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The Year, by Dave Barter

The history of cycling's hardest endurance record.

The Year - Reawakening the Legend of Cycling's Hardest Endurance Record, by Dave Barter
The Year - Reawakening the Legend of Cycling's Hardest Endurance Record, by Dave Barter

The Year - Reawakening the Legend of Cyclings Hardest Endurance Record, by Dave Barter Title: The Year - Reawakening the Legend of Cycling's Hardest Endurance Record
Author: Dave Barter
Publisher: Vertebrate Publishing
Pages: 242
Year: 2015
Order: Vertebrate
What it is: A history of cycling's ultimate long distance challenge, the Year record
Strengths: Barter tells the stories of the people behind the Year record as well as the stories of their record rides, humanising the record
Weaknesses: With several attempts on the record on-going it's going to need an update come its second edition

Having already reviewed Unsurpassed, Geoffrey Barlow's brief monograph on Tommy Godwin's 1939 Year record ride, the basic story of the Year ought be familiar: Cycling magazine created it in 1911 but it was in the time between 1932 and 1939 that the record enjoyed its golden years, with multiple attempts on the record. After having lain dormant for more than seven decades, the record has again sprung into life, with several attempts on it on-going and more attempts scheduled.

In that review of Godwin's record year, I mentioned briefly the pre-history of the record and, in particular, the role played by Teddy Hale, the Irishman who won the Madison Square Garden International Six Day Race in 1896 but was really English. In The Year - Reawakening the Legend of Cycling's Hardest Endurance Record Barter sheds more light on the record's pre-history and on the career of Hale, who has been criminally overlooked by those who have recently added to the piles of books claiming to tell the history of British cycling. That pre-history is worth recapping, for contained within it are events that echo in the Year's official history.

The Year record has its origins in a bike ride that has become a rite of passage for new cyclists: the century ride, wherein you have to clock 100 miles in a single ride. From the earliest days of the bicycle's existence, the century has been there. Obviously, back then, a century was quite an achievement, when you consider the equipment and the roads. In 1881, Henry Sturmey compiled a list for The Cyclist magazine of all known century rides, dating back as far as 1874 and running to more than 250 entries. Three decades later, recalling that list, Sturmey noted that century rides were considered "a hall-mark of cycling quality" and "would be given quite a lot of publicity in many papers."

During the American bicycle boom of the 1890s the Century Road Club of America (CRCA) was formed, with membership open to riders who had completed a century ride (within fourteen hours). In addition to recognising individual centuries - and double, triple and quadruple centuries - the CRCA appears to have kept a running table of the mileage clocked by members over the course of a year. In 1894, MN Keim of Philadelphia topped that table with 18,828 miles, But his achievement was put in the shade by AA Hansen, who was given a special award recognising a year of riding that had demonstrated the possibilities of cycling, Hansen having accumulated 21,053 miles over the course of the year.

Being able to claim the highest mileage for a year - sometimes a calendar year, sometimes twelve months - became a thing among American cyclists, the Strava segments of its day. But in the same way that some claim that others boost their Strava records with digital EPO, some mileage claims were challenged. EN Roth's claim to have ridden 34,380 miles in 1896 didn't make it past the CRCA's committee, who claimed he had not provided satisfactory proof of his claim. In 1897 the CRCA instituted an official annual mileage record, with monthly rankings published and more rigorous procedures for verifying the mileages claimed.

What was happening in the US did not go unnoticed in the UK. But news of America's mile munchers was not warmly received in Britain. Cycling magazine tried to suggest that such a record was monotonous and would within a month "drag the heart of any man or woman." Then the record was attacked with one of the greatest insults Cycling could muster, they wheeling out the P-word: "It is evident that what was a pleasant and interesting recreation for the average road-riding wheelman has now become the sport of the professional record maker:" Finally, the very credibility of the American records was challenged: "We cannot say that it is impossible for a man to ride an average of 58 miles a day, ill or well, winter and summer, for an entire year, but we can say that it puts a breaking strain on our powers of belief."

Then the British got their first real taste of the Year record: the London-born Teddy Hale, the hero of Madison Square Garden, took on the challenge across 1899/1900, on British roads. The ever aloof Cycling still sniffed: "I have not myself the slightest faith in it being accomplished," one correspondent wrote. "I do not think that Hale will be able to persevere to the end, for it is impossible for any man to ensure perfect good health for a year."

Hale's record ride of 32,496 miles was cheered by others, especially in France, but was not particularly well received by the British press: he was, after all, that lowest of low, a professional athlete. Even so, something was stirred in the British psyche and the mile munching craze that had swept the US in the 1890s finally arrived in the UK, with Cycling succumbing to pressure from its readers and producing an annual mileage recording chart they could fill in. The magazine also inaugurated their own version of the CRCA's original annual mileage tallies, with the first prize going to Chas Holman, who had recorded 18,087 miles across 1902.

Cycling's annual mileage challenge ran on for most of the next decade until it produced a champion Cycling could really rally the troops behind: Harry Long, a commercial traveller who in 1909 clocked up 23,241 miles and in 1910 made it to 25,376. These figures were well short of Teddy Hale's record but Cycling was never slow to point out that Hale was a professional while Long was a proper amateur. Long was their hero, Hale was to be quickly forgotten. Along with Cycling's original comments on the monotony of the original American mileage challenge.

Selected Annual Mileage Records
Year Name Where Men Women
1894 AA Hansen USA 21,053
1896 EN Roth USA 34,380
1896 AA Gracey USA 22,848
1897 John H George USA 32,479
1897 AMC Allen USA 21,026
1899/1900 Teddy Hale UK 32,496
Source: Dave Barter

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Spurred on by the success of its annual mileage challenge, in 1911 Cycling inaugurated a Century Competition which produced a worthy winner in Marcel Planes, who had comfortably surpassed Teddy Hale's record with 34,366 miles, thus forever laying to rest the ghost of that pesky professional. But Cycling had also created for itself an administrative headache, with 8,500 checking cards from 650 cyclists having been submitted over the course of 1911. So Cycling decided to can the Century Competition and revert to its earlier annual mileage challenge, readers invited to submit a single chart at the end of year.

For the next two decades - with a time-out for World War One - that annual mileage challenge continued, and continued to produced admirable results, but results that were well short of the 1911 record. Then, seemingly from out of nowhere, Arthur Humbles, a callow 21-year-old unemployed Londoner who had got Hercules and Dunlop behind him, woke the record up from its slumber. When in early December, with still three weeks of the year to run, Humbles broke the 21-year-old record of Marcel Planes, he was accompanied by some 3,000 cyclists as he rode to Hyde Park Corner, where an imaginary line at the milestone marked the moment he surpassed Planes's distance.

Over the next seven years the Year record was broken another five times, four times by men, once by a woman, with the record passing back and forth between the United Kingdom and Australia, a surrogate Ashes for cyclists.

Year Rider Men Women
1911 Marcel Planes (Fra) 34,366
1932 Arthur Humbles (GBr) 36,007
1933 Ossie Nicholson (Aus) 43,997
1936 Walter Greaves (GBr) 45,384
1937 Ossie Nicholson (Aus) 62,657
1938 Billie Dovey (GBr) 29,604
1939 Tommy Godwin (GBr) 75,065
Source: Dave Barter

The Year - Reawakening the Legend of Cycling's Hardest Endurance Record sees Dave Barter telling the stories of each of the Hour rides, from Planes through to Godwin. Barter has been helped in the telling of these stories by the children of some of the men who claimed the Year record, and by the one woman herself, Billie Dovey, who he was able to interview in 2014, shortly before her death. This has allowed Barter to talk about the riders themselves, not just their rides, to look behind the achievements of these record setters and try to paint a picture of them both before and after their rides. To paint a picture that humanises these setters of a most inhumane record.

While those riders are at the heart of The Year, Barter also tells a wider story. Running through the book is the curious attitude taken by Cycling to the record, by times disdainful, by times proprietorial, always somewhat idiosyncratic and ever so idealistic. Barter also tells stories of some of the men who failed to take the record, most famously Bernard Bennett, who took on the challenge twice, in 1937 and 1939, each time acquitting himself with honour, but each time finding his own achievement overshadowed by others. There is also a host of supporting actors, some whose attempts on the Year lasted mere weeks, of whom my favourite was easily the husband and wife team of Mr and Mrs LG Murray whose 1937 attempt was curtailed when Mrs Murray died after a brief illness. Coincidentally, Mr Murray's first wife had also died while accompanying her husband on a cycling expedition. If that doesn't raise an eyebrow then you clearly haven't read enough Agatha Christie novels.

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Wondering what Bradley Wiggins will do after the Rio Games have concluded and his Olympic career has ended I have in the past suggested that he add the Year to his palmarès. He already holds the Hour record and the Year would make an interesting match for it. Of course, he's not going to do it, we all know that. Why would a man who has tasted the champagne of the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia want to sip the lemonade of the Year? Well how about for the simple fact that there is a precedent? Two, in fact.

In 1933 at least five riders set out to challenge Albert Humbles's newly created record. Those five riders were spread around the globe, in the UK, the US, Australia and Italy. The Italian challenge was by Mario Gaioni, who claimed to have ridden around 37,500 miles in 1933, more than a thousand miles in excess of Humbles's record. What - for me - is most interesting about Gaioni is his pedigree: he was a veteran of the Tour de France (1909, when he finished fourteenth) and the Giro d'Italia (1911, when he finished twenty-second) as well as Italian classics such as Milan-Sanremo (where he achieved his best placing, fourth, in 1906), the Giro di Lombardia (where he also finished fourth in 1906) and the Giro del Piemont. During his professional career Gaioni - born in 1880 - had raced in the colours of Bianchi (1905-1906) and Legnano (1909), as well as the Legnano subsidiary Stucchi (1909-1910).

There is some doubt surrounding Gaioni's claim to have ridden 37,500 miles but debate over that was rendered pointless by another Tour de France veteran that same year, Oserick 'Ossie' Bernard Nicholson, a young Australian pro who was encouraged to take up the challenge by the Malvern Star bicycle company (the same manufacturer responsible for getting Hubert 'Oppy' Opperman to the 1928 Tour de France along with compatriots Perry Osborne and Ernest Bainbridge, and the Kiwi Harry Watson). Already on his palmarès Nicholson had the Australian paced Hour record, set in February 1930 (a rather staid 89.3 kilometres, but more than three kilometres better than Opperman's existing mark - Oppy, alas, wasted no time in reclaiming his crown, in April covering 95.5 kilometres while en route to the 100 miles record). While Nicholson's Year record easily beat Gaioni - the Australian clocked 43,997 miles - the Australian's Tour record was not quite up to that of his Italian rival: he'd started the 1931 Tour, one of four Aussies on the combined Australian-Swiss team, but didn't make it past the fourth stage, a broken crank sending him home early.

* * * * *

Variants of the original Century Road Club of America or Cycling magazine annual mileage tallies still exist today, with Strava just being the obvious one. There is also the Audax annual points challenge. In 2007 Steve Abraham topped that with a tally of 23,834 miles. In 2014 Abraham decided he was going to take on the Year record the following year. To ensure his record - should he achieve it - would be ratified and there would be no doubt surrounding the validity of his claim he sought some official body that could take on the task of overseeing the record. To that end he found willing partners in the American Ultra-Marathon Cycling Association, who have become the new custodians of the Year record (or the Highest Annual Mileage Record, HAM'R, as it should now be known).

Fittingly, given the history of the Year, Abraham was not the only challenger to set his sights on the record in 2015, with American Kurt Searvogel also targeting Tommy Godwin's 75-year-old record. A third challenger, American William Pruett, also threw his hat into the ring. As did a fourth, Australian Miles Smith. A British-based Swede, Kajsa Tylén, is planning an assault on Billie Dovey's women's record in 2016. And there's Bruce Berkeley, a Kiwi who's planning an attempt on the record in 2016 that will take in both Australia and the UK. The Year record has again come alive, making The Year - Reawakening The Legend of Cycling's Hardest Endurance Record a timely addition to all cycling bookshelves.

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You'll find an extract from The Year - Reawakening the Legend of Cycling's Hardest Endurance Record on the Café Bookshelf