#21 in the list of senior British men to have represented GB (1960-1965)
Richard "Ricky" May was born in Birmingham on 15th November 1942. At school he was a prominent figure in both the cricket and rugby teams, but around the age of 13 when his close friends Peter Howell and Alan Tarte suggested that they go roller skating to the Embassy rink in Sparkbrook, his sporting efforts would go in an entirely different direction.
It was at one of the general sessions at the Embassy that May was asked by a member of the Birmingham Roller Speed Club if he ever considered racing. Initially he showed no interest, but realising that he simply enjoyed going fast, and that was what racing was mostly about, he decided to give it a go. Literally from the start May made his mark. Having joined the Birmingham club his first race as a junior was on a Saturday at Alexandra Palace, which he won. His second race was unusually the day after at Rochester Casino, which again he won. Returning home in the early hours of Monday morning he excitedly woke his parents to show them his trophies. It was a feeling he enjoyed and wanted more of.
At the end of the 1958 season (which finished on the last day of September) May left the Birmingham club along with his mentor and friend Les Woodley to join the city's other and more recently formed club, Midland. On the 15th November 1958 May turned 16 and on the very same day took part in his first ever senior event and his first ever race in Midland colours, the One Mile scratch race for the Walters Cup at Herne Bay. May would finish second to the 1956 British One Mile Champion (and former Birmingham team mate), Leo Eason, and beat the 1954 One Mile Champion, Alan Cattee, into third. In fact, the result nearly went May's way when Eason threw a questionable pass on the youngster in the closing stages. Some thought Eason might get disqualified, however, the judges chose not to act on it and records show Eason as the victor. Despite this, May had certainly made the elite names of British skating sit up and take note.
His rise was nothing short of meteoric. Just a few months later and still only 16 he secured his first major medal with a third place in the 1959 Northern and Midland Counties Championship. In addition he went on to set four new senior British Records which was almost unheard of for one so young. May loved to train, and he did so, hard. Now skating with the Midland club he had two of the worlds best skaters to bring him on during training - Les Woodley and Danny Kelly, as well as other strong skaters such as Ray Roberts, Leon Goodchild and Graham Stead. In fact, in March 1959, May, Woodley, Roberts and Kelly won the Inter-Club Relay Championship for the first time as a quartet and with the help of Stead on occasion (he replaced Roberts in 1961 and Woodley in 1962) set about being an unstoppable force in the event for the next six years. Only once were Midland beaten between 1959 and 1964 and that was in 1962 at Brixton when the club, despite finishing first in the semi-final, were disqualified. Such was the class of that quartet that not only were they without doubt the strongest team in the country at that time, but would almost certainly given any world team a run for their money.
Between 1959 and 1962 May was constantly knocking on the door of a British title. In fact, in March 1960 he felt he could have secured the Five Mile Championship such was his form then. It was only the fact that his great friend Les Woodley commented that the Five Mile was the only Championship he had never won that May decided to help him win it. The strategy was a success with Woodley first and May second, but on reflection May thought he had made a mistake in not competing for the win. He was still only 17 and on paper had many more years ahead of him to win his own British titles, but paper victories don't count and May knew he could have passed up an opportunity that he might never get the chance to repeat. And he nearly didn't. In that one moment May decided that whenever he stepped onto a track again it was to skate for himself - and may the best man win.
Although without an individual national title May was still called up to represent Great Britain and take part in the World Championships in Wetteren, Belgium, in September 1960. He was only selected to race one event, the 10000 metres, where he would finish 7th, but the remainder of the Championships were marred by the withdrawal of the British team due to "the poor standard of judging". Like most of the rest of the team, May was dumbfounded by the decision and to this day reckons it was wrong to take that course of action. May made it quite clear where the blame lay in making such a rash decision:
"Henry Crystall was a small man who liked a big drama. He wanted to cause a stir and more to the point show people just how important he considered himself. Unfortunately it was the British team who suffered as a result. None of the athletes were consulted and the first I heard about it was when Les [Woodley] said 'oh well..that's it, we may as well all go home. We're out.' I was shocked and really felt for the guys. I had done my one race so it didn't really affect me, but we were a real force to be reckoned with and I can imagine that the other nations were rubbing their hands together. And then to not send a team the following year because nobody [the officials] would apologise was simply ludicrous. We slogged our guts out to reach the pinnacle of our sport only to have some small minded individual take that opportunity away from us because of his own arrogance and self importance."
By 1962 things had settled down internationally and May was once more part of a British team, this time it was the World Championships at Venice-Lido, Italy. It was the first time for May on a banked track but despite this he would still have top ten placings in the three distances he skated - 4th in the 5000 metres, 5th in the 20000 metres and 9th in the 10000 metres. Despite these performances May did not feel "on song" and on the second day of competition felt a bit unsteady. The journey home was nothing short of a nightmare for the teenager and on his return was diagnosed as having severe sunstroke making his performances all the more noteworthy. Also that year, having previously set a World 2 Man Relay Record with Danny Kelly in 1960, the pair went out to set more. In doing so they set no fewer than TEN new World Records.
In contrast, 1963 and 1964 were years of turmoil. May was going through a period of personal upheaval and his results reflected his state of mind. He didn't feature in any of the medals in the British Championships in those years, and in Nantes in 1963 when Kelly and Eason were being crowned World Champions, May could only manage a highest placing of 11th in the 10000 metres. He was not in a good place and in 1964 he failed to be selected for the British team for the first time since 1960. By the end of the 1964 season May had some soul searching to do and some major decisions to make.
The 1965 season started pretty much as the 1964 season had finished - badly. Disqualified in the Five Mile Championship in February, May decided it was time to leave the Midland club. His mentor and friend, Les Woodley, had retired in 1964 and May was now at odds with some members of the Midland team. He needed a change. For the remainder of the season he skated in NSA colours, effectively being "unattached" to any particular club. Now skating alone, effectively, it was as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Just a couple of months later, on 24th April 1965, May took to the track at Alexandra Palace in the One Mile British Championship. There were a total of 46 starters for the event and making his way through to the final he was up against Terry Horner, Stan Jennings and Mick McGeough. This is how May remembers the race:
"I had never been so nervous before a final. All the big guns seemed to be out and I thought that if ever I was finally going to win one [a British title], this was it. The other three skaters were on their home track and Horner had represented Britain at the World Championships in Madrid the previous year so I knew it was going to be tough. From the gun I set a good pace and really there was only me and Horner in it towards the closing stages. I kept a tight line all the way and although he tried numerous times to pass I held him off. Then off the last bend I drifted slightly wide and Horner was up my inside. I have to admit I thought I was a good yard clear as we crossed the line but the judges seemed to take an absolute age to announce the result. I started to worry a bit and think that maybe it wasn't as clear cut as I thought it was...and then they announced it...new One Mile Champion...Ricky May! The relief was overwhelming. After almost seven years of trying I was finally a British Champion. Even though I won medals internationally, that moment was probably the biggest highlight of my skating career."
Later that year in July, May returned to Wetteren for the World Championships on the road, the place where at the age of just 17 he had cut his teeth as an international. This time May was a senior figure in the team and he was selected to race every event. There was to be no boycott or controversy this year and May proved finally that for anybody who had ever doubted it (not that anybody ever did), he really was a world class skater. In the 5000 metres he was just a blink off becoming a World Champion. Gunther Traub had edged away from the main field and in hindsight May will tell you that he left his finishing sprint just that little bit too late and was pipped on the line by Traub. The big German would tell May on the podium "thank God there wasn't another 10 metres!".
In September, May was once again part of the British team, this time on the banked track at Siracusa on the island of Sicily. Again May would compete in all distances and again his performances were notable - 5th in the 10000 metres, 4th in the 5000 metres and 3rd in the 20000 metres. Further still, teaming up with Bill Sharman in the 2 Man "Coupes Des Nations" Relay the pair came home third.
May returned home and joined the Birmingham club for the second time in his skating career. On 15th January 1966 May was unsuccessful in his defence of the One Mile Championship, finishing second to Danny Kelly. On the same day he would also finish second in the Northern and Midland Counties Championship behind team mate Leo Eason. He teamed up with Eason and the talented pair went on to win both the Southern Relay Trophy (famously presented by Dusty Springfield) and the Midland Relay Trophy, but individual success would never be forthcoming again for May.The World Championships of 1966 were to be in Mar del Plata, Argentina in April. It was the first time a World Championships would be held outside the confines of Europe, but due to cost constraints within the NSA it was decided not to send a British team. Notwithstanding this, May was by now beginning to also see training as a bit of a chore. Whereas before he had lived to train and be successful, a number of factors were now beginning to sap his enthusiasm. The newly opened rink at the Mecca in Springhill, Birmingham had a composite floor, it was tight and it was slow. May didn't like going slow and this was just another factor that was draining his enjoyment. The final straw came when he received a letter from the NSA telling him that he had been suspended for six months, not only from competition but from training too. The reason given was that they had been made aware that he had "replaced the corner cones" and effectively acted as a "bend judge" in a recent local club competition. Although skaters being officials was an absolute no-no in those days, this action was quite draconian by any stretch of the imagination. Receiving his letter, May looked at it and walked away, never to grace a rink as a competitor again.
May was just shy of his 24th birthday when he "retired". Not only was he an outstanding junior but from his first senior race to his last he was always considered to be a threat, whether that be in a club race, a British Championship or indeed a World Championship. In just seven years May had achieved what most skaters only ever dream of. A British title, four British records, eleven World Records, a double World medallist and a Coupes Des Nations medallist.
Sadly, on the morning of October 5th 2020 and after a short illness, Ricky May passed away. At a time when passing another skater on a tight rink was an art, May was a master. The "step round" pass was something he not only worked on tirelessly but perfected. Triple European Champion and World medallist John Fry Senior once commented that the most technically gifted British skater he had ever witnessed on a rink was Ricky May. The 60's skating master, Les Woodley also commented that Ricky was "the most gifted skater of a generation". For those accolades alone May is deserving of being recognised as true British skating legend.