Godmother Gray – How Madam President transformed women’s cycling

Eileen Gray spent her working life championing the cause of women’s cycling. In celebration of the centenary of her birth, Giles Belbin looks back on the career of the gifted administrator whose drive and tenacity enabled her to shape the sport into what it is today and 
become the godmother of women’s cycling

Madam President.” That was the headline splash of the 18 December 1976 issue of Cycling. Pictured underneath was a smiling Eileen Gray in formal attire, looking happy if a little uneasy, perhaps uncertain of exactly what the future will bring.

The picture had been taken at the annual British Cycling Federation’s (BCF) National Council meeting, held in Blackpool the previous weekend. Prior to holding votes on introducing new track titles, increasing subscription prices and limiting
cash prizes for amateurs, came the election of Gray to the position of BCF president. It was a four-horse race that went just one round – the 56-year-old Gray immediately claiming 38 of the 75 votes cast and so securing an overall majority at the first time of asking.

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“It was an emotional moment,” Gray said after the results had been announced. “When one considers the worth of the others who stood, I did not expect for one moment that this election would be decided on the first ballot… I trust and hope that I will do all I can for the future of the British Cycling Federation.”

It was a historic moment as Gray became the fifth president of the BCF, the first, and to date only, woman to hold the position. Cycling hailed the appointment and warmly congratulated the newly elected president. “She is more than worthy,” ran its editorial. “Her involvement at grass-roots level, as well as with top committees, plus her declared intention to be a ‘working’ president, give us great encouragement.”

Gray receives a carving tray at what looks like a club dinner. We’re guessing this was a (well received) joke.

Born on 25 April 1920 in Bermondsey, London, Gray discovered cycling during the Second World War, taking to the bike after transport strikes caused her to arrive late at the engineering company where she worked as an inspector, incurring the wrath of her supervisor. “I rode to Harrow Road and back every day – round the rubble and the potholes, through all weathers, night and day,” Gray told British Cycling in 2010. “But I was never late again, and he never had another opportunity to tell me off.”

Read the full feature in the April 2 issue of Cycling Weekly, on sale now in supermarkets priced £3.25. The magazine is available on Newsstand, Amazon while print editions are available for individual purchase. You can also Subscribe to CW and get your weekly hit of cycling delivered direct to your door