Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Vintage Greats: Eileen Sheridan

Recently on the Classic Rendezvous group there was quite a nice run of posts about a great racer from the past, Eileen Sheridan. In the 1940s and '50s Sheridan was a time-trialing powerhouse who not only was one of the best female cyclists in the sport, but also gave a lot of men a real run for the money too. With all the posts and photos being shared by the CR friends, I couldn't help but feel inspired to gather more about her and share it here on the Retrogrouch.

At just 4' 11", Sheridan was dubbed "The Mighty
Atom" by the newspapers.
Born in 1923, Sheridan joined the Coventry Cycling Club when she was still in her teens. Her main interest was originally just riding with the club and cyclotouring, which was a very popular pastime during the war - but after entering a club time trial, she found she had a natural talent for the competition. Throughout the '40s and '50s, time-trialing was the main form of racing in Britain, as Continental-style mass-start racing was essentially banned by the sport's main governing body, the National Cyclists' Union (NCU), and participation in mass-start races would get a rider banned from any NCU sanctioned events. Though she did also compete in some track racing, road time trials and timed point-to-point rides became her specialty.

Sheridan's official start in racing was in 1945 and she won her first National Championship in the 25-mile time trial that year. In 1947 she would set the record in the women's 50-mile, and improve her 25-mile record. By 1950, she would be the National Champion in the 50 and 100-mile races, and was breaking records in all the distances she raced. In her 1949 12-hour record, Sheridan rode 237.62 miles - which actually put her within only a handful of miles from the top-ranked men of the day. In subsequent years, she would improve on that one, too.

The Hercules Cycle Company hired Sheridan in 1950 as a professional rider, and her appointed mission was to break distance records (that, and sell lots of Hercules bicycles). Over the next three years, she would break the 12-hour record (250.5 miles), the 24-hour record (446.5 miles), and the London-Edinburgh record. In 1954 she broke the record for Land's End-to-John O'Groats, which famously traverses the entire island of Great Britain from end-to-end, which she completed in 2 days, 11 hours, 7 minutes. After arriving in John O'Groats, despite being terribly sleep-deprived and near complete exhaustion, she continued riding on to also break the 1000 mile record. By her third mostly sleepless night on the bike, she reported that she was at times weaving along the road, barely able to stay upright, and having hallucinations, but she finished the ride in 3 days, 1 hour - a record that stood for 48 years. Not only that, but she was only 2 hours, 20 minutes off the men's record at the time. All told, between 1945 and 1955, she broke 21 women's long distance and place-to-place records. Many of these stood for decades, some through the end of the century, and a few of them, such as her London-Liverpool and London-Edinburgh runs, still stand today.

Prior to her Hercules sponsorship, Sheridan rode a few different bikes. I saw an interview on CyclingUK where she mentioned and old BSA that she started out with, and a Claude Butler that her husband bought for her when she first began racing. And searching the internet, I spotted a couple of photos of her racing on a bike built by Mercian. But she's mainly remembered for her Hercules deal.

Eileen's Mercian, which she used for several National Championships and record-breaking runs as an amateur. At different times the bike was equipped with a Sturmey-Archer multi-speed hub (like it is here), and in some instances, she used it as a fixed gear single-speed.

The Hercules model most often associated with Eileen was their "Maestro" - though it's generally known that she was not actually racing on any off-the-rack production line bike. The more common practice was that something was built special for her, and painted/labeled with the company name.

One of Eileen's bikes is on display at the Coventry Transport Museum. Though hard to see in this photo, the lugs on the frame definitely mark it as something other than a regular production Hercules Maestro. I'm quite certain a production Maestro would also weigh a good bit more, too. One can see how she used bars with an extremely deep drop. She was very proud of her position on the bike, with her back low and flat, just like the best time-trialists of today.

Female athletes have long had to battle with indifference and sexism, and it was certainly no different in Sheridan's day. The thing is, Eileen Sheridan, and many women like her, really deserves tremendous credit considering that, unlike most male athletes, she really was expected to balance her dedication to her sport with the "duties" of a wife and mother. Sheridan gave birth to a son in 1946, right after her first season as an amateur racer. Within months, she was back on the bike to pick up where she'd left off. Her second child, a daughter, was born in 1955, right at the end of her contract with Hercules, and at that point, having broken all the records that were available to be broken, she decided against renewing it. Difficulty in regaining her earlier form was also a factor in the decision.

On YouTube, you can find a brief clip from an old British Pathé newsreel about Eileen, "The Housewife Cyclist." The sexist and patronizing tone is kind of hard to stomach, but gives a good idea of the attitudes that female athletes like Eileen probably had to fight every day. The newsreel clip opens with a shot of Eileen feeding her new baby daughter . . .

Then goes on to show her training in her garage gymnasium . . .

The narrator says: "Some men believe a woman's place is in the home. But Eileen's husband likes to get her out of the house, even if it's only into the garage. For in this home-made gymnasium, he supervises the exacting training that has brought her eleven championship medals and twenty three national place-to-place records. . . . No wonder she wins races. She has to, to get back in time to catch up with her housework."
Sheridan has said in interviews that she would have loved to have been able to compete in the Olympics. The indifference that female athletes faced (and still face) meant that there was no women's cycling in the Olympics until 1984. And even now, the UCI has limits on their support of women's racing, and indifference by advertisers means a lack of coverage of it on television.

After her amazing John O'Groats ride, and while pregnant with her second child, Sheridan wrote her autobiography, Wonder Wheels. It was released in 1956. I believe the book is no longer in print, but it was re-issued briefly about 10 years ago. Used copies seem to be available if one knows where to look.

There's a very nicely done short documentary about Eileen called Come On, Eileen, directed by Anthony Collins in 2014. It seems that I am unable to embed the video right here, but it can be found on the Vimeo site, and here's a link: The film combines archive footage, photos, interviews, and some dramatic re-enactments to tell Eileen's story. It's only about 20 minutes long, and well worth watching.

Eileen in her 90s, with a bike built to replicate one she might have raced on.

There's Eileen in recent years - a screenshot from the short documentary Come On, Eileen.

As I understand, at 94 Eileen still remains at least somewhat active in the cycling community - attending special events when she can, and she was for many years the president of the Coventry Cycling Club. She provides inspiration for a lot of female cyclists, particularly those who are now breaking (or at least attempting to break) some of her great records.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Cycle Cinema: Quicksilver

Sometimes a person can't help but find himself (or herself) in an ironic/nostalgic mood where they feel compelled to wallow in a cheesy '80s pop music video masquerading as a gritty drama about plucky street-smart bike messengers making their way through the big, dangerous city. And when that ironic/nostalgic mood strikes, there aren't a lot of 80s pop music videos masquerading as gritty dramas about plucky street-smart bike messengers out there to choose from, but Quicksilver (1986) is one of them.
Olympian (and former bike messenger) Nelson Vails' opening cameo as "Messenger in Maroon Beret" is probably the highlight of the film. 
Fresh off of Footloose Kevin Bacon, who can be linked to nearly every actor in Hollywood by fewer than six steps (see Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon - yes, it's actually a thing) plays Jack Casey, a hot shot stock trader ("one of the best" supposedly) who, in the first five minutes of the film, loses everything in a single risky gamble.

Stock trader Bacon has what must be the douchiest little mustache in Hollywood film history.
And of course he also blew his father's whole retirement savings in the same inexplicable gamble. The scene where he breaks the news to his dad is one of the few moments with any emotional heft in the film.
"Sorry dad, I blew your entire life's savings on a single risky trade - you know, 'cuz I'm a really gifted stockbroker."

So rather than picking himself up and trying to rebuild himself (like his stock trading partners all seemed to have been able to do), he spends a lot of time aimlessly walking the city's crowded streets and growing out his hair. . .

Until he has an epiphany in front of a second-hand store:

Cue the angelic chorus.
It's redemption by bike, which I guess a lot of us can kinda' relate to.
And before you know it, Jack's making a living at his new dream job - mixing it up with traffic, and wearing Vails's old maroon beret.
Because it's an '80s movie, we have to have a whole lot of dance sequences to go with the high energy pop soundtrack.

Like Flashdance, but with a bike. I think there was some requirement back then that all post-industrial loft dwellers be aspiring dancers.

And of course all the bike messengers routinely take time out of their busy day to jam to some tunes on their boombox and start break-dancing (or at least, bike-dancing) in the middle of the street. You know, 'cuz it's the '80s.

Most of the film was shot in San Francisco, though I understand a few bits were shot in LA and NYC -- to give the film sort of a generic un-specified urban setting. One of the few scenes that makes the location obvious is the mano a mano messenger race between Kevin Bacon's Jack Casey vs. Laurence Fishburne's shady badass "Voodoo."

Catchin' some air. If they didn't get stunt-riders for that jump, I'm going to say that's actually pretty impressive.

There's a whole sub-plot in the film where messengers like Voodoo get caught up running drugs for "Gypsy," the local bad-guy drug dealer (who is almost never seen outside of his POS Ford sedan), and of course that doesn't work out well for any streetwise messenger who goes in for earning the fast easy money.
Bad-guy drug dealer.
Dead bike messenger.
There's a whole cast of lovable oddball characters, mostly with clever nicknames. Like Franz -- aka "Tour de Franz," "Apache," "Voodoo," "Airborne," and "Teddy Bear." Except for Jack, who is just, well, "Jack."
Paul Rodriquez plays Hector Rodriquez (clever!) - whose dream of moving up in life is to earn enough as a bike messenger to buy a hot dog cart. Hey, a guy's got to dream.

Comedian Louis Anderson makes an appearance as either "Tiny" or "PeeWee" (get it? 'cause he's fat) depending on whether you go by what people call him in the film, or how he's listed in the final credits. He's probably the film's least convincing bike messenger - but then, this one shot from the opening credits is the closest he's shown in proximity to a bicycle in the whole thing.
We have culturally sensitive nicknames, like Apache and Voodoo.
And then there's the new girl, Terri - played by Jamie Gertz. Throughout the film, Terri makes up increasingly outlandish stories about her family to cover up the fact that she doesn't have one. She also takes a job as a bike messenger, despite not having a bike and not knowing particularly well how to ride one.
Bacon's Jack Casey has a lot of angst about his stockbroker past, and tries to keep an air of mystery about his background with the other messengers, except when trying to help them occasionally with sound financial advice. But stockbroker-to-bicycle-messenger isn't the typical "American Dream" career trajectory, so of course he frequently finds himself at odds with people's expectations.

Uptight parents . . . they just don't understand.
Uptight stockbroker friends . . . they just don't understand.
Uptight dancer girlfriends . . . they just don't understand.
But when Jack learns that his friend Hector might make a big dangerous mistake to get the money for his hotdog cart, he decides to drop in on the Stock Exchange for some redemption. Before you know it, he's in there mixing it up with the hotshot stock traders again . . .

"Numbers numbers numbers BUY! Numbers numbers more numbers SELL!"
And that's all it takes to get other stock brokers to start acting like sheep. Pretty soon all the traders are following his lead, bleating the same thing . . .

"Numbers numbers numbers. BUY! Numbers BUY! BUY!" Looks like Hector's getting his hotdog cart after all.
While he's at it, Jack also manages to make enough to rescue his father's retirement fund, too. Oh yes - getting rich at the stock market never looked easier!

But that's not enough of a climax for the film, because Gypsy, the bad-guy drug dealer, is after Terri now, which leads to a final showdown.

Street-smart bike messengers stick together . . .
. . . bad-guy drug dealer destroys their source of income.
So now Jack leads the bad-guy on a car vs. bike chase.

Oddly enough, it's like the middle of the night and really dark when the chase scene begins . . .
. . . then suddenly it's daylight. How long was this chase supposed to be going on?
The whole chase scene ends about as well as it can for a guy who intentionally runs over a bunch of bicycles with his POS Ford.

Somehow Jack fools the bad guy into driving off an incomplete bridge.
Oddly enough, after spending an entire film being encouraged that being a bike messenger is a great job for independent mavericks, in the end, all three of the main characters are found doing something else. Jack's got a "couple of real good offers" (in what, he doesn't say), and Terri's going to be a paramedic. And then they run across another old friend. . .
"Should we have pizza or Chinese, or what?"
"Definitely pizza"
"I was thinking Chinese would be good."
"But I really wanted pizza."
"Wait, wait, I know the perfect place . . ."
Quicksilver is loaded with technical goofs and continuity errors. The sudden onset of daylight in the final chase is just one. Here are some more:

In the opening sequence where Nelson Vails is racing Jack's taxi cab, we see a closeup of Vails shifting gears. He pushes the lever forward all the way, and we then see his derailleur moving up to his lowest gear. Ahhhh . . . no.

In a scene where Jack is tailing Gypsy, Jack's outfit completely changes. One moment he's wearing a light gray top with a vest (a remnant from his 3-piece suit stockbroker days), and then the next shot he's wearing a knit sweater without the vest, then back again. Likewise, the length of Jack's hair seems to change from moment to moment throughout the film.

Early in the film, we see Jack slam into the back of a taxi. His front wheel is visibly damaged. Harder to tell for sure, but it's likely his fork is probably bent, or the frame buckled from the impact. Moments later, he pulls up to the messenger "headquarters" with a completely undamaged bike. I will give some credit that Bacon does a pretty nice "off the back" dismount.
The configuration of Jack's bike changes throughout the film - sometimes even at different moments in the same scene. In the "dancing" scene, the bike is noticeably equipped for trick riding - the fork is completely straight, with no rake whatsoever, and the chainring is really small - no bigger than the rear cog. There are also foot pegs on the front and rear axles. Most of the time the bike has a normal road fork and chainring. Also in the dancing scene, though the bike very noticeably has a fixed gear, some sound engineer added in the "click click click" sound effect of a spinning freewheel. In the race with Voodoo, the bike switches from one moment to the next from fixed gear to freewheeling single-speed.

Speaking of the bikes, Raleigh USA, which was actually American Huffy with a British name placed on bikes made in Japan and Taiwan, must have put up some money and/or other support for the film. Most of the bikes used in the film (or at least the ones that can be seen with any clarity) are Raleigh USA models from about '84 - '85.

I understand that Nelson Vails (who was sponsored by Raleigh USA at one point) did offer some technical advice for the film, and provided some insight on the life of bike messengers. Also, Kevin Bacon spent about four months prior to filming training on a fixed gear track bike - some of it riding with a former messenger (who was also one of the screenwriters) in NYC - to get ready for the role. I give him credit because there are several scenes in the film where he performs some tricks or stunts on the bike, and it's clearly Bacon and not a stunt double.

When Quicksilver came out in 1986, it opened to mostly lackluster or downright negative reviews.

Roger Ebert wrote: "Quicksilver is a collision between realism and gloss, between a story that demands to be told at street-level and a style that looks inspired by music videos. The movie has moments when it comes to life, when it threatens to tell a story about interesting people, and then it wanders off into inane scenes designed only to sell records."

Walter Goodman of the New York Times wrote: "As long as the characters are doing stunts or whizzing impossibly through city traffic to a strong rock beat, there's something to watch. For the rest of the time, Quicksilver is as much fun as a slow leak."

And currently, the movie rating website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 13% on their Tomatometer. By comparison, Bacon's 1990 film Tremors, which I believe was intended to be an ironically bad tongue-in-cheek sendup of 1950s B-movie monster flicks has a score of 85%. Kevin Bacon himself is reported to have called Quicksilver one of the lowest points in his career.

I was a student at Kent State when the film came out, and I remember our university bike club hosted a screening of the film. We actually enjoyed it - or rather, we enjoyed ourselves mostly poking fun of it. But fun is fun.

Needless to say, Quicksilver is hardly a must-see movie. But sometimes cheesy bad can still be fun. And if you're looking to satisfy that itch where nothing but an 80s pop music video masquerading as gritty drama about plucky street-smart bike messengers will do, what else are you gonna watch?

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Campagnolo Corkscrew to the Rescue

The Campagnolo Big Cavatappi corkscrew is probably regarded by a lot of people as an indulgence. A bike-geek/wine-lover affectation. Yes, I have one. What can I say? Bike-geek/wine-lover? That's me. And though it was awfully expensive for a corkscrew, as a lover of bikes as well as good wine, I figured that getting one was almost a requirement, and I purchased mine many years ago, before I had kids. An extravagance to be sure, but today I was really glad to have it.

As wonderful as the Campy corkscrew is, I admit that it is rather big and maybe a bit overkill for most cork pulling duty. It usually comes out when we have company and a nice dinner - but most days and with most bottles I end up using a much more pedestrian puller: the simple $20 Screwpull, with its teflon-coated "worm" type screw -- the claim is that it should work its way into a cork without damaging it, and pull it out cleanly. Most of the time, that proves to be the case.

A really nice bottle of wine - Saved! Shoulda'
gotten a picture of the cork - it was a wreck.
But in this instance, it wasn't going well. Opening a well-aged bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, 2006, I found that the screw wormed its way into the cork just like it should, but when extracting it, the cork just started to crumble - the screw started pulling the middle right out of it, while the rest of the cork stayed firmly put.

That's not good.

Before I completely destroyed the cork, or while there was still enough of it intact to have any hope of success in removing it, I brought out the Big Cavatappi. The screw on the Campy puller is a pretty unique shape - not quite a "worm" type, but not exactly an "auger" type, either (if you have a brittle cork, those inexpensive auger screws are about as bad is it gets). It's a large helix-shaped screw, with sharp, almost blade-like edges, and it was able to work its way cleanly into the cork, but still get plenty of purchase on what was left of it. It pulled out the damaged cork smoothly and without tearing it further apart. I'm convinced that no other puller would have been able to do it.

I poured a glass, and the only evidence of the trouble was a single tiny flake of cork no bigger than the head of a pin. Considering the condition of the rest of the cork, I'd say that was way better than I could have hoped for.

So, how was the wine? Southern Rhone wine at its best. If too young, it can be pretty tannic. After 12 years in the bottle, it was nice and mellow. Excellent sipping on a cold February night. Even as I sit here typing this post and enjoying my wine, I feel the need to raise my glass to the Big Cavatappi's creator, Tullio Campagnolo. Cheers!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Baby It's Cold Outside

This is Ohio.

On Wednesday I rode to work, and the morning temperature was 18º American. By the afternoon ride home that day it was 40º. Yesterday I rode to work and the temperature in the morning was still about 40º, but started falling in the afternoon. During the night, temperatures plunged again. This morning it was about 10º, with a reported windchill in negative digits. Yes, I rode anyhow. That is now the coldest I've ever been out on my bike.

You can't tell, but I'm smiling.
I'm happy to report that the Lake winter boots I wrote about in December continue to impress, as my toes never felt the cold, even after an hour on the road. Likewise, my Pearl Izumi lobster gloves kept my fingers warm from start to finish (I did utilize a thin polypropylene liner glove inside them - though I admit that may not have been necessary - I was being proactive).

Below 20º I find that the cold really hurts my eyes - enough to make them feel like they're going to explode, and they tear up, then the tears freeze, etc. etc. To get some protection from that, I picked up a pair of clear ski goggles. The fact that they were only $16 online makes me suspect they are likely Chinese knockoffs of a famous brand (I don't honestly know, and don't think I could tell the difference). Though I'd never buy a knockoff bike frame or major bike component where failure could be fatal (or at least painful), in the case of the goggles I'm not that concerned. My only concern was that they might fog up in the cold (they were listed as "fog free," but if they're "fakes" then who knows, right?), but that has not been an issue. After about 45 minutes on my commute, I was starting to notice a little bit of fogging at the top of the lens, around my brow, but nothing bad enough to affect my vision. Goggles do reduce my peripheral vision a little, but they added to my comfort a lot, so it was a good trade.

One of the blog's readers suggested giving studded tires a try. Actually, he recommended the ones from 45Nrth, but I was checking around and was having some trouble locating a pair in the size I needed/wanted, but was able to get a pair of Schwalbe's Winter line from my local shop. I have encountered patches of ice on the road in these cold early mornings, but the tires definitely feel more secure and give me a little peace of mind. However, they are heavy and truly slow. On clear pavement, they sound a bit like bacon frying. The rolling resistance on the model of tires I got is supposed to be better than most - yet that's obviously relative. I would say that the effect is probably not unlike putting off-road 4x4 tires on a sports car. The added security is a worthwhile trade, but I look forward to a true warming trend when I can put some Panaracer Paselas back on the bike.

As of today, I've ridden to work 80 days out of the last 100. Feeling pretty good about that. That's all for now. Looking forward to the afternoon ride home. It's supposed to get up to 19º! WooHoo!