Five minutes with Doreen Powney, pioneering competitive and touring cyclist

Doreen in 1954, at a time trial. Back then, the race was only part of the ride as they had to cycle to the event! Image Doreen Powney©.

81-year old women’s cycling pioneer Doreen Powney tells Adele Mitchell about riding before padded shorts and female-specific geometry had even been thought of.

Doreen was a competitive and touring cyclist in the 1950s and her husband Ron is a former champion tandem rider. Chatting with Doreen was an eye opening experience for a kit-loving girl like me: safe to say that I’ll never moan about the padding in my shorts or gear ratios again.

“My parents were cyclists and my dad bought me my first bike in 1947 when I was fifteen. When I started work – at the Ministry of Supply – I saved up and bought a Rudge Pathfinder. I cycled to work everyday and Ron and I used to pass each other on our bikes. One day I stopped at the traffic lights and he pulled up and came over. We’ve been together ever since.

Doreen and Ron today. Although they both no longer cycle, they still have all of their bikes. Image Doreen Powney©

Ron was already a member of Kingston Phoenix Club so I joined too. You could choose a ‘hard ride’ – 100 miles – or join the ‘social section’ for a sixty mile ride. My longest ride in a day was 137 miles. Bikes were a lot more basic then: we had one front brake and everyone rode fixed: we only used gears for mountains.

Our feet were strapped to the pedals using toe clips and straps and if you fell over there was no quick release. There was no women’s specific kit other than Brooks saddles in wide fit!

In 1953 Ron and I took the bikes to the Alps for a fortnight’s touring.  I was 21 and it was my first time abroad. We cycled down to Kent, flew to Etaples then took a train to Paris and then Lake Geneva. We cycled a circular route that took in Col de la Croix de Fer, Col de Galibier (often the highest point on the Tour de France) and Col de l’Iseren (the highest paved mountain pass in the Alps). In all we rode around 600 miles. I had six gears on my bike for that trip.

On one of their first trips abroad, Doreen and Ron take on the French Alps in 1953. Image Doreen Powney©

Then, in 1954 we did another touring trip, this time to Munich and taking in Cortina d’Ampezzo, the Falzarego Pass, the Pordoi Pass and the Brenner Pass. In 1955 we went to Milan and rode around Lake Maggiore, the San Bernardino Pass and the Stelvio Pass. This is the highest paved pass in the Eastern Alps with 47 hairpin bends on the way up and, in those days, every corner was cobbled.

Doreen only cracked the geared bikes out for rides incorporating mountains. Hopefully Stelvio Pass, the highest paved pass in the Eastern Alps with its 47 hairpin bends was considered mountainous enough! Image Doreen Powney©

There was very little specific cycling clothing so for touring I wore corduroy shorts and made matching check shirts for Ron and I. We had woolen hand-knit pullovers and showerproof jackets. A few years later I had a knitting machine and knitted all the Kingston Phoenix Club jerseys on it. I never wore a helmet: they weren’t available.

Doreen and Ron in 1960 on their Tour of Scotland with their trusty tandem. Image Doreen Powney©

I started racing time trials in 1954 on a Claud Butler bike with a fixed gear. We didn’t have a car so I’d ride to the race then take off the mud guards and turn the wheel around to get a higher gear. Then we’d cycle home again. In those days, the race was only part of the ride! At the time I was riding 10 miles in 29.51 minutes. I entered a 25-mile event and my boss said “Do you think you’ll do it in less than two hours?” I completed it in 1:14:12. He was quite surprised when I told him.”

Undoubtedly it is unsung heroines like Doreen who have paved the way for the rest of us to ride.

“I had to be a bit bolshy to even think of doing cycling races: only about 10% of the racers would be girls and there were far fewer events for women to enter. Some of the men were a bit reluctant to accept us. Still, it must have been worse for my mother – she rode a tandem in the 1920s and was frowned upon simply for wearing breeches.”

Doreen supported Ron and his brother Frank through their successful tandem racing career. Image Doreen Powney©

Doreen stopped competitive riding when she had children although she continued to support Ron and his brother Frank in their tandem racing career, and took tandem holidays around Yorkshire. In the 1980s she became a keen rambler, and continued walking until 2003 when ill health forced her to hand up her boots.

Although she no longer rides, Doreen still has her bike.

Adele Mitchell chatted to Doreen and Ron at the Bike Beans Cycling Café in Ashtead, Surrey.


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