presided over the British Cycling Federation (BCF, the precursor to today’s British Cycling), and one of her greatest moments was in 2012 when, aged 92, she was a torchbearer at the London 2012 Olympics, 64 years after she had attended the previous London Games in 1948.

Born in Bermondsey, south London, in 1920, Eileen Gray was brought up in Dulwich, near the Herne Hill Velodrome, although she did not get the cycling bug until the war. With her mother hospitalised, Gray was not called up and, being somewhat gifted in maths, went into engineering.

Soon after she began working as a quality controller in an engine factory on the Harrow Road, north London, but with rail and bus services regularly disrupted due to the Blitz, and not wanting to be late, she decided to cycle. Gray enjoyed it and began cycling day and night, in all weathers, through the bomb-ravaged streets, round the rubble and bomb holes.

Gray’s whole demeanour changed. She became empowered, recalling: “It was the one thing that changed me from a shy young woman into the confident person that I became… although I didn’t realise this until later on.”

With money limited for many, cycling afforded Gray freedom to go and see new things and “she was her own boss”. Shortly after, she joined the Apollo Cycling Club, the nearest club that accepted women.

Gray cycled throughout the remainder of the war, joining the National Cyclists’ Union, which ran “Holidays at Home” as part of the war effort. When the war ended in 1945, she was an accomplished cyclist.

With post-war Europe in turmoil, sport began to emerge as a means of generating new ties and rebuilding international relationships. Cycling became central to that, being one of the few modes of transport or leisure relatively unaffected by damaged infrastructure and petrol shortages.

In 1946, Gray was invited with Stella Farrell and Joan Simmons to be part of Britain’s first women’s international team and to compete in a Danish track event in Ordrup, Copenhagen.

It was promoted as a “novelty” event by the organisers, and the British ladies wiped the floor with their Danish counterparts, who turned out to be members of a theatrical troupe that rode bikes as part of their act. Unlike in the men’s event, however, there were no medals or titles but women had got publicity, which was vital.

In 1947, Gray effectively retired from cycling following the birth of her son, but was determined to get recognition for women’s cycling. She used her experiences of inequality to fuel her career as one of Britain’s most noted sports administrators and, in 1949, founded the Women’s Track Racing Association (WTRA), which became the British Women’s Cycle Racing Association (WCRA) in 1956.

Thereafter, albeit slowly, women’s cycling began to emerge, particularly in mainland Europe in countries like France and Belgium, despite objections from the Swiss, Italians and surprisingly the Dutch.

Although some headway was made with the British authorities, Europe was much tougher. In 1955, Gray enjoyed a rare breakthrough when the sport’s international governing body, l’Union Cycliste Internationale, agreed to recognise women’s world records. Shortly afterwards the WTRA organised a track event at Herne Hill where Daisy Franks set the first ever women’s world record in the 550-metre flying start. Later that year, Joy Bell and Kay Hawkins also established world records.

Consequently, the French invited a British team to a three-day stage race at Roanne. Managed by Gray, the team triumphed easily, and all the prize money was donated to establish the Women’s International Racing Fund to support other women’s teams abroad.

The victory caused a sensation in France and the publicity prompted a promoter to stage a five-day event called “Le Tour de France Feminine”, which the British women won too.

In the autumn of 1955, they were invited to race in the televised Polytechnic Grand Prix Roller competition. There on merit, the British women wore WTRA vests and were recognised as a team in their own right. In 1958, France staged the first ever women’s world cycling championship.

With more road races and records, including Land’s End to John O’Groats, 100-mile time trials, the London-to-Brighton and 24-hour endurance events, being established the Women’s Road Race Association was founded. By May 1956 a national Road Race Championship to complement the WCRA had been approved.

Nonetheless, Gray and women’s cycling continued to encounter open hostility, including Olympic champion Reg Harris, who Gray described as “a bit of a nuisance”; he ensured women were banned from racing at one track. More shockingly for Gray was that there were saboteurs, who were “British men out to stop British women racing. Isn’t that shocking – but it’s absolutely true,” she said.

One such occasion was while racing in Leipzig, Germany. A male colleague had finished his races and returned home “deliberately taking all of our spare tubes and tyres, bought with raised funds, with him, leaving us with nothing”.

In 2010, Gray said: “He just did it to harm our chances. And it makes my blood boil to this day to hear him lauded for his contribution to UK cycling when he did that to us.” The British women nevertheless triumphed returning with two gold medals, a silver and a bronze.

As president of the BCF, Gray used her position to lobby for women’s cycling to be accepted in the Olympics; her dream was realised in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics with the women’s individual road race.

She attended 16 Olympic Games, serving as a vice-chairman of the British Olympic Committee from 1988 and as deputy commandant of the British teams at both the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville and the Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Such was her influence that, in 2010, she was among the first inductees in the British Cycling Hall of Fame.

Her energy undiminished, Gray served as a Conservative councillor from 1982-98 in Kingston-Upon-Thames, and in 1990 also served as its mayor. For more than 50 years she was a member of the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Masons, one of two orders of women Freemasons in Britain, of which she became the Past Most Worshipful the Grand Master. She was appointed MBE in 1978 and CBE in 1997.

Gray was predeceased by her husband Wally, also a cyclist and promoter, and is survived by a son.