Obituary: Pat Hanlon

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The Independent Online
Prissie Jane Howell, bicycle-wheel builder: born Newport, Cardiganshire 11 April 1915; married 1938 Frank Hanlon (one son; marriage dissolved), 1979 Jim Clark (died 1983); died Magullas, Majorca 29 December 1997.

Building a bicycle wheel is both an art and a science, which many men fail to master. For a woman to be rated the top wheel builder in Britain was extraordinary.

Racing and touring cyclists travelled from all over the world to acquire a pair of Pat Hanlon's wheels. Her original "boys" brought their sons and grandsons. When her retirement loomed, they ordered spare sets to keep in a cupboard.

These were not ordinary everyday wheels, but what Hanlon called "important" wheels, delicate, light-as-air affairs, hand-built. On the one hand you have a hub. On the other, a flexible alloy rim weighing so little it might almost float away. The wheel builder's job is to attach the two together with a set of slender spokes which must be perfectly tensioned. The rim must be absolutely round and the hub dead centre.

Pat Hanlon was given her first bicycle at the age of 14. Born Prissie Jane Howell, in 1915, in a damp valley in Cardiganshire, of publican parents, she was a sickly child until the family moved to drier Somerset where, physically, she flourished. But, as a Welsh speaker, she went from the top to the bottom of the class. She discovered a mechanical bent instead, through regularly dismantling her beloved bicycle.

At 16 she was taken by an aunt to London, where for 10 years she worked as a waitress in J. Lyons teashops. But it was the bike she lived for, thinking nothing of cycling to Somerset and back at weekends to visit her parents (a minimum of 18 hours each way), or rising at 3am to join friends for 90-mile rides before the afternoon shift.

With her yearly mileage approaching 15,000 miles, including impressive feats in racing, she had progressed to custom-built lightweight bikes, one of which she ordered from Macleans, a famous bicycle shop in Islington, north London.

She took to hovering about the shop, especially on busy Saturday mornings, provoking the "guvnor" to tell her to lend a hand. She did, for no pay, but her real interest was in the old wheel builder in the basement. She used to watch him and beg him to teach her, but, on the grounds that "women don't do jobs like that", he refused.

It was the Second World War that enabled her to fulfil her dream. With the young men otherwise occupied, one day the "guvnor", Mr Bailey, barked: "You want to do wheels. You be here Monday morning."

She stayed for 18 years, until Mr Bailey retired. At first male prejudice behind and in front of the counter was rife. She was told she should be at home looking after her child (in 1938 she had married a fellow cyclist, Frank Hanlon, and had a son); that they would never let a woman build their wheels. But Pat Hanlon, all five foot of her, would let it go over her head. She knew she could build wheels better than anyone.

After leaving Macleans, she acquired her own bike shop, first in Tottenham, north London, and then in Palmers Green. She ran it single-handed, her marriage having failed. But the shop was just a business. She much preferred to be in her workshop with her wheels. In the beginning, she built all her own. Then she could afford to buy in the cheap wheels and concentrate on the best, selling as fast as she could build.

In 1979, aged 64, Pat Hanlon remarried, Jim Clark, one of her reps, and reluctantly began to contemplate the dreaded day, as far as she and her customers were concerned, of her retirement. Just after she finally shut up shop in 1983, Jim died.