the greatest long distance cyclist

Ah, July. Le Tour de France is upon us once more. Tales of incredible efforts over the course of the three weeks’ cycling, covering in this centenary year, 3,404 kilometres (or about 2,115 miles) over 21 stages. Up and down mountains, through fields of sunflowers and onto the Champs-Élysées. Sir Bradley took the Maillot Jaune to Paris last year. Will Chris Froome make it a second Brit atop the podium?

Le Tour is a truly impressive bit of long-distance cycling, by any measure.

But let me tell you about the greatest long distance cyclist. And no, he’s not a Tour rider.

Let’s start back in 1911. Frenchman Marcel Planes set the record for the longest distance cycled in a year, riding 34,666 miles. The record changed hands over the years between Great Britain, Australia and France. In 1937, the record was up to 62,657 miles, held by Australian Ossie Nicholson.

On the 1st of January 1939, Bernard Bennett and Tommy Godwin set off to take the record back.

Bennett managed a staggering 65,127 miles over the year, but it was Tommy Godwin who took the record, cycling 75,065 miles.

That’s an average of 205 miles per day. Compare that with le Tour’s rather more modest average of 101 miles per day, and remember that le Tour has two rest days (and only goes on for three weeks!), and you get some idea of the enormity of Tommy’s achievement. What’s more he did it on a 14 kilo steel-framed bike with only 4 gears!

On 21st June 1939, he rode an incredible 361 miles, the equivalent of Wakefield to London and back. Even the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 didn’t stop him despite food rationing and blackouts meaning that he couldn’t cycle at night unless there was enough moonlight so he could see his way. Also no lycra for him, and cycling over the winter meant heavy woollen jerseys which must have been sodden!

By the 26th October, Tommy had beaten Ossie Nicholson’s record with 66 days to spare, but he didn’t stop there, pushing on to break through 75,000 miles on December 31st.

What’s even more astonishing is that he didn’t stop there either, but continued on until May 1940 to secure the fastest-ever 100,000 mile record.

There’s a brilliant website dedicated to Tommy’s record-breaking ride, with stats for each month, photos and the routes Tommy rode. And thanks to Ned Boulting, whose fantastic book On the Road Bike: The Search For a Nation’s Cycling Soul introduced me to Tommy.

I wonder how far he’d have managed if he’d attempted it today, with a carbon fibre bike…

le Tour is almost here…

Tour De France route 2013
Tour De France route 2013

One more week until le Tour kicks off in Corsica (and a year until we get it here in Leeds!). Very excited. I’m not usually a huge sports fan, but when it comes to July, I’m hooked on le Tour. Three weeks of hurtling past fields of sunflowers, dragging themselves up the Cols and Alps (Alpe d’Huez and Mount Ventoux amongst them this year, it seems) and whizzing back down them at ridiculous speeds.

It’s a shame Wiggo isn’t there to defend his title from last year, but it’ll be an exciting race anyway. Can Froome pick up where Sir Wiggo left off? And will we see the Manx Missile make it five out of five on the Champs-Élysées?

Over three weeks they’ll cover just over 3,400km, with:

  • 7 flat stages
  • 5 hilly stages
  • 6 mountain stages with 4 summit finishes
  • 2 individual time trial stages
  • 1 team time trial stage

and a couple of rest days thrown in for good measure.

Brilliant. Can’t wait!