The Hour record, as everyone by now knows, was born in Paris on May 11th, 1893, when Henri Desgrange – the master mythologizer and future Father of the Tour – rode 35.325 kilometres in the Vélodrome Buffalo, at Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Porte Maillot. Shortly before his death in 1940, Desgrange recalled that eventful day. His bike, he said, tipped the scales at 25kg. It had sausage tyres, 500mm in diameter. It was geared to 4.7 metres. He carried a bottle of milk on his handlebars, in case of the fringale:
“When I got off the machine at the end of sixty minutes, I wasn’t only the world recordman for the hour on a bicycle, I was an object of horror to the people who took care of me after my 35.325 kilometres. I was filthy, streaked with oil and snot, covered with dust; in short, nobody would touch me with a pair of tongs. My director bought me lunch at La Porte Maillot, a sumptuous meal, two francs fifty a head; he also offered me several bank notes which I could cash for gold luis; because of my amateur status I refused instantly. But my God! How happy I was!”
For Desgrange it was a day of happiness, something to celebrate. For others it was little more than a portent of what might be. Here’s how Desgrange’s achievement was reported in the Paris daily Le Journal the next day:
“Desgranges (sic) then set the record for the hour without pacers; this interesting sporting attempt has been brought to a successful conclusion by the brave amateur, in a very remarkable way. He covered, indeed, 10 kilometres in 16’ 54” (a world record for the 10 kilometres without pacers), 18 kilometres in 30’ 36” and in the hour exactly 35 kilometres 325. This is a marvellous performance, which suggests that Desgranges (sic) will soon be one of our best riders, and we must assume that with pacers he would cover forty kilometres an hour. Congratulations to the new record holder.”
With pacers he might do forty. What a polite way of saying he could do better. But, you see, this was the reality: the unpaced record was a little more than a curiosity while the paced record – which then stood at just seventy-two metres short of forty kilometres – was capturing more and more attention as pacing technology improved at a rapid pace.
If you date bike racing’s birth to 1868 and the Parc St Cloud races, then people must surely have been setting records for the Hour for a quarter of a century before Desgrange made history and claimed the first officially ratified distance, the International Cycling Association having only recently come into being and codified the rules around the setting of the mark. So what was happening with the Hour in those twenty-five years?
Both helpfully and, ultimately misleadingly, a history of the Hour record had been set down at the end of 1891. The author was a man who could be considered to be Desgrange’s British counterpart, George Lacy Hillier, the Herne Hill impresario whose trenchant views on amateurism have previously been mentioned elsewhere. It is through Hillier’s A Succinct and Critical History of the One Hour’s Cycle Path Record in the 1892 Cyclist annual and year book that we all know that the first Hour record was set by FL Dodds, then a student at Trinity College, Cambridge.
We know very little about Dodds. In many books and articles he is said to have been an American. Many give his first name as Frank. Hillier, in his Succinct and Critical History, tells us that Dodds was in 1891 a resident of Stockton-on-Tees. This suggests he was Frederick Lindley Dodds whose father, Joseph Dodds (1819-1891), was the Liberal MP for Stockton-on-Tees (1868-1888) until his political career ended in disgrace when he was found guilty of embezzlement.
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This is confirmed by reference to the Alumni Cantabrigienses, a biographical list of all known students, graduates and holders of office at the University of Cambridge. In Part II (1752 to 1900), volume II (C to F) of this there are only eight Dodds listed: Archibald, George, Henry, John, Joseph, Matthew, Stephen and our man Frederick, the third son of Joseph Dodds, the MP for Stockton-on-Tees.
Dodds was born November 12, 1855 and schooled in Durham Grammar School from which he matriculated in 1873. He then went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained a BA (1878) and an MA (1881). He worked for his father as an articled clerk, becoming a solicitor in 1881. At some point he was appointed Coroner for Durham County. Apart from all that, other than his death on February 22, 1898, aged 42, little is known of him. Of his cycling career, all we have are the results of a few races in his university years.
According to census data, Dodds was the fourth of five children, preceded by Anne (1849), Matthew (1850), Joseph (1852) and Elizabeth (1854) and followed by Margaret (1858).
How Frederick became an American called Frank is something we can only speculate on. It seems to be a myth of recent minting. 2011’s Historical Dictionary of Cycling by Jeroen Heijmans and Bill Mallon is the earliest source for it in a book that I can currently find. Mallon told me that he and his co-author got their information from a site on the internet that listed the Hour records in detail and which was definitely not Wikipedia. I have had no luck tracing that site.
Since the Historical Dictionary appeared several other books have repeated the claim, ranging from the likes of Chris Sidwells (who is reliably unreliable) to Daniel Friebe (who is normally to be relied on), from Dan Bigham to Rupert Guinness, and including books by the likes of Guy Martin, Andy Jackson, Daniel Tatarsky, and Steve Kirby. Most recently it has been repeated in an academic book (Behavioural Sports Economics, edited by Hannah Altman, Morris Altman, and Benno Torgler, which claims to be “a research companion” even though it’s clearly done little or no research on Dodds).
These books help, to a small extent, to popularise the belief that Frank Dodds, an American, really set the first Hour record. But the main culprit for spreading this myth far and wide is Wikipedia’s page for the Hour record. Since the appearance of the Historical Dictionary the editors there have been citing it as their source for the identity of Dodds. But even before that they had been crediting the first Hour record to Frank Dodds, starting sometime between late 2008 and early 2009, without citing a source supporting their claim.
Before Wiki, you can find the first Hour being credited to Frank Dodds in a now deleted posting by Chester Kyle on the website of the Human Powered Vehicle Association, dating to 1999. There, though, he is British, not American.
None of this explains how FL Dodds became an American called Frank but it does help show how the story has been able to spread over the last decade or two. As with so much cycling history the error has been handed down from one source to another until it has become accepted fact.
It is now such an accepted fact that the editors of Wiki’s Hour page refuse to accept they could be wrong and refuse to give FL Dodds his true identity. For them, a “blog post” such as this is not proper reference over the books cited (ie The Historical Dictionary of Cycling, which Mallon has accepted got the detail on Dodds wrong) and for them this “blog post” is “original research”, something Wiki is totally against.
Within the history of the Hour record, in which many books and articles claim it was Frederick J Osmond and not William A Rowe who set the last Hour record on a penny-farthing bicycle and in which many books and articles claim it was Hélène Dutrieu and not Mlle de Saint-Sauveur who set the first women’s Hour record, this is probably only to be expected. Repetition establishes the facts, not original research.
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Here’s how Hillier immortalised Dodds as the first holder of the Hour record:
“On the 25th March 1876, at the race meeting of the Cambridge University BiC [bicycle club] (Dodds then being at Trinity College, and hon sec of the club), a 20 mile scratch race was included in the programme, in which he made all the running from the end of the fourth mile, lapped his men, and won by about four minutes, making an amateur record for the distance. Present-day record-makers may be interested to note the times. The first mile took 4min 2s, 5 miles 19m 27s, 10 miles 38m 13s, and 20 miles 75m 39s. Taking the average pace, Dodds probably covered 15 miles and about 1,480 yards in the hour. Commenting upon that performance in 1891, Mr Dodds says: ‘In those dear old days, as you remember, we didn’t think of records at all, but rode only for pleasure and real sport,’ and this is no doubt strictly true.”
Dodds’s ride took place at the Fenner’s Ground, Cambridge, a cricket field that, until the 1950s, was surrounded by a running track. With someone having been on hand to record the lap times and with those times reported in The Field, it was possible for Hillier - a decade and a half later - to estimate what Dodds’s distance for the Hour was likely to have been, plus or minus a bit.
Since we know that people had been riding bikes for periods in excess of an hour for quite some time before Dodds rode his race in Cambridge, surely then we can use the same technique to identify earlier claims to the first Hour?
Bicycle racing in Great Britain took off at around the same time as it did in France, at the end of the 1860s. Races were organised throughout the country, in venues like Birmingham’s Aston Lower Grounds, in Wolverhampton at both the Vauxhall Gardens and the Molineux Grounds, in London at the Agricultural Hall in Islington and Crystal Palace in Sydenham. It was at the Molinuex Grounds that it is claimed James Moore set a record for the Hour in 1873 of 18 miles and 880 yards. Eighteen and a half miles.
Why didn’t Hillier choose Moore as the man to set the first Hour record? Some say it is because Moore’s distance has clearly been estimated, it’s too precise to be real. But wasn’t Dodds’s distance also estimated? So that can’t be good enough reason to dismiss the claim.
For Hillier, the bigger problem with Moore is that he was a professional: the putative winner of the first ever bike race, in Parc St Cloud in 1868, and the clear winner of the first road race, Paris-Rouen, the following year. Hillier did not like professionals and so he ignored any claim Moore might have had.
For us, however, the bigger problem is there is no known record of the race Moore is supposed to have set his Hour record in. Fortunately, that’s not actually a real problem, as there is an even older claim to the title of the first Hour.
A 1909 feature in The Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review offeres as the first man of the Hour the English professional John Thomas Johnson who, on May 20th, 1870, rode a distance of 18 miles and 600 yards in Birmingham.
As with Moore, I haven’t yet tracked down a record of Johnson’s ride.
A professional, Johnson is clearly the type of rider Hillier would overlook when putting together his history of the Hour. He rode the first Paris-Rouen race in 1869, along with Moore, finishing seventh. That same year – much of which was spent racing on the Continent – Johnson won a race billed as the Championship of Belgium.
|Estimated Distance Covered
|Aston Lower Grounds,
and 600 yards
and 880 yards
and 1,480 yards
|The Paced Hour and the three different claims for the first record
One of those three, then, set the first Hour record. Probably. If you’re going to take estimates as your basis for the first Hour. And if you’re going to do that, it’s quite possible that digging around in reports of races before Johnson’s ride in 1870 you will unearth other possible candidates, both in Great Britain and France.
If we can’t know who was the first to ride a record distance in an Hour, do we know who was the first to use the Hour as a mark in its own right? Possibly we do. Nine months after Dodds’s ride we find what appears to be the first ride that, soon after the event, was being proclaimed as an Hour record. In December of 1876 the British professional John Thompson Keen (known to fans as Happy Jack) rode a distance of 18 miles and 487 yards in sixty minutes. Keen’s bicycle, an Eclipse of his own make, was advertised as follows:
“This is the only machine that has been ridden eighteen-and-a-quarter miles in one hour, and with the recent improvements introduced is expected to accomplish twenty miles in one hour.”
Keen was born in Worcestershire on February 25th, 1849, and died January 13th, 1902. In between he left an indelible mark on cycling, as both a rider and a manufacturer. Among the claims credited to him in the latter category is that he was the first to use toe-clips on his pedals.
At the age of five his family moved to Surbiton, in south-west London. He was apprenticed to be a carpenter and, at the end of the 1860s, when the first bicycles came along, he decided to try his hand at making one of his own, which he did successfully. Once made, it was natural that he would try it out in races.
Keen won a half-mile grass-track race in Richmond October 1869 but was unsuccessful in December at the Agricultural Hall, where he entered a one-mile challenge. The following January he was unsuccessful in a one-mile race against Johnson on the London to Portsmouth Road into Cobham. In August and October he was racing in Wolverhampton, again without success. But at the the Bow Grounds in London in November he again won a race, over a mile and a half.
Over the next five years Keen appears to have raced about a dozen times a year and generally won about half the races he entered. He also established his name as a manufacturer, with his machines down through the years bearing the names Spider, Surbiton, and Eclipse. His wheels had started out at 38 inches in 1869 and grown to 46 inches by 1871 and 57 inches the following year.
Keen’s fame saw him invited to race in France in 1873 and he visited America in 1876. There he was described in these terms:
“John Keen is probably the best known cyclist in the world, and there is seldom a race at which the face of Happy Jack is not seen. From the very first he has been a fine example of straightforward riding, admired not only by the professional world, including those whom he has vanquished; and is spoken of as a uniformly pleasant and courteous to those with whom he comes in contact.”
Around this time – the end of 1876 – Keen set his greatest mark for the Hour in a ride that was a bit of a stunt. Keen had been pleasing the public from the outset, taking part in races against horses, which are always popular with the punters, even today. For his Hour ride he was up against a 54-year-old rider by the name of Thomas Sparrow in a race over 25 miles in Lillie Bridge, with Sparrow getting a 30 minute head start.
While that record was set as part of a twenty-five mile race, on October 23rd, 1878, Keen set out to ride at least twenty miles in an Hour at Trinity College’s new track in Cambridge. Regrettably, he fell well short of his target, only managing 18 miles and 300 yards, not even breaking his own record. The programme notes for the event have this to say:
“The bell will be rung at the start, and at the completion of each quarter of an hour; once at the end of the first quarter; twice at the half-hour, three times at the commencement of the last minute of the hour, and once on the completion of the hour. Any uncompleted portion of a mile will be probably ridden out and the time take.”
Keen, then, is probably the first rider to use the Hour as something to brag about as well as probably being the first rider to actually set out to ride an Hour, rather than simply increasing the Hour’s distance while riding a larger race. Naturally enough, though, Hillier did not include Keen in his list of the first men of the Hour. Keen was, after all, a professional. An oik on a bike.
Hillier in his list of Hour rides instead followed the Oxbdridge student Dodds with three more Oxbridge students: GA Shoppee, who rode 16 miles 134 yards in May 1877; AAE Weir, who rode 17 miles and 1,290 yards in May 1878; and CHF Christie, who rode 18 miles and 1,530 yards in May 1879. Shoppee and Weir’s distances are both less than that recorded by Keen, so at best they can only be classed as amateur Hour records.
The third rider Hillier picked, Christie, does appear to have bettered Keen’s distance. Here’s Hillier’s commentary:
“Christie made all the running at so hot at pace that the records began to go at eleven miles (34m 48s), and all previous times up to 25 (1h 19m 23s) were wiped off the record, Christie leading to within 250 yards of home and ‘after one of the most brilliant finishes ever witnessed,’ to quote a contemporary’s report, succumbing to that very fine rider WL Ainslie, by a yard. Christie covered 18 miles 1,530 yards in 60m, or one mile 240 yards further than Weir’s record.
The newspaper reporting of the race was more succinct and made no reference to Christie’s time for the Hour:
Keen’s belief that twenty miles in a hour was achievable proved to be right but it took nearly six years and the arrival of the first man to hold multiple Hour records to get there. That man was Herbert Liddell Cortis, a medical student, known affectionately by some as the Long Wanderer. Not that he got to his multiple Hour records without mishap.
On September 2nd, 1880, Cortis set out to ride twenty miles inside of sixty minutes, with a four-man team of pacers that included George Lacy Hillier. With the exception of Keen’s failed attempt to do twenty miles in an hour, all the other Hour rides so far were as part of races, so this is one of the first times one man, with a team of pacers to drive him on, took on the challenge. Albeit, on this occasion, without success: approaching the nineteenth mile and with the record looking achievable, two of Cortis’s pacers touched wheels during a change-over and went down in front of him, with Cortis going over the top.
Three weeks later, September 22nd, Cortis came back for another go with his 60¾-inch Invincible, this time riding in Surbiton. He was again chasing the goal of twenty miles inside of sixty minutes but only managed 19 miles 1,420 yards. A new distance for the Hour but still short of that twenty-miles-an-hour target that had been on the horizon for so long.
The thick end of two years passed before Cortis finally achieved his goal, riding 20 miles and 300 yards on the Crystal Palace track in Sydenham. The first miles of the challenge were run off as part of a three-mile race, with Cortis’s team of pacers then picking up the slack for the remaining distance.
A week after that challenge Cortis was at it again, and in front of 1,000 spectators added twenty-five yards to his record on the track at the Recreation Grounds in Surbiton, bringing the record up to 20 miles 325 yards.
The reporting of both of those races focussed more on Cortis’s time for twenty miles than on his distance for sixty minutes.
Cortis’s record stood for a year before Sheffield’s Fred Lees beat it on a 54-inch Humber, riding 20 miles and 509 yards in Leicester, on the Belgrave Road track, which was a cinder tack, circular in shape, running four laps to the mile. But again, as with Cortis, the reporting was about reducing the time for a distance (twenty miles) rather than increasing the distance for a hour. The Hour was still short of establishing itself as a record of note.
Lees’s record held for just over a year, being beaten in September 1884 by RH English, in Crystal Palace with a distance of 20 miles 560 yards. English had been competing in the fifteen-mile Challenge Cup race and provision had been made for him to push on to twenty miles and/or the Hour if he was on record pace. One thing changed in the reporting: as well as noting the new record, the previous record was also referenced. People were now actively keeping a track of the Hour’s progression.
Through the first half of the 1880s there had been an average of one successful attempt on the Hour record every year and all the records we know about were made by British riders on British tracks. Through 1885 and 1886 that changed, with five new Hour records being recorded, all on the Hampden Park track in Springfield, Massachusetts.
and 487 yards
and 1,530 yards
and 1,420 yards
and 200 yards
and 325 yards
and 509 yards
and 560 yards
and 635 yards
and 1,012 yards
and 134 yards
and 1,149 yards
and 150 yards
|Progression of the Paced Hour Record, 1876 to 1886, the era of the high-wheeler
A large part of Hampden Park’s role in the Hour record has already been told, in The Penny Hour - The Last Hour Record Set On A High-Wheeled Bicycle. One element glossed over there was the role played by Henry E Ducker in facilitating five Hour records at the one venue in the space of twenty-five months.
Born in London, Ducker’s family moved to New York in 1853, when he was about five years of age. Ten years later they moved to Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1880 Ducker acquired his first bicycle, a Harvard, and soon became a co-founder of the Springfield Bicycle Club. When he took over the presidency of the club he created a one-day bicycle tournament, which was held in September 1882. Ducker was a man of great ambition but he had the ability to match it. His tournament was an all round success: 12,000 punters came along, several records were set, and the racing cleared a profit of more than $700 for the club, even after allowing for expenses of more than $3,100. The following year Ducker’s ambition grew and so did the tournament, to three days, proclaiming itself an international affair, the largest of its kind. This time the budget ballooned to $10,000. The claimed attendance was 50,000. Ducker got even more ambitious in 1884, with the budget doubling to $20,000 and a new track laid, to allow more records to be be broken and encourage the top riders of the time to attend.
For the Hour record, Ducker’s new track paid dividends in 1885 and 1886. In a three-up race over ten miles during the 1885 tournament, the riders were setting such a pace that they were encouraged to press on, and the British amateur MVJ Webber took the Hour record out to 20 miles 635 yards. Five weeks later the American amateur William Rowe pushed the record out to 20 miles 1,012 yards.
Before, during and after the tournament the following year the Hour record advanced three times in as many weeks. WA Rhodes beat Rowe’s record only for Rowe to take it back and then advance it further, the record ending up at 22 miles 150 yards. Nearly four years passed before the Hour record was advanced again and by then the age of the ordinary had given way to the age of the safety.
None of the Hampden Park records were recognised by Hillier, not even the amateur record set by Webber. Some of this was down to Hillier’s belief in the ideals of the Corinthian spirit, his disdain for professionals. Some of it was simply down to chauvinism: the Americans could not be trusted. The track was short, the clocks were slow, the timers were corrupt. In one way, this proved to be a boon for the Hour record, for the back and forth in the American and British cycling media helped establish the Hour as a record of note. And it was a record of note: the manufacturer of Rowe’s bike, one of Albert Pope’s Columbia models, made mention of Rowe’s Hour record in advertisements. But, at the same time, the Hour wasn’t a record in its own right. It was still part of attempts to ride twenty miles in an hour fast or be the first to ride twenty-one miles inside of sixty minutes. It was still as much about distance records as it was about time.
In the four years it took for someone to beat Rowe’s record, the Hour got a sort of a reset as the safety started to write its own record book. The point to remember here is that the world didn’t simply stop riding penny-farthings one year and switch instead to the new diamond-framed safeties. There was a long period of progression as alternatives to the ordinary rose up and challenged its supremacy.
Identifying the first Hour record to be set on a safety, then, is as difficult as identifying the first Hour record. But we do know of some rides that happened before William A Rowe’s 22 miles 150 yards Hour record was broken, generally rides which broke existing national (British or French) records for the Hour. Percy Furnival covered 20 miles 675 yards on an ordinary in Surbiton in September 1887. In August 1888 the French professional Jules Dubois covered 21 miles 498 yards on an ordinary in Coventry while the American rider Stillman Whittaker did 21 miles 126 yards on the track in Bordeaux and a seventeen-year-old British rider, Herbert Laurie, did 21 miles 125 yards on the track in Long Eaton.
A month after setting his French record, Whittaker was racing in Long Eaton where he was reported as having recorded “twenty-one miles and 400 or 500 yards within the hour” and then pressed on for the 25 miles record. The 400 or 500 yards turns out to have been 380 yards.
The British Hour record was then advanced in July 1890 by the Irish rider Richard Mecredy who rode 21 miles 880 yards on the cinder track of the Paddington Recreational Grounds, the wheels of his safety shod with John Boyd Dunlop’s new pneumatic tyres. A month or so later RA Lloyd, again in Paddington, put the record at 21 miles 1,150 yards, the pneumatic age allowing the British record to grow in leaps and bounds.
Then, a week and a half later, Harry Parsons made it 22 miles 620 yards again in Paddington. After a four year sojourn in the US, the Hour record finally came home. Over the course of two evenings in Herne Hill in July 1891 RL Ede and FJ Osmond pushed the record up to 22 miles 1,395 yards in the course of an attempt on the 50 mile record (Ede) and then 23 miles 1,260 yards the following night (Osmond). The following May Ede pushed it out 23 miles 1,520 yards.
Herbert Duncan’s newly-created cement-surfaced Vélodrome Buffalo, between Porte Maillot and Porte de Villiers in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Paris, then laid claim to the Hour. Two and an half months after the Buffalo opened, Henri Fournier gave it the Hour record, recording 33.920 kilometres (24 miles 760 yards) in August 1892. In September, again at the Buffalo, Jules Dubois claimed the bragging rights with 39.928 kilometres (24 miles 1,184 yards).
By the time Hull’s JW Stocks took the record back to Herne Hill in September 1893 – riding on the newly resurfaced track where wooden boards had replaced the red shale Ede had first set an Hour record on two years before – and became the first man to go further than 25 miles (40 kms) in an hour, Desgrange had come along and given the Hour a new Year One.
|Paddington Recreation Ground,
and 620 yards
and 1,395 yards
and 1,520 yards
and 760 yards
and 360 yards
|Progression of the Paced Hour Record, 1886 to 1893, the birth of the safety era
But Desgrange’s ride didn’t change much for the Hour. The paced record went on and on. Stocks took it past 50 kilometres in 1896. Edouard Taylor went past 60 kilometres in 1900. Tom Linton passed 70 kilometres in 1902. Paul Dangla passed 80 kilometres in 1903. Thaddäus Robl passed 90 kilometres in 1906. Paul Guignard made it a metric century in 1909. In the paced Hour, as pacing technologies improved, as pacers went from tandems to triplets, quints, quads and ever more exotic multi-manned machines, as the sport went from human-powered pacing to steam, electricity and petrol, cycling was pure spectacle, raw excitement.
Meanwhile, Desgrange’s Hour record went unchallenged and it was 1894 before the 32-year-old Jules Dubois took a tilt at it, stuffing 2,895 metres on to Desgrange’s distance and bringing it up to 38.220 kilometres. It was 1912 before the unpaced Hour really sprang into life, with the rivalry of Oscar Egg and Marcel Berthet breathing life into it. By this time the paced record had withered, the cost in human life too much to take. As the unpaced record grew in prestige, the paced record slipped slowly from memory, and with it its history.
Desgrange’s ride in 1893 did have one immediate consequence on the Hour record. Two months after his ride a Mlle de Saint-Sauveur took to the track in the Buffalo and set what is understood to have been the first Hour record recorded by a woman, 26.012 kilometres (16 miles 287 yards). By the end of the following year nine new records had been recorded. More than six decades before the UCI officially recognised the women’s Hour record – more than six decades before Tamara Novikova set the first UCI women’s Hour in Irkoutsk’s Stadium Dynamo in November 1955, with 38.473 kilometres – the women’s Hour had already arrived. And that’s the story we’ll turn to next.
No books that I am aware of properly tell the early history of the paced Hour record. For a general understanding of racing in this era Andrew Ritchie’s ‘Quest for Speed - A History of Early Bicycle Racing, 1886-1903’ is well worth reading.
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