How far can you ride in a year?
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 René 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!
His 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.
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 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.