How far can you ride in a year?

Tommy Godwin 1

This is the time of year when cyclists start looking through their diaries or studying their computers to see how many miles they covered this year. I'd like one day to hit 10,000 but I never have and I suspect that I never will. This year's total will be almost 8,000. Its a respectable distance but barely more than a tenth of that covered by Tommy Godwin in 1939. Tommy's achievements were described by Dave Barter in 'Cycle' magazine, June 2005, which forms the basis of most, but not all, of the information on the internet which I have tried to draw together here.

Like me, Tommy Godwin was a vegetarian from Stoke-on-Trent, but there the similarity ends! Born in 1912 he took a job as a delivery boy riding a heavy iron bike at considerable speed. At 14 he removed the basket and entered his first time trial completing the 25 miles in 65 minutes. With such obvious talent he soon rose through the ranks to become a pro rider with Rickmansworth Cycling Club. In 1939, with over 200 road and time trial victories behind him, he turned his attention to the annual mileage record which had been established in 1911 and hotly contested since 1932.

1911 Marcel Planes, France, 34,666 miles (55,790 km)
1932 Arthur Humbles, Great Britain, 36,007 miles (57,948 km)
1933 Ossie Nicholson, Australia, 43,966 miles (70,756 km)
1936 Walter Greaves, Great Britain, 45,383 miles (73,037 km)
1937 Bernard Bennett, England, 45,801 miles (73,710 km)
1937 RenΓ© Menzies, France, 61,561 miles (99,073 km)
1937 Ossie Nicholson, Australia, 62,657 miles (100,837 km)
1939 Bernard Bennett, England, 65,127 miles (104,812 km)
1939 Tommy Godwin, England, 75,065 miles (120,805 km)

As you can see Godwin was not the only challenger. When he set off at 5am on Jan 1st 1939 two other British riders were also challenging for the record. Edward Swann crashed out after 939.6 miles but Bernard Bennett fought it out with Godwin for the rest of the year. It amazes me that one man would want to do this, let alone three! The schedule was ridiculously punishing – cycling every day for 18 hours and covering an average of 200 miles a day. I love cycling but not all day, every day, all year. Every single day doing nothing but ride, eat and sleep, in all weathers and despite the inevitable aches and pains. It obviously took a toll on him. He told a friend's wife that at the end of one ride he could see pink elephants in the distance!

Tommy Godwin 3His longest day's ride was an astonishing 361 miles completed in 18 hours on June 21st 1939. In the winter months much of the riding would have to be done in the dark. Hard enough anytime but with the outbreak of war this meant riding through the blackout with lights that gave out little more than a glimmer. As a professional cyclist he would have had the best equipment available but it compares very unfavourably with modern bikes. He rode a Raleigh Standard with 4 speed hub gear which weighed 30 pounds. He had a sealed mileometer and every day had to post details of his mileage for verification. The start of every ride was overseen by an official.

Tommy Godwin 2

On October 26th 1939 Tommy rode into Trafalgar Square. He had completed 62,658 miles to break Ossie Nicholson's 1937 record with 2 months to spare. He then continued riding throughout the winter to amass his incredible total of 75,065 miles. You would have thought that he'd be only too happy to call it a day but instead he carried on riding until May so that he could also take the record for 100,000 miles which he completed in 500 days. Rather than resting on his laurels he spent a few weeks learning how to walk again and then went off to war. When he returned in 1945 he was keen to race again as an amateur but, despite a petition signed by thousands of fellow cyclists, he was banned forever from amateur competition because of his former professional status.

Tommy Godwin 4Tommy died in 1975 at the age of 63 while returning from a ride with friends. In March 2005 Edie Hemmings unveiled a plaque in Fenton Manor Leisure Centre in his memory. Her late husband George had campaigned for 30 years for recognition for Tommy.The Staffordshire Evening Sentinel (my childhood local paper) published an article on Tommy in its nostalgia section on Nov 1 2008. This prompted several readers to write in with memories of him. They all described him as 'modest', 'hardworking' and a 'true gentleman'.

Saturday, December 06, 2008, Nostalgia Letter: A great cyclist and great man

'MADAM, – The first time I saw Tommy Godwin, I didn't know him.

All I saw was a little red light and a puff of smoke. He was smoking his pipe on the way home from Dunlop, whose factory was on The Sentinel site.

He worked in the kettle shop, where they cured and remoulded large lorry and bus tyres. It was a dangerous job, where you could be scalded, burnt or crushed at any time.

I followed him every day but never caught him up. We became friends, and he paid the deposit on my first racing cycle.

Everywhere we went people, knew him, liked him and respected him.

He was a great cyclist and a great man. All the time I knew him, he never once talked about his achievement or all the hundreds of medals he'd won.

He averaged 200 miles a day for 500 days.

I once rode a 12-hour race starting at Holmes Chapel. He rode the whole course in pouring rain, giving me food and drinks. I'll never forget him.



Tommy's record will never be broken. Even if someone was prepared to try to accomplish such a feat it would not be recognised by Guinness World Records – they have declared that it is too dangerous to repeat. Tommy Godwin's record of 75,065 miles in a year will stand for ever. If I ever return to Stoke-on-Trent I can't leave without visiting that plaque.

33 comments on “How far can you ride in a year?”

  1. Alan wrote:

    It is massively impressive. An average of 200 miles a day for 500 days. I break out into a sweat just thinking about it. But I can't help asking: Why? He must have pedalled the same route time after time. It must take a particular kind of craziness.

  2. Patrick wrote:

    I agree Alan.

    "I no longer quite know what I'm doing because all my conscious energies are engaged in this pursuit of the possibility that's arisen."

    ... spoken by the artist Frank Auerbach, who does nothing but paint for 364 days of the year, but it illustrates the same sort of obsessiveness.

    I think Hilary's 8,000 miles is pretty impressive too. I reckon I do about 5,000-6,000 per year – I don't use a bike computer so I'm not quite sure, but it's enough for me.

    [Added later] Ossie Nicholson and Bernard Bennett each held the record twice! Bernard Bennett cycled 110,928 miles over two separate years.

  3. Kern wrote:

    I am in total awe of Hilary's 8,000 miles per year. Thankfully the computers on both my bikes gave up this year, so I'm not obligated to even think of my own puny stats.

    I like the photo of Tommy Godwin posting his validation letter – he's one very serious-looking individual. But as Alan says, "Why"?

  4. Hilary wrote:

    I can't help feeling rather sorry for Bernard Bennett. He adds almost 20,000 miles to his previous record, beats the current record by about 2,500 miles but is totally eclipsed by the extra 10,000 miles achieved by Tommy Godwin. It does seem rather a mad thing to do now but there was no shortage of contenders. I think there was also an element of national pride – regaining the record for England.

  5. Mary wrote:

    Well done Hilary. I am very impressed, 8,000 + miles is tough to get done when you have a life outside cycling! πŸ™‚

    I am one of those sad people who keep a daily cycling diary. (Well, I would wouldn't I!).
    Dont blame me, Audax UK run a Mile Eater Challenge and you get ever such a beautiful enamelled badge with your name and miles on it at the end of the year.

    Last year I got just over 4,000 miles. This year I managed to get 6,200 miles completed in 2010, after today.

    It becomes a time issue in the end, and I don't think I could top what I managed this year, although never say never. Sadly work and life stuff gets in the way for longer miles over the year. The winner of the Mile Eater Challenge by Audax UK, tends to top the 12,000 mark, so I have no chance!

    Last year, my New Years resolution was to cycle more. I don't think I could find the hours necessary to add to the miles I did this year, so my New Year thought is to get to 6,000 miles again.

    Those riders who regularly top 10,000 must have no time for anything else whatsoever!

    HAPPY NEW YEAR to everyone! Hope its a good'un for everyone in 2011.

    πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

  6. Patrick wrote:

    Mary wrote: HAPPY NEW YEAR to everyone! Hope its a good'un for everyone in 2011.

    Happy New Year and have a good'un yourself Mary. Any dippers this year?

    @Hilary: Tommy Godwin on Classic images from the 30s, 40s and 50s.

  7. Chris wrote:

    Happy New Year to all!

    I've no idea how many miles I did last year (although it was nowhere near 8000 miles!), but I ended 2010 with my decent first ride for almost two months. I did the Beverley to North Newbald loop with my brother-in-law and I'm off tomorrow for another decent ride, I hope. And now to bed...

  8. Hilary wrote:

    Thanks for the link Patrick. There are some interesting photos there but it is actually not the same Tommy Godwin. There is another Tommy Godwin born in Birmingham in 1920 who was a famous track cyclist and medallist in the 1948 Olympics.

  9. Patrick wrote:

    Ah. Right. Sorry! He didn't quite look the same but I wasn't expecting 2 Tommy Godwins. I also wondered about him having being banned from competition and racing in the World Championships.

    I see the other Tommy Godwin is wearing a cycle helmet (of sorts) – in the 1940s. So are a few of the other speed merchants in those photos. I like the photo with Ken Hogg stoking the tandem in his football shorts 8) .

  10. Garry wrote:

    I know I've done 8000 miles per annum in the past but I've not counted for years. But since I got a Rohloff-equipped touring bike at the beginning of September 2009 I've cycled 7100 miles on it (I have a speedo on it to keep an eye for hub oil-changing), and in the same time I've done about 1500 miles on my new racer and about 500-700 on my bike in Spain, so that's maybe 9000 miles in 16 months. This, however has been a high-mileage year for me as I did Lejog and had to train for it.
    I however, don't collect miles, but collect fun! Hard to measure that one.

  11. Dave Barter wrote:

    I now have a load more information on Tommy's record after a day trawling through the archives. Keep an eye on my website as I will shortly publish as close to a "blow by blow" account as is possible from the records that exist.
    Dave Barter

  12. Barbara Ford wrote:

    I would just like to thank all who have contributed to your "Tommy Godwin" article, he was truly amazing, quiet, unassuming and kind. Hard as nails, but his generosity to other cyclists knew no bounds. His world records ( he also completed 100,000 in 500 days to take a second world record) were set before I was born, but I grew up knowing just how wonderful he was, I may be biased and possibly basking in reflected glory, but he was my dad, and I am so proud of him.
    Barbara Ford (nee Godwin)

  13. Hilary wrote:

    Barbara, thank you so much for taking the time to comment, it was lovely to hear from someone who knew him so well. You are right to be very proud of your dad.

  14. John Bowers wrote:

    Fascinating – thanks. I recall there being a book about Tommy's amazing feat. Does anyone know where I could find or buy a copy? thanks
    Revd John

  15. Patrick wrote:

    The BBC (and CTC cycleclips) have finally caught up with CycleSeven πŸ™‚ (18th April 2012 BBC website article about Tommy Godwin's 'unbreakable' cycling record)

  16. Hilary wrote:

    Yes we are definitely ahead of the game! πŸ™‚
    There is also now a website which gives a lot more detail on his achievement. Particularly interesting is the calendar which shows you how many miles he did on that day in 1939. Today (April 21st) he cycled an amazing 295 miles!

    A book has also been published which I've just ordered from Amazon for £10.39.
    'Unsurpassed: The Story of Tommy Godwin, The Greatest Distance Cyclist' by Godfrey Barlow.

  17. Chris wrote:

    My riding in 2013 – such that is was – got skewed toward doing a couple of sportives as fast as I could. In 2014 I'm going back to endurance riding. I think.

    Anyway: "I just bought: 'Unsurpassed: The Story of Tommy Godwin, the World's Greatest Distance Cyclist' by... via @AmazonUK" it says here.

    Raleigh has launched its own Tommy Godwin Challenge for 2014:

    I'm hoping to adapt my longest ride (to include a run out to the Yorkshire coast) and give it a go. The thought of doing one 200+ mile ride – on my own if necessary – is daunting enough. I simply can't imagine turning out every day for a year (could I even last a week?) in all weathers to average that sort of mileage. Incredible.

  18. Hilary wrote:

    Good luck with that Chris! I saw the Raleigh challenge and have thought of giving it a try but three and a bit times round the Isle of Wight doesn't really appeal!

    I did manage to crack 10,000 miles last year – 10,232 to be precise. I'm quite proud of that but its an awfully long way short of Tommy's achievement!

  19. Patrick wrote:

    Impressive Hilary. Well done.

  20. Chris wrote:

    Yes, 10,000+ is more miles in a year than anyone I know. Well done indeed.

    I've just had a play in Garmin Connect to run a report for my 'activities' in 2013. There were 58 of them it reckons, but I know that is simply too many. Plus it has zeroed the mileage on my longest ride (200+ km) and my first sportive amongst others. That's annoying. Maybe I'll keep a paper record for 2014. But I probably won't.

  21. Patrick wrote:

    Chris wrote: it has zeroed the mileage

    Can't you just upload it again (and delete the old one)?

  22. Chris wrote:

    Can't you just upload it again (and delete the old one)?

    To be honest, Garmin and mapping online are doin' me 'ead in at the moment. I'm spending too much time on computers and not enough on bikes. The computer I used to save off the tracks is dead and I've deleted a lot of files off the device – not sure which ones though (Okay, I might have a go later...)

  23. Chris wrote:

    I wrote (above) "could I even last a week?"

    That should have read weekend I think!

    There are a handful of people who have expressed some sort of interest in the route I mentioned earlier in this thread, based on a ride to Middlesbrough. We'll see.

    I received "Unsurpassed" and read this slim book in a few hours. I'm glad I bought it for background information, but there was a lot of padding to stretch out to less than 100 pages (good index, though).

    For all that Tommy Godwin's rides were evidently well-recorded at the time there does seem to be quite a few gaps in the information we now have. Maybe that's why Godrey Barlow had to pad out the book. I have kept the One Show recording (featuring Dave Barter) that included an interview with Neil Hemmings (son of George and Edie?). It is interesting, and amusing, that "Unsurpassed" suggests that the entry for 28th October, 1939 "Day off, Prince of Wales" refers to a pub-restaurant in Drury Lane, London, whereas Neil Hemmings (and Dave Barter) reckon the day off was to meet the member of the royal family who had that title at the time! [edit: maybe Tommy met the bloke in the pub but, er, I doubt it.]

    According to Dave Barter's Twitter feed Tommy Godwin only managed 180 miles today in 1939. Wuss.

  24. Dave Barter wrote:

    Godfrey is right, Tommy did not meet the Prince of Wales. The reason is simple, go to Google and try and find out who was "Prince of Wales" in 1939. I am currently digging into this in some depth as The Pedal club was not formed until 1941, so if Tommy was at the Prince of Wales, why was he there and who was he meeting. He was a committed teetotaller and avoided pubs if he could.

    I've also been researching the other riders in detail and have found some amazing stuff about the routes ridden. It's easy to celebrate Tommy's ride and forget the endeavours that went before him. This is my frustration with Unsurpassed which skips over the history and more importantly the motivations of these other riders.

  25. Chris wrote:

    Dave Barter wrote: Godfrey is right, Tommy did not meet the Prince of Wales. The reason is simple, go to Google and try and find out who was "Prince of Wales" in 1939.

    Ah, interesting. I suppose there are a further pitfalls for the researcher in that those who rode with Tommy before the Second World War – and might remember key details – will be thin on the ground these days, if indeed there are any surviving. I rather assumed that Neil Hemmings would have been more privy to the facts than Godfrey. Hey ho. But what do I know anyway? On first reading I was quite happy to accept that Eddie Hemmings, the face of Rugby League on Sky Sports for many a year, had unveiled a plaque to commemorate Tommy Godwin's achievements.

  26. jim wrote:

    I wonder why he died so early. Maybe he was worn out?
    On a club run last year we stopped at a church hall for tea. The graveyard contained the final resting place for Reg Harris. I was suprised that he died relatively early.
    Might be better to sit it out on the couch?

  27. Chris wrote:

    I believe Buddhists have it that our lives are measured in breaths rather than in years. If you overdo things to this extreme who knows? There is some suggestion that a collarbone fracture that didn't heal properly may have contributed to Tommy Godwin's relatively early death.

    It's all about doing stuff in moderation, isn't it?

  28. Patrick wrote:

    I agree – in moderation – and with exercise, regularly. 10 miles per day is better than 70 miles one day each week. But that's just my theory.

    I could be wrong 😐

  29. jim wrote:

    I agree with you Patrick.
    I ride a 24ish mile circuit 3 times a week. No problems. On Sundays if the weather allows I'll do a club run. Now 60mile runs are fine. Enjoyable.
    On occassion I've ended up doing 90 to 100 miles. Not at my pace. I'm fine out there on the bike. Once I get home I turn into a zombie and am no use to anybody for 24 hours.
    I don't think it's a fitness issue. Research tells me I'm not the only one.
    I believe there is a limit for your body. Once you go over this your body starts feeding off itself. So your immune system is now virtually useless. Top athletes always seem to be ill with something.
    Thats my theory [or excuse] and I'm sticking to it.

  30. Chris wrote:

    Hilary wrote: Tommy's record will never be broken.

    Holy moly!

  31. Hilary wrote:

    Ha! You beat me to it Chris. Looks like it might be broken after all!

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