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Unsurpassed, by Godfrey Barlow

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The story of Tommy Godwin, champion long distance cyclist.

Godwin on the day he broke the record, pictured with Cycling's editor, HH England
Godwin on the day he broke the record, pictured with Cycling's editor, HH England
Courtesy of Mousehold, (c) Cycling Weekly

Unsurpassed, The Story of Tommy Godwin, by Godfrey Barlow Title: Unsurpassed - The Story of Tommy Godwin, the World's Greatest Distance Cyclist
Author: Godfrey Barlow
Publisher: Mousehold Press
Year: 2012
Pages: 99
Order: Mousehold Press
What it is: The story of Tommy Godwin who throughout 1939 rode a total of 75,065 miles (120,805 kilometres) and then continued on riding into 1940 until he'd racked up 100,000 miles (160,934 kilometres) in 500 days
Strengths: With multiple different attempts to beat Godwin's record ongoing or planned, it's worth knowing the story of the man who put the Year record on the map and left behind a story up there with the best rival record the Hour can throw at it
Weaknesses: This is Godwin's story, and Barlow leaves you itching to learn more about Bennett's Year, and about each of the other Years before Godwin's

Everything begins somewhere and the Year Mileage Record began in 1910, when Cycling magazine (today's Cycling Weekly, affectionately known as the Comic) promoted a century-a-day challenge imaginatively called Cycling's Century Competition. The challenge was to see how many centuries - rides of 100 miles - a rider could complete in a year. Special 'checking cards' were to be completed at the end of each century, signed, witnessed and sent back to the offices of Cycling, with they then officially announcing who had racked up the most centuries in a calendar year.

That, of course, is not the real beginning, for Cycling's Century Competition was a reaction to "multitudes of non-validated claims for the highest mileages" for the one year period. Cycling's century challenge, then, can be seen as being a bit like Henri Desgrange's Hour record: the first attempt to officially (well, semi-officially) ratify the record, with all the "multitude" who had gone before air-brushed from history, left off in some sort of record Limbo, asterisks attached to them if ever anyone remembers their names.

While I can honestly confess to knowing little about the history of Cycling's Century Competition before sitting down to write this review, it turns out that I knew something of its prehistory. And here you will have to indulge me a little as I once more squeeze in a reference to Teddy Hale, the Irishman who wasn't.

Hale, as you will have heard me banging on often enough by now, was the English rider who won the Madison Square Garden International Six Day Race in 1896, but did so while masquerading as an Irishman, which fact may explain why he is overlooked on both sides of the Irish Sea. Whether this charade was at the behest of Hale's trainer, Dudley Marks, or the concoction of the syndicate that ran the Garden Sixes - Patrick T Powers, James C Kennedy, and Amos G Batchelder - is lost to history but the smart money is on one of the Garden's Holy Trinity deciding that having an Irish entrant in their race both made it look more international and brought in more bums for the Garden's seats, from New York's Irish community. The London-born Hale, he was a willing participant in the charade, riding to victory in a suit of green. (One sweet anecdote about Hale's Garden win, which I only learned from his family after I first wrote about him: while he was riding to victory in New York, his wife was back home in London, giving birth to a daughter, and when he returned to England, thousands of dollars richer than when he departed, they gave that child a name to celebrate his biggest achievement - Violet Madison Hale.)

Two years after his Garden victory, in December 1898, the Chicago Tribune was writing Hale off:

"Teddy Hale, the great Irish rider, was a nine days' wonder when he won the big six-day race in New York three seasons ago. He came to Chicago shortly after and entered the race at Tattersall's. He was nowhere. He came again this year, determined to retrieve lost laurels, to at least beat [Charles] Miller, wherever he might finish. He was nowhere again."

But the thirty-six-year-old Hale was about to prove he was no nine days' wonder, for at the end of July 1899 he set out to ride a century a day, every day (bar Sundays), throughout England, Wales and Scotland (he may even have ventured abroad, for he was listed among the entrants for 1900's edition of Bordeaux-Paris, though did not take the start). Hale completed this feat on a French bicycle, an Acatène-Velléda, a chain-less bike (they being a thing back then, one even being ridden to victory in Bordeaux-Paris by Gaston Rivière three times between 1896 and 1898). This was described as having "Dunlop tyres, a Christy saddle and an 84 gear. The machine weighs 36 lbs and is fitted with two handlebars of the dropped and raised order respectively, for speedy work or leisurely riding at will."

Hale's feat of more than 31,000 miles (52,000 kilometres) may have made him the greatest distance cyclist of his day but he was not the first to tackle such a mammoth undertaking. The year before - 1898 - an American rider, Teddy Edwards, had strung together 250 centuries back-to-back and only called a halt when he was diagnosed with Typhoid fever. And the year before that John Noble had done 253. The 1890's, they were awash with mega-Centurions, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Hale, then, is where my knowledge of the century-a-day record begins. Through Godfrey Barlow's Unsurpassed - The Story of Tommy Godwin, the World's Greatest Distance Cyclist, I've found out where it ends. Or where - up until recent months - everyone had assumed it ended.

* * * * *

Cycling's challenge was presented as being about how many centuries a rider completed, but in practice it became about the distance covered. The first claimant was a French rider, Marcel Planes, who in 1911 notched up just over 34,000 miles (55,000 kilometres). Planes's record then stood for more than two decades, ignored and unbroken, before suddenly the whole thing came alive. In 1932, a plucky Brit with true grit, Arthur Humbles, set a new benchmark. Then in 1933 an Australian rider, Ossie Nicholson, snatched the record away from the British. In 1936, they snatched it back, through the efforts of Walter Greaves. Then, in 1937, a Briton, a Frenchman and an Australian - Bernard Bennett, René Menzies and Nicholson again - went head to head, all three bettering Greaves's distance, the record ending up in the hands of the Australians, Nicholson once again the record holder. And then came Tommy Godwin, whose story is the subject of Unsurpassed.

World's Year Mileage Record Challengers
Year Rider Miles Kilometres 100,000 miles
1911 Marcel Planes (Fra) 34,366 55,305
1932 Arthur Humbles (GBr) 36,007 57,946
1933 Ossie Nicholson (Aus) 43,966 70,756
1936 Walter Greaves (GBr) 45,383 73,037
1937 Bernard Bennett (GBr) 45,801 73,710
1937 René Menzies (Fra) 61,561 99,073 532 days
1937 Ossie Nicholson (Aus) 62,657 100,837
1939 Bernard Bennett (GBr) 65,127 104,808
1939 Tommy Godwin (GBr) 75,065 120,805 500 days

A lot of cycling records, if we are to be brutally honest about them, can be pretty bloody boring. The kilometre, mid-way through the second lap most people watching start thinking about putting the kettle on or emptying the washing machine. The Hour, if the soundtrack chosen isn't any good, the temptation to switch over to Game of Thrones after ten minutes can be hard to resist. A whole year of record riding...surely there can't be a better cure for insomnia than that?

Well, actually, that's not so. And especially not in the case of Tommy Godwin. For as with the great Hour riders Godwin's Year comes with a terrific story. It begins at about five o'clock in the morning, New Year's Day, 1939, with Godwin heading out for an eighty mile spin before the official send-off at noon from outside Ley's Cycles, Nortwood Hills, in north-west London's sprawling suburbs, where several hundred people would cheer him on his way.

Except, of course, that that was not the real beginning, for an hour before Godwin set out on his leg-loosening warm-up, Bernard Bennett set out on his own attempt to beat the Year record. And half-an-hour after Bennett, another man set out to break the Year record, Edward Swann. One record, 365 days, three challengers. This was a real race.

While Godwin was an accomplished time trial rider and was using that as his fitness base going into the Year, Bennett had more experience of being in the saddle day after day after day, having been one of three riders tackling the Year in 1937, he claiming to have done that "just for fun." He finished that year well short of the distances set by the other two challengers, René Menzies and Ossie Nicholson, but did enough to better the old record, and claim the amateur record. In 1939, Bennett wasn't riding for fun, he was deadly serious about beating the record.

Of the third challenger, Swann, Barlow has little to say and for good reason: by the end of the first week he was off his bike and out of the challenge. The Year was a two-man race.

Starting out on New Year's day, in Britain, both riders were heading into ice and snow, as well as the usual wind and rain of a British winter. Both riders suffered but Bennett suffered more and 35 days into the challenge Godwin had a lead of more than 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometres) on his more experienced challenger. But once the weather improved, Bennett started his fight back and by early May had cut Godwin's lead to 960 miles (1,544 kilometres). By the end of June he was 717 miles (1,154 kilometres) off the pace. Now seven hundred miles, that sounds like a lot, but in the grand scheme of the Year record, it wasn't. Whereas, say, Teddy Hale had been clocking 100 miles a day back in 1899/1900, Godwin's target for the Year was to do 200. So a 700 miles lead was really just three and half days. Now you try and think of a year in which you haven't had a legitimate sickie, or just taken a duvet day. Three days, over the course of a whole year, Bennett was still in contention (and, it should be pointed out, both were on target to break the record).

On September 3, both riders' attempts at the Year were thrown into doubt: war was declared. Both had now to face the prospect of rationing and blackouts (which would curtail the amount of miles they were amassing riding through the night). And there was also the prospect of call-up papers landing. Even if the call-up didn't come, rationing in particular could curtail both riders, both needing more than a basic daily allowance of calories. For Godwin in particular, the prospect of rationing was a serious problem. When Teddy Hale undertook his century-a-day challenge in 1899/1900, he was reported to have been riding on "chops and steaks and good old English beer, with Taddy's tobacco to solace the monotony." Little of that would make it past Godwin's lips in 1939, for as well as being teetotal, the would-be record breaker was also a vegetarian. Barlow tells us that Godwin survived on "milk (four pints a day), eggs, cheese and bread" with fruit, vegetables and chocolate for balance. When rationing did come in, in January 1940, individuals were restricted to a weekly allowance of three pints of milk, one egg and two ounces of cheese: less than what Godwin was getting through in a single day.

By the time war was declared Godwin was once again pulling away from Bennett and by the time October came round his lead had ballooned to around 3,500 miles (5,600 kilometres). And the two were heading into winter where, if the mileage clocked at the start of the year was any guide, Godwin had the advantage. On October 26, with still 66 days of the Year to run, Godwin officially broke Ossie Nicholson's 1937 record. Three days later he took his only day off in the entire year, having a celebration in his honour to attend. Although he could easily have afforded to take more days off, he kept plugging away, still aiming for his two-centuries-a-day target. By the year end, Godwin had amassed 75,065 miles (120,805 kilometres), while Bennett finished with 65,127 miles (108,808 kilometres). Both had beaten Ossie Nicholson's record of 63,657 miles (100,837 kilometres) but it was Godwin who got the glory, Bennett once more left in the shade.

Godwin's ride didn't end there, for he had decided to add a second record to his name: he was going to accumulate 100,000 miles quicker than anyone else. This he did in 500 days, by riding through the winter of 1940 - a second season of snow and ice - and into the spring. Despite crocking his collarbone in a crash, Godwin rode on, one handed, an inner tube strapping his arm to his body. If you're thinking Fiorenzo Magni in the 1956 Giro, think harder, for Godwin only had to ride one-handed for a few days. Walter Greaves, who set the record in 1936, was the Sarah Storey of his day: he had lost his left forearm in an accidient during his teens but worked out how to fashion a fitting which would allow him to ride one-handed.

Godwin's 100,000 mile ride officially came to an end in May of 1940, sixteen and a half months after it had started. Three weeks after it was over, Godwin was in the army.

* * * * *

Tommy Godwin had put the Year's record on the shelf, in the same way Eddy Merckx put the Hour out of reach in 1972. But each year, that shelf gets easier to reach and when it comes to these things, one should never say a record will forever be unbroken. In the same way that Francesco Moser snatched Merckx's record away from him in 1984, in 1972 Godwin's Year record was broken, Ken Webb having set out on September 1, 1971 and amassed 80,647 miles (129,789 kilometres) by the end of the following August. Some sniffed at Webb's record, noting he had the benefit of riding through a leap year and thus gaining an extra day in the saddle. Then some whispered that Webb's ride couldn't have been legitimate, that his daily distances just didn't add up. When someone said they'd seen Webb alighting from a train, bike in hand, the whispers got louder. Webb's record was officially challenged. He defended himself, claiming he hadn't done anything none of the other Year riders had not done, "such as letting someone else ride the bike while catching a few hours sleep, or spinning the wheel when stationery." He was stripped of the record and Godwin was once again its holder.

Today, the Year record - now officially known as the Highest Annual Mileage Record, or HAM'R - has come alive again and, as it did in the 1930s, it has done so with mutliple challengers tackling the record at the same time, on different continents. Godwin's record, for so long unsurpassed, now looks increasingly likely to be bettered. Before it does, do take the chance to read Barlow's enjoyable little monograph, which is illustrated with more than 50 photographs. It may not have Coppi, Anquetil or Merckx's name in it but the story of Godwin's Year is up there with some of the best Hour tales told.