Queen of the roads' records still stand half a century on
by MARY MAGEE
Even today many of those records that Isabel (nee Clements) set have never been challenged and to this day have yet to be broken. Isabel of Lisnoe Road, now 73, is still one of the top female cyclists of her time.
To recognise many of her cycling feats the Ulster Transport Museum in Cultra is planning to set up an exhibition showing off her bike and showing off her list of records.
Among them, which are recognised by the Northern Ireland Cycling Federation, include Irish unbroken records: Belfast to Dublin in 1953 (103 miles) four hours 56 minutes; in 1954 Belfast to Dublin and back (206 miles) in 11 hours 47 minutes; Mizzen Head to Fair Head in 23 hours 3 minutes (386 miles) and Dublin to Derry in 1956 in seven hours 24 minutes (147.5miles).
Among her Northern Ireland records were, 1953 Belfast to Enniskillen (86.4miles) in four hours 2 minutes; in 1954 Belfast to Enniskillen and back (172.8miles) in nine hours 42 minutes; in 1954 she cycled 100 miles in four hours 48 minutes and a 24hour cycle ride in 1956 of 378 miles.
Isabel began cycling, the only real means of transport at that time, when she started working for JP Corry's as a Comptometer Operator in the 1950's. As a child she had to give up horse riding as lessons were so expensive so instead saved up enough money (�30) for a Raleigh bike that she eyed in a shop in York Street. She would pass the shop every day on her way to work and so decided to cycle the next best thing to horse riding.
Isabel and her sister would often go hostelling. They joined the Youth Hostel Association of NI and often cycled from one hostel to another like Whitepark Bay, Carnlough or Dublin on weekend trips.
It was while on a return trip from France that friends persuaded her to take part in Place to Place records. It wasn't long before she broke the Enniskillen to Belfast record covering 86 miles in four hours 2 minutes and before the end of the year she also did the Dublin to Belfast in four hours 56 minutes.
The Cycling Federation's Official Timekeeper and Observer would follow to ensure that rules were adhered to.
And she would cycle on bikes ranging from the Mercian the Claudbutler and the Nappleback which had only five gears - though Isabel only needed three.
She had been approached by Ribena to cycle professionally but Isabel refused as she loved taking part with friends.
"I thought that by going professionally I would not enjoy the sport anymore and did not want that," she said. "The cost was high and I would have to pay for all the expenses myself. I preferred to stay amateur.
"If I had turned professional I would have had no races with my fellow cyclists in Ireland and would have had to attempt all the records again as a pro and when that was done I would have no further competition open to me."
In 1954 she made two further records from Belfast to Dublin and back and the 100 mile - in just 34 minutes slower than the men's record.
By 1955, she was cycling 300 miles per week and in the same year set the Cork to Antrim record which was 386 miles which she completed in just 23 hours three minutes - two hours 16 minutes behind the men's record.
In 1956 when she set the Dublin to Derry record in seven hours and 24 minutes, she had almost beat the men's record.
"I was ahead of the men's schedule until I ran into the road works on the long wide road from Ballygawley Roundabout to Omagh," she added.
"The road was under construction at this time and I had to ride through a rough loose stone surface for what seemed like miles. My helpers had to run alongside me in case I fell off, so you can imagine how slowly I was cycling in these conditions."
Isabel made a few more records before finally in 1957 she fell gave birth to the first of five children she had with her husband Peter.
At the beginning that did not stop Isabel who would have bring her husband on cycling journeys and had a special seat for the baby.
Now 50 years after her records Isabel wonders if they will ever be broken. "Contemporaries of mine didn't show any interest in long distant record attempts and in the intervening years the few women cyclists that were racing didn't show the interest or enthusiasm for long distance records," said Isabel.
"The only girl I felt sure could have taken my records was Debbie Kane, but sadly she was involved in a racing accident and was left paralysed.
"Maybe I was lucky in that cycling for me came at a time when it was a major form of transport. It was also the only means for most of use to travel and holiday in Wicklow, Donegal, the Lake District and even to the continent with bike on tow.
"There were good numbers cycling and competition increased our determination to be better than the other.
It was a sport that allowed us to train while at the same time we were touring and enjoying the countryside scenery.
"All the people I cycled with are still my close friends and we keep in touch to this day."
Isabel believes that present day traffic systems would stop cyclists from attempting the records.
"Even if the cyclist did have the potential ability to break records, the organisation required marshalling through town centres traffic lights, accompanying vehicles, detours and one way systerns would all be a major problem to overcome," she said.
Even now in her 70's Isabel still keeps fit.
She may be off the pedals but along with husband Peter they take part in set and ceilidh dancing.