Suze Clemitson concludes her enthralling deep dive into the history of one of Britain’s most prodigious cycling dynasties.
Stoke-on-Trent, 1975. The Bay City Rollers brought Hanley to a standstill, the streets thronged with screaming, tartan-clad teenage girls. A series of earth tremors known locally as ‘goths’ or ‘bumps’ rocked the suburbs. The Northern Soul scene that had burned so brightly around the Torch nightclub flickered out, though the all-nighters would live on in Blackpool and Wigan. And Stoke City finished 5th in the League again, despite paying a £325,000 world record transfer fee for goalkeeper Peter Shilton.
Meanwhile, in the rather less glitzy world of cycling in Stoke, Roy and Doris Swinnerton were still running the hugely successful Stoke Athletic Club Cycling Section, one of 15 cycling clubs in and around Stoke at the time. Phil Griffiths was busy winning the third of his five BBAR titles for the club and 17-year-old Catherine Swinnerton had just taken third in her first British National Road Race Championships.
“I always looked up to Bernadette being the next sister down. She was my hero and that’s why I wanted to race – because Bernadette raced and I wanted to be just like her,” Catherine Swinnerton tells me 43 years later. She and her sister Margaret started racing against the boys in the park, “I was 10 when I started, but it wasn’t proper racing, just crits in the park, having fun,” she says.
Then Bernadette won silver in the Worlds.
“She’d just finished high school and I was just starting the grammar school she’d finished,” Catherine remembers. “I was so proud of her and I remember in assembly I was expecting the head teacher to mention it and she didn’t say anything because it wasn’t hockey or netball, it was a cinderella sport. And just as some of the girls had filed out she said ‘oh by the way, ex-pupil Bernadette Swinnerton has just won a silver medal in the World Championships in Czechoslovakia’. I was really disappointed they didn’t make a bigger thing of it but that’s how it was in those days.”
Catherine and Margaret carried the Swinnerton name into the women’s racing scene of the 1970s and 80s, a Wild West affair of piecemeal sponsorships and the faintest inklings of the emergence of a modern women’s cycling scene. It was a landscape dominated in Britain by Beryl Burton and in Europe by the likes of Jeannie Longo, Maria Canins and Connie Carpenter. The Swinnerton girls are like Russian dolls, each one looking up to the next. It was no surprise that where Catherine went, Margaret followed.
“She talked me into meeting her from college and we used to ride back together and she’d be saying ‘you could race, you know, we only go this fast,’” Margaret remembers. “And I said I just wanted to watch the lads race, Mark and Paul. And she’d say ‘you could do it’, so she talked me into it.” Both women have a lilt to their voice, a musicality and a soft burr. It’s easy to see how persuasive Catherine would have been. Margaret was the third and final Swinnerton sister to pull her toe straps tight and start racing. “She really only wanted me to do it because she wanted someone to travel with, she was fed up going around the country on her own,” Margaret laughs. “So I got the shock of my life when it turned out to be quite a bit faster.” As long-time friend and top time triallist Louise Cuming remembers, Catherine wanted someone to have a laugh with, “And needless to say the Swinnerton genes ensured they won as well as laughed.”
1975 was the year when Catherine started taking it seriously. Like her siblings, Catherine had to get her qualifications out of the way before she could focus on racing. “I remember doing my O levels, thinking ‘as soon as these are out of the way I’m going to start racing properly.’” She’d ride to the shop after school, drop off her bag and ride 25 miles home the hilly way, come rain, shine or snow. “That’s dedication,” deadpans Margaret. “You wouldn’t catch me doing that.”
At the end of the year Catherine was selected for her first Worlds. “You can imagine going to the Worlds as a 17-year-old with only a few races under your belt and meeting these international girls. It was a bit of a shock.”
Terrie Riley remembers many happy hours spent round the Swinnertons’ kitchen table. “Doris was always willing to feed you and you could always find a bed for the night and a lift to the bike race,” she tells me. Terrie was in the GB team that went to the 1975 Worlds in Naumur, Belgium alongside the men’s amateur team with the likes of Bill Nickson, Phil Griffiths and Bob Downs. She remembers her and Catherine not being too keen to get a massage from a male masseur, nor having to give back their team GB jerseys once they’d raced in them. The Dutch dominated with Hennie Kuiper and Tineke Fopma running out as world champions. But it was definitely the start of something.
Catherine: I always rode a lot of miles in training.
Margaret: I didn’t train as much as Catherine.
Catherine: I only did it because I had brothers.
Margaret: I had brothers too!
Catherine: I needed the miles, you always had the talent.
Mark and Paul Swinnerton were shining stars on the road and the track – Mark winning the Pernod GP trophy in 1980, Paul tearing up the track and setting a Guinness World Record reaching 109 mph unassisted on the rollers. Both riders wore the British colours all over the world.
Margaret recalls how vibrant the local track leagues were in the 70s and 80s.
“We’d all pile in the van and all go to the club room and do circuit training around the dustbins. We’d go sprinting down one side and then back up the other, learning how to corner. And that was your training.” Basic as it was, both women agree they were lucky to have grown up in the club system.
“The way a lot of girls come into the sport now is by being talent spotted and they’ve missed the club side of it. They have to be taught how to ride a bike because they missed out on what we learned naturally,” adds Catherine.
“It’s not around so much nowadays,” agrees Margaret, “they don’t have that and we took it for granted. We were taught by the lads we rode with and it was fun.”
“I know we had fun as we weren’t under the same pressures as the girls racing today,” Catherine points out, “but we did take our racing seriously!”
They talk about training in terms of long club runs and youth hostelling with saddle bags, just to get the base miles in. There was no training structure, no coaches, just talks about looking after yourself and some basic training ideas. You did your own thing and you were all in the same boat. “We spent every weekend travelling the country having a laugh,” Margaret says “we just had fun.” The F word comes up frequently in my conversations with British women riders who blazed a trail in the 1970s and 80s, those three letters conjuring up a spirit and an attitude that sometimes seems lacking in the modern era of lottery funding and marginal gains.
Louise Cuming remembers how it was all done with very little support.
“The girls had to use their own bikes and kit and often make their own way to races and coaching was certainly not scientific. If you talk to the generation of women cyclists who were at the top in the 70s and 80s they see the main difference with today’s winners is the fun factor. Not that racing didn’t hurt and they were certainly motivated to win, but there was a freedom and a fun that seems missing now.”
Terrie Riley agrees, “You rode your own bike and brought your own spare wheels. I’d save up all year to buy Clement Seta Extra tyres in the hope I’d get selected to ride,” she says. “We had no money, no financial support but we had one hell of a great time and great memories!”
1976 was Olympic year. Catherine and Terrie headed south to Ostruni in Italy for the Worlds in the company of the Great Britain professional men’s squad – Sid Barras, Keith Lambert, Phil Bayton and Phil Edwards. “They rode the course with us in the days before and came out to cheer us on even though they were racing the next day,” Terrie recalls. They returned the favour in spades when the BCF failed to send out any musettes for the men’s team.
“Catherine and I set to and tore up a bed sheet and sat and sewed musettes from it so that they had something to put food in,” Terrie says. Then she and Catherine did the feeds each lap, “as there were no officials with us to handle feeding for the pros. It just had to be done and neither us would ever profess to be seamstresses!”
A year later they were both on the flight to Trinidad and then on to Venezuela for the Worlds in San Cristóbal. “The accommodation was the pits,” Terrie remembers, “five girls in a tiny room with windows but no glass in them with all sorts of insects flying around.”
They slept with the light on every night and Catherine’s nightly ritual was to get her Adilettes [a style of sandal made by Adidas] and stand on the bed and kill as many insects as she could with them. “So much so the white walls were splattered with smeared insects!” Terrie laughs.
What was forged in the crucible of those pioneering days were friendships that continue to endure 40 years later – when Catherine crashed badly at the 1978 Worlds and was hospitalised with a head injury, it was Terrie who stayed behind and then travelled home with her.
There is a long list of amateur GB riders from that era: Catherine, Margaret and Bernadette Swinnerton, Terrie Riley, Pauline Strong, Vicky Thomas, Julie Earnshaw, Linda Flavell, Jackie Griffiths, Maria Blower and Mandy Jones. They achieved some amazing results, but few of them live in the past. If they get together they will talk about the past, but rarely. They rode for their country, they won medals, they have some great memories but have moved on and, unless pressed, will not reminisce. They are modest and certainly did not benefit in any material way from their achievements.
“We never talk about the past,” Catherine says. “It’s been so difficult racking our brains!” We talk about the start of sponsored clubs in the 1980s and how lucky they were to have the Swinnerton bike shop behind them. How there were no family holidays just trips to bike races with the family. But there was always equipment. And the better they performed the more publicity they gained for the shop.
More sponsorship came from Reg Harris, one of the fabled names of British cycling, winner of four world sprint titles in the 40s and 50s and a silver medal in the sprint and tandem at the 1948 London Olympics. So famous he was referenced in an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour, Harris came out of retirement to win the national sprint title at the age of 54. He also took Paul Swinnerton under his wing and coached him to great success.
But despite the club car, the jerseys and the tracksuits, prize money still didn’t amount to much. Even so, the Swinnertons knew they were lucky. Catherine had the luxury of working as a supply teacher through the school year so she could take the summer off to focus on her racing. The GB girls couldn’t race full time in the way they do now and as their continental contemporaries were capable of doing.
Margaret: She was a star, she was my hero
Catherine: I tried my best and that was it
At the beginning of the 1980s word got out that there would finally be a women’s Olympic road race in 1984. Catherine was 26 and had been racing for nearly a decade. But at an age when today’s riders are just beginning to hit their peak she was already considered over the hill. “I felt I was getting stronger and I was finishing top 15 in the Worlds every year, but because I wasn’t winning medals the BCF wasn’t interested. By the time you reached your twenties they didn’t want to select you.” The road race would be her last hurrah – Catherine hung up her wheels the next season.
It’s difficult to think of a rider with Catherine Swinnerton’s British championship record not getting routinely selected to ride these days. In her 10 years on the bike she ran out the winner twice and was on the podium a further 4 times. From 7 starts she never finished lower than third. It’s an elite record backed up by her equal prowess on the track.
By her own account the final two years of Catherine Swinnerton’s road racing career were the most amazing experience. She went to the LA Olympics and finished a more than creditable 13th behind Connie Carpenter. She rode the second edition of the women’s Tour de France and came within a tyre’s width of taking victory on the Champs-Élysées. And she met and subsequently married a slender and quietly spoken Irishman whose steel rimmed glasses would become a familiar sight to cycling fans of the 80s as he took stage wins in the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia during the last truly golden period of men’s cycling.
Catherine: I’ll never forget Pauline Strong saying to me ‘you know you’ve got an advantage over us girls, you’ve got God on your side.’ And I said, ‘don’t be silly!’
“Every time you went away the first thing you did was find a church,” Margaret says. “It was just something we did as a family, it was a comfort.”
“It used to help me because I got so nervous, and if I could go to mass it was the same thing I’d be doing at home” Catherine adds. “Our team manager used to say whenever we used to go away we had to find a church for Catherine!”
Margaret remembers an interpreter finding her a Catholic church in Japan, dropping her off and waiting in the car through the one-hour service before taking her back to the hotel again.
In the Olympic Village in Los Angeles there was a multi-faith room with a Catholic mass among the services on offer.
“I’d go to church every Sunday. And the final Sunday just before the team time trial I was at mass and the Irish team were there,” Catherine recalls, and you can hear the spark in her voice as she remembers it. “And as soon as the mass finished the priest said ‘Right lads as soon as you finish the team time trial tomorrow we’re going for a drink.’ There were only a few of us there and Paul Kimmage said ‘Do you want to come with us Catherine?’ I said I would if the other girls could. So we went for a drink outside the Olympic village and that was how I met Martin.”
Margaret: We did some testing at university but we never got any feedback. Those were the years they learned from us. We were the guinea pigs.
Despite the lack of support for women’s riding in the 1980s there were definite perks to having a professional male rider in your life. When Catherine hit the start line of the 1985 Tour Cycliste Féminin and faced mountains for the first time – “we weren’t used to racing up high mountains!” – Martin was just a phone call away riding the men’s Tour de France in his first season as a pro. “He had me calling him for advice every night,” Catherine laughs. “It wouldn’t have been the best preparation for him.
“We rode the last 50 miles of the men’s stage. One time we started at the foot of the Tourmalet, went down the other side and then up to Luz Ardiden.” A trip to the local phone box every night brought professional advice from Martin Earley. “We had a good manager and mechanic, but they didn’t know about gearing for women so I rang Martin every night and said ‘Martin, what sprocket do you think I need?’” Four years later Earley would streak to the finish in a last gasp dash for victory that saw him throw his arms aloft as he crossed the line in Pau alone. Catherine watched him on the TV, pregnant with their son Joseph.
That 1985 race was the first of several thrilling battles that pitted the queen of French racing, Jeannie Longo, against the 36-year-old Italian maestra of all things mountainous, Maria Canins. For the next five years they would trade victories with Canins proving supreme before Longo found a way to match her and become the first triple winner of the race. Catherine recalls the thrill of racing in front of the same clamorous, adoring crowds as the men. “It must have been a nightmare for the organisers,” she admits. “Sometimes we only finished half an hour before the men.”
She nearly capped it all with a stage win on the Champs-Élysées: “I was so excited it was finished I attacked with a French girl – she went one side of the road and I went the other and she just beat me.” She’s quick to downplay the achievement: “It’s nothing compared to what the girls do now but for me, then, it was amazing and the crowds were fantastic.”
"I have ridden with two unbelievable descenders in my life, Sean Kelly and my Aunty Margaret"
Throughout our conversation the intertwining love, support and pride in each other’s achievements is palpable. They tell me about riding in the women’s Giro in 1982 or 1983 when all they can remember is getting on the plane, arriving in the dark, getting on a bus over the mountains, getting up and riding the race, finishing and repeating again day after day. Catherine remembers a stage finish outside the Colosseum in Rome “but apart from that I don’t know where we went.” Margaret remembers packing and repacking for her first Worlds in 1979 in Valkenburg where Dutchwoman Petra de Bruin smiled a toothy grin of triumph as she pulled on the coveted rainbow jersey.
“It was the first international race I rode and I repacked my bag about six times. And when we got there I’d left half my clothes behind! Catherine had to lend me some tights – my big sister looked after me, and Bernadette looks out for all of us.”
According to Catherine, Margaret is the naturally gifted one who didn’t need to train to get results. Margaret says, “Catherine could explain the mechanics of the sport to anybody, but I couldn’t. We’d go on training camps and I’d tell Terrie to sit on my wheel and follow because she wasn’t good at descending and I didn’t understand how she couldn’t do it. But I just do it and I don’t know how I do it.”
Margaret strikes me as the pragmatic sister. She married John Herety – one of the lynchpins of the British domestic scene – in 1983 and raced her final season under her married name. They had a daughter, Georgia, who is that rare thing – a Swinnerton who doesn’t ride a bike. Margaret may have ridden for the sheer love of cycling, but when it disappointed her she simply walked away and cut herself off.
“These days it’s a job. They might not like to do it and they’re under a lot of pressure but that’s their job. They have to do it, they have to perform and if you don’t you lose your job. It’s difficult, but it is a job which it wasn’t for us.”
Despite her natural gifts, Margaret missed out on a much-coveted place in that first women’s Olympic road race.
“I was so disappointed with being left out of the Olympics I packed up and stopped racing. I was selected to ride the Tour de France as a consolation but, sour grapes, I packed up.” Margaret won’t be pressed on what happened – “politics” she snorts with a half laugh – but it killed her interest in women’s competitive cycling, “I never watched a women’s race ever again.”
These days, however, Margaret is back on the bike.
“I had 30 years off. I went to the Tour of Texas in 1985 after the Olympics and then I never touched a bike for 30 years and I really regret doing that. I wouldn’t have stopped, but I got married. I’ve been back for 10 years and we all love it, we all ride.”
“It was a shame because the way she rode she had this incredible sprint and if she was there at the end of a race she was just unbeatable,” says Catherine. Good enough to give Connie Carpenter a run for her money? My question goes unanswered, but the tantalising possibility of a British winner of that first road race hangs in the air for a second or two. “In those days you didn’t get women’s teams,” Catherine continues, “no one rode as a team – but we did. As long as one of us won we didn’t mind. There was never any jealousy and we’d always help each other.”
Margaret: I remember one stage race when we were on different teams and I was leading and I came down in the wet, slid across this bend and came down and nobody stopped. But Catherine stopped.
Catherine: I was just so disgusted, I went back for her to get her back into the race and she won the race overall in the end and I got told off. None of the team helped, but then they shouldn’t have split us up, should they?
To say that the Swinnertons lie at the epicentre of British racing would be an understatement. Cycling was woven into the fabric of everyday life as surely as breathing and it wasn’t uncommon, as Terrie Riley told me, to find extra faces at the kitchen table. One of them was Beryl Burton, one of the greatest women riders of all time, whose legend throws a long shadow. They remember her coming to stay if she was racing locally with Bernadette, their dad building her wheels and looking after her.
Catherine raced against her as a 17-year-old when Burton was in her 40s and past her prime. “I held her in high esteem but my experience racing with her was not the best.” She refuses to go on record, not wanting to speak badly of such a legendary figure, saying only, “Bernadette stopped racing but Beryl couldn’t stop.” But the complex and competitive relationship between Beryl and her daughter Denise is a way into speaking about the deep, enfolding bonds of family – of pride not jealousy, collaboration not competition and of the synchronicity of twins who both won their first national championships on the same day when they were just 19.
Margaret: The doctor told us she could go at any time and we said ‘well we’ve got another three weeks then because she won’t go when the Tour’s on’
Throughout the sisters’ racing careers Roy and Doris were always there. Roy was at Catherine’s first Worlds in Belgium back in 1975 and was manager of the British track team in 1976. He was a constant fixture at the Worlds until 1978 and managed the track team at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, where the men dominated, winning four of the six gold medals on offer. He had even been at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where the British men took a bronze in the team pursuit just days before the massacre of 11 Israeli team members overshadowed the Games.
Meanwhile, Doris was managing the shop and organising local time trials and leagues. Every night she was out at a track team meeting, every day making sure that Swinnertons ran like clockwork. But Catherine remembers that if it was raining and dark and she was about to go out training again after college her mum would say “‘Don’t do it, have a night off,’ because she wanted to look after us,” her daughter says with undisguised affection.
Margaret says her mum could tell you “everything about every race” and remembers the time she was hospitalised a few years ago with pneumonia.
“I went to see her one evening and she asked for the remote control and Bernard said ‘Mum, you can’t, the telly’s for all four of you’ and she said ‘Bernard it’s the Tour de France I’ve got to get Eurosport on.’ ‘Mum, this is the NHS there’s no Eurosport.’ ‘Well Channel 4 will have to do.’ So she managed to get hold of the remote control and Bernard said ‘you can’t just grab the remote control and keep it’ and she said ‘see that woman in the corner? She’s deaf. And she never wakes up – just give us the bloody remote control’. And she sat on it and no one ever saw it again.”
Catherine: I worry about Joe racing and I asked Mum how she managed with 7! And she said ‘you know what, Catherine, I was just too busy to worry’
Margaret: She was a star, she still is at 93
“We’re really blessed as a family,” says Margaret, simply.
“The fact our children ride bikes is lovely,” Catherine adds, “and it would be lovely if they did race.” Among the next generation of Swinnertons is a national junior sprint champion and Catherine’s son Joe tears up the northern track scene like his uncle Paul.
“It’s a joy for us that they just enjoy cycling like we did,” Catherine concludes. Hardly surprising when their close family have held cycling honours from schoolboy championships to World Championship medals.
It’s a sentiment Louise Cuming echoes.
“All of them still love riding their bikes – and I have personal experience that many of them are still annoyingly fit and fast! Most deny any competitive spirit these days. I don’t believe them,” she laughs.
Terrie Riley agrees, “We are all still great friends now and still riding bikes. I spend most of my time in Mallorca now and the ‘girls’ still come out to ride with me here 40-odd years on!”
Catherine: We don’t live in the past, there’s so much in the future, so much to live for. You can’t change the past and the future is so much more exciting when you have your own children to look forward to.
Family seems as fundamental to the Swinnertons as growing up on wheels. There’s time for one last story, of Catherine and Martin taking their three children out for a ride – Joe on the tandem behind his dad, Maria in the child seat and Katrina on a tag along behind her mum.
“Martin as usual led the way and I’d ride behind. And Katrina used to go mad because she always wanted to ride in front. I remember her moaning about me going too slow and saying that she couldn’t believe her mum could have ever gone quick on a bike – at the time, I had to agree with her!”
We say our goodbyes, the lilting Midlands melody of their intertwining voices still echoing in my ears. After I finish talking with the Swinnerton sisters I imagine them both slipping on their cleats and going for a ride, heads close together, chatting with the easy intimacy of a lifetime lived together on and around the bike.
I think about their sense of astonishment that theirs should be a story worth telling – partly because they’re so unassuming about their achievements and partly because their lived experience is to them something so utterly normal, as if every family’s life is packed with medals and cups and Guinness World Records and being bundled into the caravan to watch your siblings compete in yet another World Championships.
I think about Doris and Roy, who created a dynasty of cyclists and supported them equally without fear or favour, instilling the virtues of hard training and good qualifications but never at the expense of having fun. Of Doris pinching the remote control to watch her beloved Tour. Of Roy being carried in triumph shoulder high. A modern couple who were forward-looking enough to see a time when Stoke would be packed with cycle shops but there would only ever be one Swinnertons.
And I think about Bernadette and Catherine and Margaret, blazing a trail for a kind of British women’s cycling that is long lost now – where winning isn’t everything and you get stuck in beside the men because they’re happy to be your training partners and you travel the country and the world on a shoestring and have a laugh. A time both more egalitarian and less up its own arse than the modern professionalised sport. The kind of cycling we all profess to want to see more of until we’re blinded by the bling of medals.
I picture them cycling out towards Hanchurch Woods or up into the Peak District, Catherine romping effortlessly up the climbs with the gearing Martin taught her and Margaret swooping down them before unleashing her natural sprint. Pedalling back the years, the sound of their laughter trailing behind them.