Imagine discovering a bike as a late teenager during World War II, then riding through your war-torn town, avoiding the rubble, debris, and wreckage left from bombs on your commute to work.
This is the story of Eileen Gray.
She traveled to work on Harrow Road via bus or train until one day, the drivers went on strike. When Eileen came into work late, her boss wasn’t happy. As the strike went on, she knew she had to find a way to get to work on time. Then she found an old, rickety bike and began riding it through the rain and snow, day and night. It didn’t matter how treacherous the weather became, she was never late again.
For Eileen, cycling meant freedom. “I was very determined, even back then. I knew I wanted to be in control of my own life, not have people—especially men—making up rules for me while they did as they pleased,” she said. The bike was a tool in service of that goal.
Anyone who has ever thrown a leg over a bike has felt the freedom of pedaling through the open air. Which also means they know exactly how this incredible machine can change your life. Once a shy, timid girl, Eileen’s discovery of and love for cycling turned her into the confident woman who took on women’s bike racing, the UCI, and the IOC.
In 1946, organizers in Copenhagen, Denmark held a women’s track cycling event. They invited three British women cyclists, including Eileen Gray. “It was a great opportunity for us,” she said. “I mean, not only were we being invited abroad, but we were going to be allowed to ride our bikes against a Danish team.”
Even though the women returned victorious, they didn’t receive medals, titles, or prize money—because they were women. Seeing Eileen’s team dominate the Danish theatrical troupe (who rode their bikes as a performance, not for sport), women watching thought, “If they can do it, so can I.” This event, even if it was for amusement and not competition, encouraged more women to hop in the saddle and push for their own cycling events throughout Europe.
Eileen stopped racing in 1947 when she had her son. She never felt like she “gave up”—there actually wasn’t much racing to give up on in the 1940s. Instead, Eileen became a key organizer and pushed for more women’s cycling events. “It just sort of happened,” she said. “I just did it and used my contacts to make things happen where I could.”
In 1949, Eileen founded the Women’s Track Racing Association (WTRA) and eventually renamed it to Women’s Cycle Racing Association (WCRA). The WCRA’s goal was to increase the number of opportunities for women in cycling and to challenge inequalities in “press coverage, prize money, sponsorship, and international opportunities for women.”
Eileen managed a race team that traveled to France in July 1955 to compete in the first-ever Circuit Lyonnais-Auvergne stage race. From there, they traveled to the Tour de France Féminin in September and took home both wins.
As women’s cycling grew, the Dutch, Swiss, and the Italians were hesitant to participate. However, Eileen knew that if she kept pushing and persevering, one day they’d accept women’s cycling on its own merit.
UCI Women’s World Records & World Championships
Through her tenacity, she convinced the UCI to recognize women’s world records. In 1955, the WTRA organized a world record attempt for the women’s flying 500-meter time trial by Daisy Franks at the Herne Hill Track. However, the UCI only approved it after the women hand-stitched their own sandbags to meet the official regulations.
Three years after watching her team dominate two first-time women's stage races and the first women’s world record attempt, she persuaded the UCI to host the first women’s World Championships—including a track sprint, individual pursuit, and a 59-kilometer road race in 1958.
A few years later, the British women’s team manager, along with the British Cycling Federation (BCF), allotted the team a measly 100 pounds (about $200 USD at the time) to travel to Leipzig, East Germany for the 1960 World Championship. This all-women’s team had to fundraise on their own in order to buy equipment and rent a bus. According to Eileen, a British male official “went home… and deliberately took all of our spare tubes and tires with him, leaving us with nothing. He just did it to harm our chances.”
Despite the setback, team member Beryl Burton won the individual pursuit as well as the road race. Even with the overwhelming successes of women’s cycling, men still wouldn’t recognize or accept their achievements in sport and Eileen wanted more recognition for women’s racing. So she not only ran for, but also won, a seat on the British Cycling Federation’s finance committee.
IOC’s Women’s Olympic Road Race
When The International Olympic Committee (IOC) rejected the International Federation for Amateur Cycling’s (FIAC) push for a women’s road race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, it looked like there was little hope for women.
Six years later, Eileen met with Lord Killanin, then-president of the IOC, at a sportswriter's dinner in 1970. Following the event, she wrote to Lord Killanin urging him to allow for a women’s road race in the Olympics.
The IOC scoffed, claiming there wasn’t enough supporting evidence to prove women’s cycling met the criteria of “international” sport. According to the IOC, women’s road racing was not a new event, but an entirely different sport.
Finally, eight years after becoming President of BCF and lobbying for the Olympics to include women’s cycling, 45 participants from 16 nations raced in the first-ever womens-only road race in the 1984 Summer Olympics.
“If You Want Something, You Have To Fight For It”
From a meek engineer to a bold activist, Eileen Gray overcame uncooperative countries and organizations from around the world as she cleared hurdles for women going after world record attempts.
She never stopped working for others. Later in life, Eileen was inducted into the British Cycling Hall of Fame, described as “a champion of women’s racing and an administrator of vision and authority.”
Eileen was integral to getting women’s bike racing recognized on a national and international level. Without her fierce determination and resiliency, women would still be racing against each other on local back roads with zero recognition.
Against all odds, Eileen built something incredible for women in sport. And the more women raced, the more they succeeded.
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